Back country ski-ing

by Hilary Jocelyn

 I am excited! Finally, after few false promises, we got a huge helping of fresh white pristine snow, that  no doubt caused impassible roads and tempted cars into ditches. It has all spiraled to the ground,  and thick whiteness now smothers the rocks and the crevices in the woods, making it once again possible to explore the hidden corners that lie somewhere outside my window, on my wonderful back country skis.

 I learned to downhill ski as a child on a huge carpet of artificial snow, made up of white bristles that cover one of the local hills on the outskirts of Edinburgh like giant toothbrushes. Deep natural snow was a rarity in my hometown, and while we had snowfalls from time to time, and would play happily, making snowmen and forts, the next day they would usually be gone – washed away to mush by the damp  Scottish rain. So it was really when I came to live in Canada, that my appreciation for the sport really developed, and I discovered through many graceless and undignified experiences, that there are perhaps many different ways to define the verb “to ski “

Before I moved to the Hills, we lived in an old house in the middle of Aylmer.  We were close to Gatineau Park and over the years I learned to cross country ski on the crisp neat tracks that were carefully made and lovingly maintained. Eventually, after a steep learning curve, I would glide along smoothly and  effortlessly, as I followed  the well marked trails  and familiar signposted routes, negotiating the ups and the downs with reasonable skill and competence, and greeting fellow skiers as we scooshed along.

However, I am not a person who likes to stay the grooves for long, and so when I eventually joined a local outdoor club, and discovered that they did something called back country ski-ing, I was intrigued, and eagerly signed up for the “Gatineau Traverse”, which was a 24 km journey off trail, in the lesser known areas of the park. I enjoy new experiences, like to connect with other outdoor enthusiasts, and felt confident that I would be up for the challenge.

 My first warning sign should have perhaps been the list of recommended equipment that the trip leader sent to me. Skis with a waist?? With edges? That were a certain width? Skins? Klister? NNN’s??  Despite this, I remained undaunted and unpersuaded, and was sure that the old, faithful pair of wooden skis I had found in a yard sale  in Montreal, who had  by now accompanied me on many fine outings, would be completely adequate for the job.

 On a crisp day in January, I turned up at the pre- arranged meet up place at an ungodly hour of the morning, which seemed to be more  like the middle of the night. It was dark, but in the dim, cold, early morning air, I could see that there were eight other fellow adventurers, who were mostly two decades my junior, and who all appeared to be sturdy and male. Through my bleary eyes, they seemed to be a cheerful bunch, as they joked and jostled with their gleaming equipment. After brief introductions, and without further ado, I put on my old skis and three pinned boots, and off we sped.

The first part of the route was on the level and was familiar to me, as I had already explored some of this area of the park in the three other more user-friendly seasons.  I was excited, and enthralled to be out  exploring and adventuring. After a few exhilarating minutes, we turned sharply into the bush and began a long and steep climb up to the escarpment, towards the rocky ledges we could see from below, looming several hundred feet above us.

Going uphill on skis, with no path to follow, in deep snow was an overwhelming struggle and basically  I was unprepared, and unskilled for the task. I slipped and I stumbled, falling inelegantly, as I tripped over the snow, landing somewhere on my face or elbow, many times over. More than once, I tumbled heavily right into the path of another skier who was coming up behind me, causing a figure of eight entanglement of limbs, and skis and poles.  Getting up again after falling usually involved a seriously complicated and dynamic manoeuvre, and I found  that once I was finally upright, I would frequently lose my balance and wobble and crash back down, a step or two further on. The snow was endlessly unforgiving and heavy. At times, I crawled on my hands and knees, or rolled, lying on my back with my skis waving in the air, wanting desperately to gain some dignity and control.  I tried to use the elegant  V shaped herring bone step that works so nicely on the ascent of a  groomed trial, but on this rough terrain, it just sent me sliding right  back down the hill I  was  trying to climb up.  

