Endless Summer: A Skier “Turns” 30

It’s August, and the heat of summer has already fueled two months of climbing, mountain biking and river running, but for my birthday—the big 3-0—I want to ski. Since Backcountry wouldn’t send me to Chile, the next best thing is a permanent snowfield near my Montana home, deep in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. It’s called The Blaze, and that’s what it is: a narrow, 1,000 vertical-foot swath of snow visible across the valley. The last time I skied it I was twenty, and a long slog with skis on my back seems like an appropriate tribute to a helluva decade. It’s also a test: will it be easier or harder ten years later?

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Lance Riek on the approach. [Photo] Drew Pogge

I enlist my friend and fellow snow-joneser Lance Riek to join me. We leave my house at 5:30 a.m. and are hiking an hour later through cool fog next to the cobbled channel of Spanish Creek. The Blaze is nearly eight miles and 4,300 feet deeper and higher into the wilderness. It rained overnight, and the meadow wild flowers glisten, wet and fragrant. Elk tracks are sharp and fresh in the mud. As we climb, I consider the meaning of a decade. Much has changed: I met my wife, wrote myself a career, traveled the world and came home to Montana. But the climb never changes. The cadence. The burn. The conversation timed between heaving breaths. I may have changed, but the mountain has not.

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Riek crosses Spanish Creek in his sneaks. [Photo] Drew Pogge

We reach the summit in four and half hours, after scrambling up scree for the final 2,200 vertical feet. It’s beautiful and cold, and I’m happy to put on a midlayer, shell and beanie before drying our socks in the sun. The surrounding mountains are familiar friends; places Lance and I have both traveled and played. We point out lines we’ve skied and those we’d like to try, and for a moment, I feel the cool rush of autumn. Then the usual afternoon storm clouds appear on the horizon, and it’s time to ski.

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The Blaze under an August sun. [Photo] Drew Pogge

The Blaze in August isn’t exactly buffed. The west-facing slope is pocked by low suncups and strafed by diagonal icy reefs. It pitches to about 35 degrees, and tilts off camber a bit, toward a jumbled mess of sharp talus. But it’s skiing, in August. The weather is moving in fast now, dark and ominous, so we hurry to cram swollen feet into dusty ski boots and click into our bindings as the wind begins to curl over the ridge.

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Wax on. The author finds purchase on the sticky stuff. [Photo] Lance Riek

Finally, I push off with a 1,000-foot ribbon of snow beneath my tips. We slide long turns between the icy reefs, carving white tracks into the grey dust and red algae of summer. We stop halfway, laughing at the novelty and clumsiness and joy of it all. This is what I call “turning” 30. I feel better than I did 10 years ago; I climbed faster than I did 10 years ago; I’m more content and confident than I was 10 years ago. If this is old age, I’m ready.

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Drinking from the suncups on The Blaze. [Photo] Lance Riek

And then Lance pauses, peers toward the sky and cups his gloved palm in front of him. Of all the gifts, in all the places, from all of the people I’ve ever known, this is the best. “Look,” he says incredulously, “it’s snowing.” We push off once more amidst the lightly swirling August flakes. There are more turns to enjoy. At least 30 of them.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing all the bozeman love you dish out in the pages of backcountry, drew. your birthday trip to the blaze read great.

  2. Great stuff Drew-
    Just hit the big 3-0 MYSELF and always interesting to hear how others interpret the farewell to the 20’s, i was lucky enough to be in the ocean with friends. sounds like you’re doing pretty good. Cheers.

  3. This was a great little article. I skied the Blaze in september 2009 as part of a 33-month turns all year mission leading up to my 30th birthday. Sometimes I wish my body were younger, but I appreciate the experience I have now.

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