I started skiing for the big backcountry lines. Resort laps, tree runs, and powder stashes are all great, but I’m in it for the chutes and the steeps and the couloirs. I think I was still skiing blues when I decided my tele-babe best friend, Sydney, and I were going to ski the Grand Teton together.
With clear skies in the forecast for Sunday, we had our sights set on Muir for some training for volcano season and maybe a descent on the Nisqually Chutes if the avalanche forecast worked in our favor. Saturday night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the forecasts downgraded to moderate, with loose wet problems below treeline and wind slab above – except for a nice wedge over the Nisqually Chutes aspects. I’ve been craving a big backcountry ski line since the day I stopped pizza-ing, and it looked like the chutes were going to give me a taste.
I shot out a late night message to my friend Luke (eh, more like half a of a couple I’ve been Insta-crushing on as potential couple friends IRL.) Everyone knows the chutes are fun any day that they’re in, but if you hit it early enough in the season, you don’t have to climb out of the hole to get back to the Paradise Visitor’s Center. A low snowline means you can coast down an extra 2,000 feet at the the start of the Nisqually River to a bridge over the main road up to Paradise. If we were going to start and end at two different parking lots, it would be nice to have 2 cars. (Mom, if you’re reading this, I never ONCE considered hitching).
Coincidentally, Luke and Gina were headed to Paradise as well with a crew of their friends and the appetite for the chutes was there if conditions were right. We were tracking 2 or 3 minutes behind them on the drive up and pulled in right beside them in the lot. Holy hell, do Luke and Gina have a lot of friends – we rolled out of Paradise as a pack of nine. Surprisingly, even in a huge group that ranged from first-time tourers to an experienced bunch, we managed to travel pretty well together. We made quick time up to Panorama Point, where conditions got a little icy, so we enjoyed a glorious lunch in the sun while we waited for the snowfield to soften. Around 8,500 feet, things seems to be slick for good, and it seemed like as good a spot as any to transition.
Conversation on the way down was a game of “should we or should we not” for the chutes. The snowfield was crunchy, and there was a chance we’d be scraping down the slope. We only saw two sets of tracks head down. This wasn’t one of those beautiful spring days where people conga line down the Nisqually. Pete was in. Ben was in. Luke and Brendan joined the group. I was really on the fence.
I wanted to ski it, but there was a tiiiny part of me that wondered if I could. See, a month ago, I got some unsolicited feedback that I might need more practice before hitting Cannon Mountain Couloir, one of the top lines on my list for the season. I spewed back my best “Bite me buddy, I’m a grown-ass woman and I’m the one who makes the decisions about whether or not I’m ready for something. You can choose not to come with me, but whether or not I go is not your decision to make!” I’m no pro, but I’ve gotten really good at staying upright and in control when I’m losing my shit over the terrain. My older brother nailed it when he said I “wasn’t a good skier, but I ski everything on the mountain and never fall down.”
But that comment was playing over and over again on loop.
I chose to go and silently prayed that they’d pick out a black body cast for me when I was in a coma so that all of my friends could sign it with metallic Sharpies. The other half of our crew headed down to Panorama Point while our group dropped in in the same order that we opted in. The drop in was exactly what we feared. I hate the sound of sidewalls on ice and grimaced my way across the chute to a nice landing spot. One by one, the guys snaked their way down the chutes. Pete went first and had some good news for us: the snow got good. When it was my turn to go, I took a few slow, conservative turns and braced myself for impact. A few turns in, I realized it really wasn’t bad, and let myself keep my tips down and enjoy the last bit of the steeps before a long run out to the bridge.
Photo by Luke Daining
In the grand scheme of big mountain skiing, this was the tiniest taste. I’m still nervy over Cannon and Lane and Emmons, and not just in the “glitter in your tummy” sort of way. Fingers crossed it’ll get there before the end of spring skiing.