The date had been set for more than a year—our 22nd-annual gathering of the Tribe in Vail, Colo. Our plan was to skin northward, away from the piste-bound fashonistas into the rugged, untracked terrain of the Gore Range.
Rousted from our day jobs as professional artists, construction workers, ranchers, engineers, attorneys and even a token politician, we traveled from both coasts, from bustling cities, paved suburbs and mountain retreats. Our common bond was a love of the backcountry experience. Over the years, we’d all aged a bit, struggled through the challenges of life in the outside world, seen our children grow into awesome trailbreakers and become the closest of friends. That happens when you spend four quality days each year, over decades, with the same group of like-minded folks. Many of us have never met outside the backcountry cabins scattered throughout the Central Rockies, but we are the closest of friends. We are the Tribe.
So our party of 16 gathered at the Spradle Creek trailhead as dawn shook its sleepy silence from Vail Valley. Our objective was the Eiseman Hut, a seven-mile, 3,500-foot gain from the trailhead—an intimidating route for those of us pushing the back end of middle age.
The weather was breaking from a weeklong cold snap that had preserved recently fallen white champagne, and we enjoyed warm sun as we meandered among trees. The light snow floated in our wake. We hadn’t seen each other in months, and conversation flowed as the valley fell away. The rookies followed the Tribal leaders, and the Tribal leaders were engaged in deep conversation as we skinned right past the junction where the trail cut sharply westward. We climbed north.
It soon became obvious that we were no longer on the intended trail. So we decided to continue climbing; to gain enough altitude to gauge location and then traverse west from there. In the Central Rockies, height is might.At 2 p.m., we finally peaked out on the west flank of Bald Mountain. To the north lay the jagged majesty of the Gore Range, on fire from the late-day sun. At last, we knew where we were with certainty. In the distance, we could see the ridge that held our destination. As the crow flies, it was only 1.5 miles from the lookout.
But, alas, we are not crows.
Ahead of us lay a 1,200-foot descent, straight over a sheer cliff. After that, we needed to cross the darkening Middle Creek Valley and then climb a 1,200-foot Rocky Mountain wall to the hut funded by Dr. Ben Eiseman.
I was physically spent, the day was sliding into dusk, and our destination seemed unobtainable as we sorted out the options. The buzz of snow machines clouded our thinking and then she appeared.
Liz, our Snow Angel, approached on a loud-but-sleek Polaris. She and her tribe were exploring the terrain in their own way and had come to bask in the warmth of the ridge-top sunset as it reflected off of the peaks to the north. We connected over the common bond of the backcountry; we described our dilemma and lamented our lack of wings.
She and her machine-riding comrades shared a secret signal and immediately offered to provide high-powered transportation to help us complete our journey. We stowed our gear on her Tribe’s machines and were off.
As they motored beside, we skied down ridge. My spirit soared as I carved into the hillside, the Gore Range afire in the late-day sun to my right. To my left, the lights of Vail were coming alive in the dusk that was filling the deep valley floor.
We reached Middle Creek and out came the towropes. The ride up was swift and effortless. Liz’s Tribe towed and circled back and towed and circled back until we all were gathered around the dinner table at Eiseman, warmed by the hut fire and home-cooking. Liz’s Tribe stayed the night, basking in the deep warmth that spread easily from the wood fire, a great meal and newfound friendship.What we shared that day, north of Vail and miles from our daily grinds, was the incredible gift of backcountry karma.
Months later, as I finished reading a recent issue of Surfer Magazine, one focused upon unruly crowds, the tyranny of localism and the general feeling of hostility toward strangers in the line-up, my thoughts wandered to the camaraderie and the true spirit of friendship that permeates most backcountry locales.
I’ve made many friends and nurtured many friendships in the backcountry. There are always more than enough trails to break and lines to carve. Though quiet solitude is a big part of the backcountry’s allure, so is sharing a secret powder stash and enthusiastically watching as your new-found-friends-of-the-day nail your favorite tree run.
It is this gift that separates us from other nature lovers and thrill seekers. Surfers can fight for their lines. But you’re invited to share some of mine…you won’t be disappointed.
Each month, we pick a reader essay to run in Backcountry. Got a witty, humorous or heartfelt story to share? We want to hear about it! Keep it to 700 words and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org subject titled, “Backstory.”