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Confessions of Foothills Man

I met him a few miles west of Saddle Rock on the north-facing slopes above Number Two Canyon Road. I was snowshoeing uphill through a foot of week-old snow—plodding. He was weaving parallel turns through the sagebrush—gliding. He caught sight of me when we were a hundred yards apart and rounded a turn to a stop. He stood there deciding how to confront this queer animal contaminating his ski run. Reaching a decision he pulled his hat down low, moved the mirrored ski goggles from forehead to eyes, and approached.

Ten feet away he halted. I looked him over, trying to determine if I knew the mystery man behind the low hat and mirrored goggles. “Looks fun,” I commented, nodding at the turns he had scribed in the snow.

“Yup.” His voice was low, gravelly, middle-aged.

“Ski here often?”

“Yup.” There were other lines of sweeping turns. Someone had skied this slope a few times.  

 “Is there really enough snow to ski?” I asked.

 “Yup.”

“You’re not worried about blowing a ski edge on a rock?”

“Nope.”


Trying to get beyond terse responses, I took a gamble.

 

“You say anything besides, ‘yup’ and ‘nope?’”

 

The corner of his mouth lifted. A smile. He’d hadn’t taken my poke as an insult.

“Sometimes.”

I smiled back. This was headway. “Don’t these slopes destroy your skis?”

He hesitated, wondering whether to prolong the cloak-and-dagger. “Not many rocks here. It’s mainly grass underneath.”

“But you must smack rocks sometimes,” I insisted.

“Of course.”

“And you don’t care?”

“That’s what ski swaps are for. When the skis are cheap, you don’t much care.”

His ski-swap boards were wide…and short for his frame. “170 centimeters?” I ventured.

He was surprised. Despite my lame footwear, he accepted I knew something about his sport. That changed the dynamics: He was talking to another skier now.

“I like them wide and short. Width keeps me on top of the snow, and short boards are nimble. That helps around here.” He gazed out at the hillside dotted by sagebrush, tufts of bunch grass, and the dried stalks of wildflowers.

“How often you out here?”

His reluctance to speak was waning. “When the conditions are good, I’m on it most days. The season is short. Some years the snow never comes. And once you’ve got snow, you never know when a warming will take it away.”

“The crust today kind of ugly?”

“Crust, powder, ice…it’s all snow.”

“And that which doesn’t kill you makes you a better skier?”

“Exactly. Sometimes after a warming, the snow freezes at night and it’s like skiing armor – you can descend on a few inches of snow without hitting something hard underneath. Most would call it terrible skiing, I think it’s a tremendous.”

“How’s this season comparing to others?”

“Good. Snow came early. If we get a little more on top of this, it could be a 30- maybe even a 40- day season.”

“And you ski every one of those days?”

“Most of them. It doesn’t take any time to get here so I’m up early, skin uphill in the dark, and descend after sunrise. Makes the work day tolerable if you’ve already been out skiing.”

“Ever done a number on yourself hitting rocks or snagging a bush?”

“Nope…but I ski slow. This isn’t a place to rip.”

“What about avalanches?”

“Big dumps on these grassy hills can slide. Someone got himself buried within sight of Wenatchee during the big snows of 1996. And when the snowpack gets saturated from rain or a thaw, the wet grass underneath is as slick as slime—snow slides real easy on top of it.” 

The rapport felt good. It was time to pop the big question. “So what are your favorite runs in the foothills?”

He smiled. “I’ve spent years figuring out which slopes hold snow best and which are lean on rocks… you can do the same.”

These words proved prophetic. Several years have passed since I encountered Foothills Man and, indeed, more than half of the fun has been in the exploring. Interestingly, I’ve never met him again. Occasionally, however, I find a slope with a lone ski track winding downhill. Then, rather than crafting my own route, I’ll descend figure-eighting that lone track: A salute to my mystery mentor.

Like Foothills Man, I’m not revealing my secret spots. I’m just here to tell you that some years there’s good backcountry skiing a whole lot closer to town than you might suspect. Have fun figuring it out.

 
Details, details.

 
--Study the USGS 7.5-minute maps of the foothills to scope out potential slopes.

--Some slopes in the foothills, like those in the Sage Hills, are closed during the winter to protect the deer wintering here.

-- Respect private property: Don’t trespass if it is so posted. To learn more about who owns what in the Wenatchee Foothills, study this map.

--Often you can walk up slopes in the foothills. When the best conditions arrive, however, skiers will want skins, and snowboarders snowshoes.

--Because funky snow conditions and tight vegetation often result in forced turns, randonnee (alpine touring) bindings and boots are recommended over telemark gear.

--If you do telemark, wear knee pads – it’s dumb to drag unprotected knees through a 12-inch snowpack.

--A helmet isn’t a bad idea when you’re reconnoitering new runs. Carry avalanche gear, warm clothing, water, matches, fire starter, etc. Don’t let your proximity to town lull you into believing nothing bad can happen. One knucklehead I know broke his neck skiing in the foothills.