Late Season Mellow

By Sean Zimmerman-Wall, FOW

Human-powered skiers sought out powder last week as the Albion lift stood in silence. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall (@mountainlife3)

Part 1:

Running the gauntlet of slide offs, spinouts, and stalled vehicles on Highway 210 in late April is a seldom, yet welcome occurrence. Over a foot of medium density snow blankets the slopes hanging above this thin strip of pavement transecting one of the most iconic mountain corridors in the world. I pass through the Hellgate and in another mile the road ends. Visibility reduces to only a few hundred feet as the snowfall intensifies and the crowds diminish.

Moving towards the trailhead with a casual stroll, I run into a fellow guide gathering his clients for a walk in the woods.  I am solo, so I ask for a beacon check and then make my way up drainage.  He looks at me with what appears to be a mix of admiration and jealousy, likely thinking to himself what he would do if he were unencumbered by responsibility on a gift of a storm day such as this.  With no partner and a flexible plan, I stride at a pace that feels athletic, yet sustainable.  A bank of snowcats from the Alta Ski Area sits in a state of repose after a long and grueling season of work, their tillers covered in fresh powder.

Tired snowcats. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall (@mountainlife3)

By this time of year many folks have made the mental shift to another sport, or they turn their eyes toward large objectives locally and abroad. In my previous life I would likely do the same. But for today, I reflect on the last six months of making high consequence decisions in snow-covered environments and instead take the winding path of least resistance. Explosions echo through the canyon as patrols at Snowbird and Alta make ready the slopes for the hordes of eager riders frothing in the lift lines below. I am thankful to not be among them. The solitude, freedom of movement, and time to ruminate are a luxury I am not accustomed to. The pandemic and global unrest, coupled with one of the weirdest snowpacks I have dealt with in all of my seasons as a professional have taken their toll. Being tasked with managing the risk of others on top of these stressors pushed me to the brink in many instances. Decompression and simplicity are severely underrated. This is my time, and I am blessed to have the opportunity.

The next hour creeps by and there is another two inches of snow on the ground. A short open slope off to the side of the skin track calls my attention. I turn my tips uphill and break trail for the first time this morning. The wide platform of the Reason 120 makes the going easy as I climb a small sub ridge to gain the top of the slope. I take refuge to transition on the shoulder of the bowl in the lee of a scraggly and weathered pine.  Goggles down and it’s time to ride.  Effortless float combined with billowing snow following the shallow fall line create a blissful experience.  It’s over all too soon, but the day is young.

Ascending my prior track, I hear another person up ahead.

“Morning, how’s it?” I say through the fog.

“Hey, morning.” he says back after removing his earpiece.

“Where ya headed?” I follow up with.

“Ah, just up Patsy. Is that Sean Z?” he replies.

A foggy ridgewalk. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall (@mountainlife3)

The gentleman standing there is a former colleague and mentor during my early career. We team up and take turns breaking trail across the main ridge through the ever-deepening snow. Along the way we discuss the new paradigm of mountain guiding, working in dangerous conditions, and the gradual overcrowding of the places where we have made our living. He shares a close call experienced on the job this season and how it deeply humbled him. Grateful for being on the right side of the fine line, he admits that discussions after the event and hearing of the close calls of fellow practitioners is an opportunity for his own self-reflection. The mountains giveth, and the mountains taketh away. The fog rolls out, we see the summit, the fog rolls in.

At around eleven o’clock we reach what appears to be the top of my colleague’s anticipated line choice for the day. Not seeing instability in the snow along our route, and noting that the wind is behaving, it seems like an appropriate selection. Visibility remains poor, and I put a good amount of faith in his local terrain knowledge. 

“We should start from that grove of trees, I think” he mutters.

We strip skins while performing a few more assessments of the bond of the new snow to the old snow surface. We drop, 60 seconds apart, into the untracked deep. Marvelous.

Reaching the summer road, we high five and part ways. His day is short, mine has only just begun.  I feel thankful for running into him and for him sharing his story and his line. The mountains giveth.

Part 2:

As the clouds part, a ray of sunshine illuminates the Devil’s Castle. In a moment it is gone. My track leads up a familiar route, past a silent Albion and up towards the pass. I merge with another track and slowly plod, following the lone skinner into the fog. My mind drifts to the formative experiences of the season. 

The loss of a longtime friend and supervisor to suicide in August. Early mornings hunting avalanches in the Wasatch with a partner and a pack full of explosives. Instructing fellow and aspiring professionals on a training course during a deep slab cycle. Skiing in the Rubies with guests representing three generations from one family.  Alpine touring through those same mountains with a group of soon-to-be friends. Walking through rescue drills with novices just beginning their journey into the backcountry. Slaying spring conditions with a group of FOWs and WNDR Alpine evangelists during the Roost. 

Memories of the season, from the Rubies to the Roost. Wasatch Photos: Robert Friedman, anonymous client, Sean Zimmerman-Wall (@mountainlife3), and Pep Fujas (@pepfujas)

A flood of emotion ripples through my body as I snap back to the present.

Up ahead I see a figure emerge from round a bend. I give them some space as we cross the one avalanche path threatening the route. Something looks familiar. The faded green BD Factor boots are noticeable from a distance. Eventually I am close enough to see his skis, an old pair of Wagner Customs. The stranger pulls aside and without looking back waves me by. I pull up next to him and put my arm around his shoulder. He peers out from under his ballcap, and a smile graces his face. 

The lone ranger. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Sean Zimmerman-Wall (@mountainlife3)

The man is a former client and longtime Wasatch resident known for touring alone.  His consultant lifestyle leaves him little time to make formal plans and he gets out for fitness at every opportunity.

“This is 100 days on snow! 90 of which have been ski touring,” he beams after our introduction. 

I am proud of him for making the most of the mountains and admire his steady pace and ever-present smile. I ask to join him for a spell, and we carry on through the woods. It’s been over two years since we’ve skied together and it's usually in a much different setting. Today I have no paid obligation; we simply both exist in the mountains. It feels soothing to follow his slow and marching gait as we climb higher. A few words are exchanged, talking about our times in the snowcat together on his eldest daughter’s birthday, the crew that once was part of the operation I lead, and the changes the world has seen in the last few years. At the next junction, we part ways with a smile and the sun makes a brief appearance.

A physical record of the season's history. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Pep Fujas (@pepfujas)

Alone again, I meander along a creek bed that leads up to a pass adjoining the two Cottonwood Canyons. The snow is deeper than expected but the trail breaking doesn’t seem arduous.  I find a meadow and dig a snow pit. There is something about looking at the history of the season all in one location that fascinates me. Each layer is a story of the weather, connected to a memory of a point in time. October through April, all represented in 275cm of frozen water. My findings are unremarkable, and I fill in my crater and head up onto a nearby spur that leads to a bench. It is still dumping, the flakes falling from the sky obscure even the forest in front of me. 

Deciding to go no higher due to lack of visibility and plenty of powder below, it is time for another transition. Over two feet have now fallen with this storm and it skis every bit as deep as one could hope. The tips on my Reasons plane up beautifully and a moment of zen sets in. Bounding through the wind drifts and pillowy features along a tree fence is playful and fun. I then arc onto a small face and gracefully descend.  Reaching the meadow below a feeling of calm and connectedness drenches me in peace. Fat flakes fall, the winds disappear, and silence abounds. The mountains giveth.

This piece is dedicated to the snow professionals who have lost their lives in the mountains. May their spirits ride on forever.