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Risks and Rewards - Skiing the Backcountry with Kids

Nate climbing Freeman Peak, Boise Mountains, Idaho.

  by Michael Lanza for his site The Big Outside

The sun burns atomically from a sky polished to a flawless blue. Heat reflects up at us from the snow covering this mountainside in southwest Idaho, making March feel like June. New snow cloaks the boughs of the ponderosa pines and blankets the ground, powder light enough to scoop into your hand and blow away like feathers.

It’s a perfect day for any beginning, especially for a first time doing anything outdoors. My 12-year-old son, Nate, 85 pounds of expectation, clicks his boots into bindings and grins at me, displaying equal parts eagerness and curiosity for his first-ever day of backcountry skiing.

We shuffle up the bottom of a creek valley, following a track set down by my friends and regular backcountry-skiing partners, David Gordon and Chip Roser, who have set off ahead of us. They will dig a snow pit to assess the avalanche hazard (we’ve deliberately chosen an uphill route that will be free of any such danger) and get in one downhill run before Nate and I reach the top of this 1,100-foot climb. I’m following Nate, letting him set the pace as he figures out how someone makes any uphill progress at all with nine pounds of boot and ski anchoring each foot.

It’s a ludicrous proposition, really, that we should climb this huge hill under our own power in order to ski back down. Probably 99.9 percent of skiers respect gravity, riding lifts up and then gliding down. In fact, Nate made a quick mental calculation of the effort-to-payoff deficit inherent to backcountry skiing right before we left the house this morning.

I told him to expect that we would spend the first two hours climbing more than a thousand feet uphill before skiing back down. He contemplated that quietly for a pregnant moment, and then asked the logical follow-up question: “And how much time do we ski downhill?”

“Maybe five or six minutes of downhill skiing for each time we climb uphill,” I answered. Not sure how much stamina he would have, I told him we might do this once or twice. He nodded wordlessly, comprehending, at that moment, that backcountry skiing seems grossly imbalanced in favor of effort over fun. As you would figure, there are no lifts to the slopes where you find untracked snow and virtually no other people.

But he didn’t complain or decide against going. I’m delighted that my son sees value in this silliness, in spite of that imbalance.

He’s actually been asking me to take him backcountry skiing for a while. I’ve been waiting for good snow conditions, because I want him to enjoy this first experience. Bad conditions when skiing ungroomed snow can crush even an ambitious adult’s spirit, never mind the will of a child.

Fortunately, while Nate and his little sister, Alex (who’s nine and, I hope, a future backcountry skier) know the instant gratification of electronic games—like most kids—they also know the slower and more-subtle rewards and occasional hardships of backpacking and other forms of self-powered wilderness travel. So I’m confident that he’s ready for a day that will be physically tough and briefly magical.

I remember taking Nate down his first black-diamond run at our local ski area on a day much like today. To me, it seems just a few short years have scooted past us since that sunny, early-spring morning. But for him, it was half a lifetime ago. Still, he remembers it about as well as I do.

He was the one who suggested we try a black diamond. But then he got going too fast—launching higher off of each successive bump he hit, accelerating more out of control. I tried to speed up to catch him, as if I could swoop in like Superman, saving him from the train wreck at the last second. That didn’t work. I watched him rocket down that wide-open bowl (fortunately, not a tree anywhere within his trajectory) and take a magnificent, tumbling, sliding face plant, one ski flying off. I hurried to him, expecting tears from my little boy...

Read the rest of this story here at the author’s site, The Big Outside.