Last Saturday saw my complete transformation from a cool, composed, avalanche-savvy, skiing back country no-big-deal kind of hot shot to a crying, convulsing mass of wimp, writhing in the middle of a snow crusted parking lot as day trippers and their dogs gingerly stepped over me. In just under five hours!
A personal best.
You may be wondering, at this moment, about my use of hyperbole. "What she really such a hot shot at the beginning of the day? Was she actually convulsing? Could it be that she is just exaggerating to make me want to read this?"
I will say this. As we were gearing up at the trail head, I felt like a million bucks. My general pre-adventure excitement was laced with the clear-eyed, stoic certainty that comes with beginning a long journey. On this morning, I was finally becoming a backcountry skier, a process that began a year ago when I first started to aggregate the expensive and elaborate set up.
To everyone else, I looked like a normal girl with unusually thick hair putting on skis with maybe not so great balance. But sometimes I write about how things feel inside of my own head instead of how they are in reality. It's much more fun that way.
To answer the second question, yes, I was actually convulsing at the end of the day. Just my legs. But still.
You ready to hear the story now or what?
I've been downhill skiing since I was 8 and I love it. But the one bad thing about skiing is it requires you to wake up early. I have a really hard time with this. I'm so bad at it that even setting an alarm makes me anxious, and I have to distance myself from the reality of the situation. I'm like, 6:00? Yes, I recognize that those are numbers. I'm going to program this onto my phone and at some point it will make a noise, and I will rise from bed and I'll be awake, just like I am now. This will go fine.
Then 6:00 am rolls around and it's terrible. It feels like I'm deep under a pond of pain. I'm always surprised by just how bad it actually is. I've nearly pulled the plug on my life's best adventures because of how miserable I felt in the morning. I always toy with the idea of calling my friends and trying to explain the gravity of the situation-"you don't understand, I think there is actually something wrong with me. I feel very heavy. I can't move. I was having a dream and now I'm very disoriented. Go on without me."
But eventually I do get up, pull it together a little and slump my way to the shower. After the shower I sit on the bathroom floor with my head in my hands wondering what life is all about and why it has to hurt like it does. What kind of God are you? Then I put my clothes on. I load the car, turn on the radio, crank on the heater full blast, listen to a few good songs on low volume, sip some water and steer the vehicle towards somewhere that sells coffee.
If I can get to this point, I think -maybe. Maybe I can keep this up.
This is how Saturday morning begins. By the time I meet Erika and Chris at the park and ride, I'm just beginning to side with the the Let's stay awake and give this day a try side of my brain.
It's snowing heavily on the drive out to the Cascades. My extreme highway-in-snow anxiety is a nice perk up, and I'm wide awake by the time we get to the trail head. Awake and feelin good. As I pull my gear out of the car I have this really smug feeling because I'm on my new AT set up. I've got an avalanche beacon strapped to my chest and a shovel in my pack in case I have to dig out a comrade. And I'm going to be good at this, I can just feel it. I am one hell of an athlete, aren't I.
So I'm acting all confident, cracking a few jokes, attaching my skins, giving out nods to the people schlepping by in their snow shoes (slow shoes!) and cross country skis. Hang with me now, guys, but we're gonna blow past you and go places you can only dream about. Because I'm not sure if you've noticed, but these are AT skis I have here. All Terrain.
No wait- that's not right. Alpine Touring is what I meant to say. Damn it I do that every time. These are Alpine Touring skis. As in backcountry. As in, I ski backcountry all the time. As in 'I might not make your birthday party, depending on snow conditions in the backcountry.' It's just much cooler than anything else ever. Yeah, I earn my turns. Yeah, my cheeks are always this windblown. Is that my boyfriend on the cover of that magazine about snow? No, but it could be. He does look just like that.
I am one solid tour away from being that girl. It's all I've ever wanted.
Then I try and put on my boot, and this is when when things start to go wrongity wrong.
Getting your AT boots fitted is a relatively involved process. The dude at Second Ascent covers your feet in gel packs, heats the liners in a special oven and then presses your feet into different positions inside the shells for half an hour. In the end, the interior of the boots are perfectly molded to your feet and obviously very comfortable.
The one important thing to remember is that you, as the owner of your feet, have to do a little bit of communicating with the dude. As in, "That's too tight." Or, "I think my toes are jammed." Or, "Why don't we try a larger size? These don't feel right."
This is especially important for someone with severe frostbite scarring and needs extra room in the boots for warmers and three pairs of socks. I'm referring to myself here.
And I had a difficult time with it, the communicating part. Not because I have any problem stating my opinion or asking for what I want. Far from it. It's just that my self assertiveness goes up in smoke when someone touches me. I love being touched. I become the most agreeable and easy to get along with person on the planet. My best friends know this, and whenever I'm being overly excited or difficult about something (which never happens) they'll just reach out and stroke my arm and I'll become immediately quiet and docile.
One year ago, I went into my neighborhood gear store with the intention of buying a perfectly sized and extremely expensive ski set up. What ended up happening was that I got a kind-of foot massage for an hour and walked away with some boots perfectly fit for a twelve year old.
Also, the dude doing the fitting was a little suspect. He kept calling me 'Man.' He kept saying, "I only do this job so I can ski, man. Just so I can get out skiing. Man, I hate working retail." He'd push my foot down into the shell and it would hurt, but then the warmth of the boot lining would start to relax me. "I just hate working with people, man. I think I just hate working."
