Skinny Ski Adventure

The Selkirk backcountry offers a stunning experience - even when a mishap occurs

By Matt Drake

Poking my nose through the hole in my bivy sack, I sniffed the brittle morning air before opening my eyes. Peering between the flaps of our tent I see nothing but white and blue, another picture-perfect day in the Selkirks. This is the third day of our five-day trip. The last couple nights were cold for March, with temps into single digits. Hale-Bopp has made a dramatic appearance each evening. I'm consumed by the peacefulness and beauty of my surroundings.

Inside the tent, Chuck is still snuggled deep in his nest of down, but Allan is sitting up sipping hot cocoa and reading.

"Looks like another gorgeous day," he mumbles.

"Mmm, epic. I'll fetch some water."

"Don't bother. Chuck filled up last night."

As guides for a small private school, Allan and Chuck have been covering this ground for years and can seemingly read each other's minds.

We're skiing in the area where the Sundance fire 30 years ago has left nothing but old snags widely spaced amid a panorama of Selkirk summits. Yesterday we had skied all morning on nearly 12 feet of frozen snow, climbing 2,500 feet with ease. At the summit we basked in the sun and admired the uninterrupted view, with Priest Lake below to the west, Montana's Cabinets out east and the Selkirks up north. By early afternoon the sun had worked its magic, and the snow was buttery soft. We howled with delight as we carved our way down.

Today, from my little vantage point inside the tent, it looked like another awesome day for spring skiing.

Ten o'clock found us halfway up the day's ascent with conditions changing rapidly. Huge black clouds were racing toward us from the north, dropping snow as it came. Above and to our south, the sun still shone brightly between puffy white clouds. Eager to reach our goal, we marched upward. At noon wind whipped around us in a frenzy, reducing visibility to a few feet and forcing us to cram down a few swallows of gorp before attempting our getaway.

"Oh man ... "

Allan and I glanced over at Chuck and our hearts sank. While adjusting the tension of his climbing skins, Chuck's left ski had broke in half at the binding screws. He held it up to us stoically, but his worry was obvious.

Using duct tape brought along for just such emergencies, Chuck made his repairs as best he could and we prepared for another descent. Our chosen route took us south along a steeply corniced ridge, normally easy to follow, but today's conditions increased the drama significantly.

We limped along, keeping the cornice well to our left until we came upon easier, more open terrain. As suddenly as it had arrived, the storm blew over us, visibility increased from yards to miles and we found ourselves looking down 2,000 feet of untracked spring snow. Phoebe's Tip stood dramatically against the horizon in front of us. The ski down was wonderful, even with Chuck's crippled ski.

Times like these remind us of Mother Nature's capriciousness and the importance of being prepared. Safety classes stressing avalanche forecasting and winter survival are offered in this region yearly; the information they teach could save your life. Carry beacons, probes, shovels and first-aid gear on every trip into the backcountry. Travel with a friend and avoid any potential avalanche area.

That night I skied out with Chuck's skis on my pack, made repairs, and was back to camp by 10 a.m. the next morning ­ tired but ready for more.

Matt Drake works with kids at Rocky Mountain Academy in Bonners Ferry and skis more than his fair share.

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