For big powder fun, skin up a mountain, then ski down

Pam LeBlanc, in red pants, joined a group of women for a backcountry skiing adventure near Ouray, Colorado, last week. Photo by Kellyn Wilson
Pam LeBlanc, in red pants, joined a group of women for a backcountry skiing adventure near Ouray, Colorado, last week. Photo by Kellyn Wilson

 

A week ago today I was scrunching my way up a mountainside in a snowstorm, hoping I wouldn’t need the avalanche beacon strapped to my chest.

I spent the week near Ouray, in southwestern Colorado, with Chicks Climbing & Skiing. Guide Angela Hawse led our group of six women, all except me from Colorado, on an adventure that featured avalanche training, backcountry skiing and sleeping in off-the-grid mountain cabins.

We spent a night at OPUS Hut, an off-the-grid cabin in the San Juan Mountains. Photo by Pam LeBlanc
We spent a night at OPUS Hut, an off-the-grid cabin in the San Juan Mountains. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

 

The first thing I realized? When you live at 500 feet above sea level, you gasp like a guppy when you spend four and a half hours skinning up a mountain to a hut perched at 11,700 feet. Add a backpack full of gear (shovel, probe, snacks and clothes) to the equation, and you can expect some happy suffering.

I also realized that given enough time, and a group of encouraging (and much more skilled) skiers, I can do things I never thought I could do.So it didn’t matter that when we reached the OPUS Hut, a solar-powered, compost toilet-equipped, chef-staffed slice of heaven in the San Juan Mountains, all I could do was slurp up a bowl of hot soup and collapse in a heap in a cushioned reading nook, while the rest of the group headed out to enjoy the waist-deep powder.

We woke to about 14 inches of fresh powder the next morning. Photo by Pam LeBlanc
We woke to about 14 inches of fresh powder the next morning. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

 

Skinning, for uninitiated flatlanders like me, involves strapping a sticky strip of fabric to the bottom of a ski, so you can hike uphill. When you get to where you’re going, you peel off the skins, clamp down the bindings so your heel is locked in place, and ski down.

Look for my story in the Austin American-Statesman next fall. Photo by Pam LeBlanc
Look for my story in the Austin American-Statesman next fall. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

 

In backcountry ski parlance, you “earn your turns.” Translated, that means you spend hours hiking up to ridgetops for short but spectacular payoffs. If the snow gods cooperate like they did last week, you’ll dive into fields of untouched snow for a fluffy, powder-shredding trip down the mountain.

We "earned our turns," skinning up several hours before clamping down our bindings and zipping down the slopes. Photo by Angela Hawse
We “earned our turns,” skinning up several hours before clamping down our bindings and zipping down the slopes. Photo by Angela Hawse/Chicks Climbing & Skiing

 

I got that experience, along with a good jolt of motivation, the next morning. You can read about my trip in the Austin American-Statesman next fall, when ski season gears up again.

In the meantime, I’m going to do more stuff that pushes me out of my comfort zone. I think we all should.

Author: Pam LeBlanc

Pam LeBlanc writes about fitness and travel for the Austin American-Statesman. She has worked for the Statesman since 1998 and written her weekly fitness column, Fit City, since 2004.

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