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Randonnee First Tracks

by Kim Anderson

Backcountry skiing always struck me as a sport for snooty Gen-Xer not wanting to be polluted by the glitz and hype of a downhill ski resort. These people, my stereotype contended, loved granola, wanted to commune with nature in a purer form, and had jobs where attendance was a recommendation rather than a requirement.

For these reasons, neither telemark skiing nor randonnee skiing (aka AT for Alpine touring) captivated me. But a problem occurred over the past few years: All my friends turned into telemark or randonnee skiers. These were people who, like me, had families, weren’t gone on overnight trips, weren’t reclusive nature snobs, and who held jobs with little leniency for being sick on a powder day.

Previously when I had gone into the backcountry, I used snowshoes and packed my snowboard for the descents. I could keep up with friends on the ups and downs, but not on the flats. Backcountry trips seem to contend with a lot of natural flat spots and my ski-clad friends would glide easily through such areas while I was running on my snowshoes, hopping on my snowboard, or wallowing in crotch-deep snow with only boots. Something had to give!

That turned out to be my own typecasts. I started shopping eBay and, a few months later, had a randonnee rig that included a pair of ski boots with a hinged ankle release, skis (fairly short and wide), poles, and bindings allowing me to anchor the heel and ski downhill like using an alpine ski or release the heel so I could walk uphill like wearing a telemark ski. My last purchase was a pair of skins--strips of synthetic fur that stick to the bottom of the skis and grip the snow while you walk uphill.

My first experience occurred at the Stevens Pass ski area before it officially opened for the season. There was a minimal base with about eight inches of powder. We decided to go up Mill Valley and make a round trip. This would allow us to be home by lunch and play with our kids in the afternoon.

As we started up the hill, I was amazed by how well the skins gripped--even on steep slopes I barely slipped. I was also amazed by the workout. I was in good shape, but discovered new and unused muscles.

Once at the top, we removed skins, locked down the bindings, and buckled down the boots—a four -or five-minute transition. Excitement was building as we contemplated those first powder turns of the season. Then we were off—middle aged men howling, screaming, and laughing like junior-high girls.

I decided to go off the main run and shred some extra-virgin snow. Which is when I discovered there was good reason why the resort was still closed…creek beds. My skis went down into a depression and stuck. The heel releases of my bindings worked exceptionally well and ejected in unison as my body shot through the air like a Scud missile. Seconds later, while clearing the compacted snow from my goggles, the barks of my friends, reliving the now famous "creek dive," were still echoing through the valley.

Will I do this sport again? Absolutely. I will, however, go easier on judging the zealots of the sport and will follow the more experienced skiers whom I accompany. Maybe I’ll even pack along some granola bars!