The Sweet and the Deep
By Dan Greeson
Deborah Olsen smiles through the face shots on Buffalo Pass during an epic winter storm. Photo courtesy of Steamboat Powdercats.
By Deborah Olsen
The descent from Soda Mountain into Bitch Creek drainage is steep. The pitch is so dramatic that most years this backcountry terrain in Routt National Forest is not safely skiable until late January, and then only if the snow is deep and stable.
On this most memorable day, the initial approach is gentle enough. We ski through rolling terrain with widely spaced trees, the sort of landscape you can envision Santa’s sleigh traversing. Then suddenly, it’s as if the world is flat and we have reached its edge.
Time to regroup and strategize with my fellow skiers and snowboarders, friends who are spending the day with Steamboat Powdercats on Buffalo Pass. I’m lucky enough to have been here before, but usually you can see the bottom of the slope and the mountainside across the valley. Today it’s all shadows, a monochromatic landscape appearing and disappearing amid swirling snow.
Our lead guide has successfully made the descent and radioed back in an excited voice – more exclamation than words. We are clear to go.
I take my time trying to figure out a course that will meet three criteria: 1) it must follow the fall line without the necessity of traversing, which can cause sloughing (when the top layer of snow breaks off and slides downhill); 2) it does not require me to jump any cliffs; and 3) it is (microscopically) less steep than the wall beneath us.
My goddaughter, Samie (the Powdercats trip is her 16th birthday present), is the first to go. Despite her brilliant orange ski jacket, she disappears into the storm a couple of turns into her run. She is quickly followed by other eager powderhounds, their joyful howls wafting back to our ears.
Then it’s all me. The first turn, as anyone who skis steeps will tell you, takes the most courage. In this case, it is literally a leap of faith, over the cornice and into the powder.
It began snowing before dawn; it’s now mid-afternoon and the powder is chest-deep, so light as to offer little or no resistance. Establish a rhythm, stay centered, make photogenic “s” turns – even though they will be covered almost instantly.
Experience zero gravity. Float.
Most of my companions make no effort to check their speed. Fearless, I think. But I don’t want this run to end, so I make slow, round turns. Still, I’m gathering speed as the snow swirls up into my face. It’s hard to breathe; am I holding my breath?
I stop as the slope gradually levels out onto a plateau. I look down at the group, gathered by the cat, still whooping and watching.
Here it is not so steep but very deep. I want to make the final few turns in classic telemark style, a skill that still sometimes eludes me today. As I drop a knee, I realize the snow is now up to my neck, an otherworldly sensation that stays with me as I glide the rest of the way to the cat. I look back up at a wall of white.
We are all stunned. We have just completed what we already know will likely be the most epic run of our lives. Even the guides, who ski this terrain every day, are awed. We play like kids in the snow; only our heads are visible above it.
The date is Feb. 4, 2014.
I am still overcome with the emotion of it all as I write this story more than two years later. I have already booked our snowcat adventure for this ski season: as close to Feb. 4 as I could get. If you call the office that day, the recording will say, “Gone in search of the sweet and the deep.”
Keller Williams performs his song "221 Inches" while riding in a Steamboat gondola car.