I kept asking myself why? Why was I going uphill with five feet of wood attached to the soles of my feet? There must be an easier way, I thought. So, I took my skis off and waded through the deep icy snow and no, it was not at all easier.

All in all, I would say that the ascent was a totally humiliating experience. Probably at some level it was character building, offering me an opportunity for personal growth and development. Fortunately, the rest of the group was quite kind and well meaning, offering me words of encouragement as they overtook me  squirming in the snow. However, a sense of paranoia, and a dose of social anxiety set in, as I imagined them exchanging glances, heavy with judgement, that said “What on earth is she doing here? “ or “ Why didn’t she just stay home?”  I carried on with an air of cheerful perseverance, pretending not to be overly concerned by my apparent shortcomings, but inside, believe me, I was cringing.

 “A bad worker blames their tools. “  as the saying goes, and  I tried doing just that, and did get some milage by focussing on my obviously inadequate equipment, but I think my lack of skill and experience in back country skiing was probably nearer the mark, and would have made a better scapegoat. However, somehow or another, I finally reached the top of the escarpment, where the others were waiting for me. I was exhausted and physically drained by my exertions, and the uncomfortable thought hit me that while I had probably expended most of my energy supply, we had likely only covered about 3 or 4 kms, and so still had a very long way to go. We took a break and enjoyed our hilltop prize, watching as the glimmering sight of dawn sprawled out below us over the Ottawa River valley. I gulped hot sweet tea from my flask and inhaled a second wind, just as my first wind was fading fast and turning to a feeble whisper.   

Maybe it was the tea, but things got a bit better from then on in. It was very icy up on the unsheltered escarpment, as the wind had blown most of the snow away, leaving behind a carpet of sheer glass, and so, at times, it felt a bit like I was skiing on concrete. A kind member of the group showed me how to do something he called the “sidestep” which made the whole concept of moving uphill without falling, a lot more possible. He also suggested that I wax my skis a lot more, and so I took his advice and slathered the thick, sticky stuff all over the underbelly of my skis.

After a wee bit, we turned off from the exposed rocks and delved deep into the bush again. With the added wax and my new  “sidestep” skill,  the route transformed slowly into plain sailing, and the five feet of wood on each foot began to tingle with something akin to pleasure. At times, I actually flew along, moving through the most beautiful pristine frozen swamps, over glazed lakes, and small gatherings  of bushes and trees. We passed through places that  on our home made map were  called     “ Nobodies Fault “ or “ Firefly Lake “ and I wondered to  myself what creative person gave these landmarks  their names.  I realised I was standing on unceded Anishnabe territory, and wondered what history lay in the stones, and what injustices the trees would pass on to us if they would talk, and if we would finally listen. 

I was awe inspired by the silence around me, and as I breathed in the wildness and the magical ice ridden tundra, I opened myself up, fully and completely, to the joys that back country skiing could bring. What a discovery!

The rest of the day was retribution time for the tough unmentionable beginning to our escapade. I realised that if I hadn’t had to endure the morning ascent and the uphill battle that came along with it, we would still be in the valley. Perhaps that lesson could apply to other parts of my life, I mused as I moved along, matching my pace happily with the others. We stopped for regular refueling breaks and sips of tea as we swished along, and the kilometers just melted away, until we reached the place where we had to descend back down to the plains below.

The less I say about the descent the better. Let’s just agree that it wasn’t a pretty sight. There was nothing graceful about it whatsoever, and there was really no sense of control as I hurtled down, with arms wagging wildly, and knees locked together in fear. I marveled at the miraculous way that the trees stepped aside benevolently to get out of my way, and thanked them as I sped wildly by, down and more down, to our waiting cars that were parked on the road below.

A bit later that same winter, one of my trusty and much loved old wooden skis snapped in two. As a eulogy to their long and happy life, I replaced them with more updated basic back country equipment that fit contentedly at the end of my legs. And each winter, at every opportunity, they transport me joyously into the glazen snowy world that we live in, right here in the hills.