Enlightened Debris
By Andrew McLean

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Originally published by Black Diamond Equipment

Finding Pleasure in Pain

After climbing three thousand feet up Tanners Gulch, it was obvious that it was going to be horrible skiing. Actually, it was obvious long before that, like, when we were sitting in the car looking at it. A slow moving wet slide had come down the day before and left a sea of garbage can sized blocks that were now wall-to-wall and frozen in place. Skins had been abandoned right away and we were booting through the teetering blocks that would often break loose and roll on top of you. But there we were – the eternal optimists. The skiing has to be better up above. Maybe on the lee side of that ridge. Maybe on steeper terrain. Maybe up above where it opens up. Or, maybe never, as was the case this day when we ended up climbing 4,000’ only to turn around and walk back down. Zip, zero, nada. A complete shutout. Certifiably unskiable conditions. 

“Boy, wasn’t that fun…”

Well, it kind of was. It was so bad that it was good, but not good enough that I’d want to do it again. It was fun in a painful kind of way that leaves you a bit embarrassed to even admit that you did it. Aside from the chance to share misery with good company, the outing reinforced what might be obvious to most people – good skiing is not to be found in debris-choked gullies. Nor is it to be found by skiing in the rain, skiing in hurricane force winds, skiing above 20,000’ or skiing with a hangover. These things I know. Conversely, there are certain aspects, elevations and conditions where you are almost always likely to find good quality skiing. All these experiences, both good and bad, form pieces of the great backcountry puzzle. Knowing where to go is as important as knowing where not to go, which can only be learned through experience. It’s a long, slow process, but by paying your dues you develop a nose for good skiing until you can consistently find quality snow and first tracks almost every time you go out.

Crappy snow also has a secret benefit – it makes other less than perfect snow seem great. Breakable crust can be a dream come true compared to totally unpredictable semi breakable crust with patches of ice and powder thrown in. And the more ka-ka snow you ski, the better you get at it. It’s all just a state of mind, and before you know it, you’ll mean it when you say, “Hmm, that avalanche debris was actually kind of fun.”

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