And I'm sorry to say it, but him squeezing around on my ankles was probably the most physical contact I'd had in months, so I probably started to connect with him and by the end of the conversation I was just like, you're right. This isn't about me and these boots I'm about to buy. That was rude of me to even think like that. Let's talk about you and how terrible it is that you have to have a job.
Then I gave him four hundred dollars and took the boots home. I did one quick tour with them, up and down at Hyak mountain, and was so busy congratulating myself for being such an adventurous jack of all trades that I didn't notice the blue and yellow bruising in my feet the next day. And then a year passed.
So here we are, it's this beautiful winter day, and I'm feeling like a total champ. Except I can't fit my foot into my boot. I shove my foot down, then raise the whole thing and whack the boot on the ground with all my might. My foot is being compressed in every direction- pushed in from above, up from below, in from both sides. It feels like something is trying to squeeze my toes to touch the bottom of my heal, making my foot into a loop. Foot loops.
After I squeeze both feet somewhat down there, then I have to fasten all the buckles, which is excruciating. There is no way I can leave the parking lot with my feet and shins in that much pain. But, if I leave the boots completely unfastened and pulled open at the top, I can sort of shuffle around. We start skinning up, and I immediately drop behind. I'm dragging my feet, not getting any distance into my strides.
I'd always thought that when I finally made it out touring I'd look really pretty doing it, but also unusual and mysterious, like Taylor Swift on skis. But I don't. I look like an old person trying to walk on the beach.
Chris waits for me around the first turn. "How do they feel?" He asks. My response is something confused and indefinite, like "....I feel.....ahhhh....?" I don't want to turn around, but I don't want him thinking that this is how I always look when I ski.
He frowns. "If your boots don't fit, we can just go into North Bend and get sauced. It's not worth suffering for." Erika nods in agreement. And I know they're both sincere about turning around and giving up a whole day of skiing. I've managed to sift through the masses of self involved assholes in this outdoor world and find the most un-selfish people in the whole tribe.
But there's no way I'm going to admit defeat this early. I've been so stuck in the city lately, feeling irritable and antsy, working in front of the computer convinced that this is it, my life is no longer fun, just put me on an ice flow for chrissake. I have to get out and ski. The thought of sitting around all day, then getting home before dark to sit around some more is far more excruciating then the pain in my feet.
Three hours later, when we're still skinning up, nothing is more excruciating than the pain in my feet. To keep my mind from shutting down, I play a little game. I call it the pain comparison game, and it's a lot of fun. "Is this more painful than...frostbite? Is this worse than migraines? Kidney Failure? That time I broke off the top of my pinkie in the door? Tonsillitis? What's worse- this, or that one time my foot caught on fire?"
You know when you start to fall in love with somebody new, and you are just out of control into them, and it dwarfs every feeling you've ever felt in the past? You say to yourself, This thing I feel for Luke is the real deal. The stuff before this was just child's play. And while most of you is in wholehearted agreement with this conviction, there's a little part of your brain going, 'But that's what you said about Cam two years ago' and you're like SHUT UP. YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT. THAT WAS NOTHING.
That's what severe pain is like. It's immediate amnesia. The bone-crushing steps of right now trump any flaming foot of back then.
And that's how I come to the decision that this is the worst pain I've ever felt, ever. The scenery, however, really is beautiful. Top notch.
But eventually, I give up. "I don't think I can go any further," I say, looking down at the ground. "I know we've just skinned up for three and a half hours and we haven't gotten to the skiing yet. I'll just sit here while you guys go up." Which is essentially saying, I'll just lie down here, remove my boots, and take a nap. When you come back, I will have died. But go- you deserve it.
Because Erika and Chris are not assholes, they refuse my offer and kindly suggest we ski back down on the track we skinned up on and call it a day.
To have any control whatsoever on the descent, I have to lean forward into the boot, which feels like driving a screw driver into shin splints. So I give up control. Fuck turns, I'm going straight down, gasping loudly the whole way. Not crying exactly, but crying out with every exhale, which makes it a lot better. I actually use some of the techniques I used in my doula class. And you know what? They don't work. Sorry ladies. Fuck the breathing. Take the epidural.
And this is how my backcountry career ends, at least for the day- all whimper, no bang. I keel over sideways besides the car, writhing and trying to rip my boots straight off. I want the jaws of life. I want to cut them open with a hack saw and then bash them to pieces with a monkey wrench because these boots have literally ruined my life.
Chris takes my boots off for me. My feet come out all bruised and alabaster and numb. I climb into the car, finish the rum, wrap a down jacket around my head and pass out, awash with self pity.
But! It only lasts for about twenty minutes, and then someone has propped me up at a table at the North Bend Bar and Grill in front of a plate of Super Nachos. I drink two beers, get immediately drunk, and start planning a multi day touring trip with Chris and Erika and all our friends. All of the friends! Because I did so very well on this tour.
The very next day, I limp into Second Ascent ready for war. But, you know, I'm polite about it. I'm re-fitted into new boots two whole sizes bigger than the first pair. "How did this happen the first time?" Asks the very nice guy who is helping me. I shrug. "I don't know, man. No idea."
By the very end of the day, I have new boots, new linings, inserts, and adjusted bindings. And just in time. A huge snow storm is whirling its way into Seattle, so Chris and Andrew and I are planning an early escape before the whole city falls apart. I set my alarm for 6 in the morning. This is going to go great.