by Kevin Fedarko
...made the mistake of luring me down a sidecountry run at Crested Butte that far exceeded my limited abilities as an off-piste skier. On the very first turn I fell and rocketed face-first towards a sizeable cliff band—at which point I deployed an emergency move that had worked well for me in the past: wind-milling my arms accompanied by high-pitched screaming. In the midst of these trademark spastic thrashings, my right ski pole somehow hooked the trunk of a small pine tree, halting me at the lip of the drop. Dave called it "the single-most impressive screw-up" he'd seen in 16 years of skiing the backcountry.
After hearing about this incident (Dave was thoughtful enough to e-mail the story out to pretty much everyone I knew), a group of friends with whom he and I ski in northern New Mexico decided that they were fed up with watching me try to kill myself. Over the years, these nine guys had gazed, stupefied, as I ricocheted off lift towers, obliterated entire sections of snow fencing, and undertook exploratory journeys deep into the interiors of hay bales. It was time for an intervention.
The group was planning a March outing to Silverton Mountain, southwestern Colorado's sacred ground for the Extreme Bro Ski Weekend. Our lives were scattering outwards as each of us acquired wives and kids and jobs in different parts of the West. Our hope was that two glorious days of dirtbaggery would rekindle the flame of our ski brotherhood. But now there was a catch. If I wanted to come, I was informed, I'd have to find a way of rapidly mastering the rudiments of steep backcountry terrain to the point where I was no longer a danger to myself or to others—mostly others.
The solution involved booking a five-day steep skiing clinic with Exum Mountain Guides, the legendary fraternity of ski and mountaineering gurus based in Jackson, Wyoming. In late February, the Exum crew cycled me through their winter "extreme backcountry" program, which basically involved hauling me up a range of increasingly challenging peaks in the Tetons and tossing me off the top. My final exam involved a hairball descent of Nez Perce, a peak that boasts a 50-degree couloir known as the Sliver.
The advantage of a route like the Sliver, I discovered, is the undiluted sense of terror that a skier experiences upon entering what my guide referred to as "the no-fall zone." But along with the terror comes a hyper-sharpened focus that can sometimes enable you to ski at—or beyond—your best ever.
This is pretty much what happened to me on the Sliver. So a few days after surviving the Exum clinic, I told my buddies that I was ready for Silverton. The only question, I announced, was whether Silverton was ready for me.
At the epicenter of Silverton stands Aaron Brill: owner, lead guide, and poster boy for the addictive allure of the "lift-served backcountry experience." Since deciding in 2000 to defy the naysayers and erect a shoestring operation in the heart of Colorado's San Juans, Brill has emerged as that rare pioneer who has seen his disbelievers turn into devotees. Today, Silverton boasts steep terrain and epic snow conditions combined with a safety record that an Ohio bowling league would be proud of.
But the redheaded Brill—who sports a Conan O'Brien-style coif and whips around on a rockered custom snowboard with two ski poles in his hands like a French snowboard mountaineer—can also come off as someone with a bit of an edge. Part of Silverton's mandate, as he sees it, is to punish arrogance and expunge hubris. He also refuses to pamper or babysit his clients, a stance shared by his entire squadron of crack, if off-color, guides. As a result, lots of Silverton skiers—especially guys like Dave and I—show up expecting to take a big bite out of the mountain and wind up getting wickedly spanked. Part of the peculiar magic of the place is that nearly everybody relishes this abuse and is eager to come back for more.
Dave quickly got us launched down the path to humiliation by riling up Brill with a deliberate provocation. An old-school telemarker (Freehealus pussbagus) whose lethargic knee-bends mimic the three-toed arboreal sloth, Dave made the mistake of declaring less than a third of the way down our first run that by the end of the afternoon he was going to "make Silverton my bitch."
Brill, who was unfortunately within earshot of this remark, promptly ushered us down a run called Mandatory that featured an obligatory huck followed by a right-hand dogleg into a narrow chute. Dave's hippie skill set was no match for Mandatory's rapid-fire moves, and when we finally emerged at the bottom, he was exhibiting a vapid and broken expression we dubbed the Silverton Stare.
With Dave now hanging far off the back, more castrated Shetland pony than bucking bronco at this point, we rode the lift back to the top, where Brill led us onto a north-facing spine that funneled through a forest of tightly spaced fir trees. Then Brill halted and explained that directly below lay a string of convex rollovers. Our orders were to skirt these features because the angle was pushing 40 degrees and he feared that the wind-loaded surface was in danger of releasing in pockets.
"It's kind of like a knuckle, see?" lectured Brill, holding up a gloved fist and counting off each of the rollovers. "So I want you guys to ski around these knobs. Whatever else you decide to do, do not dance on the knuckle!"
We lined up in single file. Everyone followed his instructions to the letter—dutifully and obediently skirting the rollovers. Just like sheep, I remarked smugly to myself, waiting until last.
Then it was my turn.
Here, perhaps, is the place to mention some of the problematic ideas that I had acquired in the Tetons. Unfortunately, the steep-skiing clinic had not only equipped me with an updated set of tools, but had also imparted a new philosophy—an unorthodox moral code summed up best by Bill Briggs, the first person ever to have descended the Grand Teton on skis in 1971. "Adventure without the possibility of dying," Briggs liked to declare, "isn't really adventure at all."
In short, I had returned from Wyoming with a bit of an attitude problem—an ailment whose symptoms were now colliding with the earnest safety injunctions that Brill was trying to inject. What the hell is this dude's problem? I wondered. Does he actually think he can tell me I can't DANCE?!
With that, I launched a series of Baryshnikovian moves that took me through every potential fracture point. I zigzagged across the rollovers, leaving nothing untouched, then executed a sharp series of jump-turns toward the group. My knuckle dance was flawless—except for the final turn, when I reverted to form, lost my balance, and rag-dolled to a stop at the group's feet.
Nothing was vocalized, but the unspoken consensus among my companions was that this was a truly miraculous display. The first miracle being that I hadn't managed to set off an avalanche. And the second miracle being that Brill—who doesn't have the slightest hesitation in kicking fools off his mountain—didn't simply boot me in the ass down to the parking lot and tell me to go home.
As the afternoon progressed, I realized that my lethal incompetence was triggering a familiar response in my companions: pretty much exactly the same kind of terror that had seized me at the top of the Sliver. (The only exception was Dave, who was now draped, comatose, over a picnic table at the base of the lift.) The most prudent and skilled among them started sneaking behind trees at the conclusion of each pitch in the hopes of shielding themselves from my self-detonating wipeouts.
It was at this point that I recognized the beauty of what had happened.
Sadly, I have never been back to ski the San Juans since that trip. Sadder still, I have no doubt that Aaron Brill, if he remembers me at all, would look upon the prospect of my return with jaded disgust. But for one shining afternoon, my heedless bravado reinforced the principle of cosmic reciprocity.
My friends had set out to stage an intervention on my behalf in the hopes of preventing me from killing myself. In the process, they gave something back to themselves by raising the possibility that I might wind up killing them in the skiing equivalent of friendly fire. Without this extra bit of punch, our Bro Ski Weekend would still have offered up a marvelous demo of the mysterious alchemy through which skiing can renew camaraderie and enhance the bonds of friendship. That probably would have been just fine. But now, our trip also met the definition of a true adventure in the spirit of Bill Briggs.
In the end, what kind of a price can you put on that?
From the Early Winter issue