The Art of the Sufferfest: How to make the worst ski days into the best memories

Photographer Andrew Strain tests his luck by bringing his date, Alix MacKay, on a bushwacking adventure with a three-inch snow base. [Photo] Andrew Strain

So, you want to be a ski mountaineer? First things first: Hire a professional guide to teach you how to hold your axe, not rappel off the end of your rope and all those other really important things. Now, maybe you’ve watched a few episodes of The Fifty and think Cody Townsend always seems to be having fun. The truth is that he—like most ski mountaineers—probably isn’t, but Townsend has learned that the secret to huge days in the mountains lies in having the right attitude. Though I haven’t been picking my way through the 50 classics (in fact, I generally avoid them), I have had my fair share of sufferfests in the mountains, and there are a few tried-and-true ways to make them less suffer-y.

Be Picky When Choosing Your Partners

Would you go on a 10-hour road trip with someone who you don’t really like hanging out with? What about someone who wants to drive the entire trip straight through without stopping for bathroom breaks or decides to blast Norwegian death metal the whole time? Just like road trip buddies, backcountry partners can seriously make or break a day. If you’re not in sync when it comes to decision-making, pace and goals, then tensions are going to rise. Sometimes, your best friends aren’t going to be your best ski partners. Find someone with whom you can both fail and succeed, and make sure that you’re on the same page before starting every tour.

Bring Awesome Snacks

That doesn’t mean your favorite energy bar. Sure, they have a great fuel-to-weight ratio, but when was the last time that you pulled out one of those dehydrated squares and really rejoiced? When I say awesome snacks, I’m talking baked goods, berry-flavored sour gummy worms or a loaded sandwich that you picked up that morning. No matter how icy the skintrack or how funky the snow, having great snacks can turn a day around.

Blast a Good Song Every Now and Then

I know every word to “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo, and I sing it every time I’m scared or tired or just need a little pick me up. I don’t suggest carrying a Bluetooth speaker on the outside of your backpack and blasting tunes all day—that’s pushing the limits on backcountry etiquette—but that doesn’t mean playing a quick song every now and then to boost morale is out of the question.

On Wyoming’s Teton Pass, Betsy Manero stops for a dance party with Izzy Lazurus, her favorite partner to suffer with. [Photo] Shannon Corsi

Don’t Get Too Focused On The Summit

Don’t make the summit—or that couloir, ridgeline or wherever the map tells you to stop skinning—your only goal of the day. An outing’s main goal shouldn’t be based on a geologic point. Instead, reframe goals to focus on returning to your car or sleeping bag or making it back in time to have dinner with a friend. Secondary goals include having a few laughs and learning something along the way. Any summit goal is way in the back of my mind as a general point to aim for. With this thought process, every day that I make it home safely is a success, and it’s been years since I was upset about bailing on an objective.

Re-examine Your Objectives

A few years ago, I was standing on top of a line at 11,000 feet with one of my closest friends and ski partners. The snow in the rocky couloir below didn’t look great. We’d woken up at 3 a.m. and spent hours battling high winds, steep, icy skintracks and loose, rocky scrambling to get there. She looked at me and told me that she was done. Lines like this just weren’t her cup of tea, and she wasn’t having fun. In that moment, she taught me a lesson that I still think about every day on the skintrack: be honest with yourself and your partners about what objectives you really want to pursue.

In a world of Instagram versus reality, it’s easy to feel the pressure to get after it in the mountains. What will people think if I don’t post a photo of myself getting after it? Not only is this mindset a heuristic trap, but it’s also a great way to stop enjoying the sport. Pick objectives that you truly think you’ll enjoy, not ones that will get you the most likes. After all, this is supposed to be fun, right?

Betsy Manero is the Backcountry Magazine associate editor and a ski guide and avalanche instructor for The Mountain Guides. She’ll be hosting a “Women Who Shred: Skiing in the Tetons” webinar with 57 Hours and one of her co-guides and favorite sufferfest partners, Rebecca Yaguda, on Thursday, February 11, at 11 a.m. MST. Sign up for free here.

This article was originally published in January 2021 in Issue #137. To read more of the untracked experience, pick up your copy here or subscribe.

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