I often get asked who I spend my time in the backcountry
with, to which I respond something like, “They’re older, with kids. They’re super
rad though.” And many times I get a sort of puzzling look in return; some don’t
understand why I would spend so much time with people in much different stages
of life than me, who I seemingly don’t have much in common with.
In addition to the more obvious reasons I love spending time
in the mountains – the beauty, the sense of calm, the sense of achievement when
reaching a goal, the grandeur – there are reasons maybe even more close to my
heart. As anyone who spends time in the backcountry knows, the partners with
whom you spend this time are of great importance. These people are partners you
form relationships with that transcend the strains of “normal” friendships,
or otherwise put, the ones that manifest in more typical societal circumstances. They can also influence the entire experience of the outdoors, and for me this
experience is why I desire to carve this time into my daily life as often as
It may be selfish to admit, but I’m picky about with whom I
choose to spend my time in the mountains. Although fitness is an obvious and
important quality, it’s not the only necessary one. Often backcountry skiing
means spending A LOT of time around a select few people, and often this time
might be mentally and physically taxing, or involve high-stakes
decision-making. For blatant reasons, in these moments I want to be surrounded
by people with a calm and collected demeanor who can navigate these situations
with a sense of grace and who will also help ease my own anxieties. They need
to be knowledgeable, or at the very least, curious to continue learning.
But there’s more. They also need to be lighthearted – a lot
can go wrong in the mountains and my partners need to be able to laugh with me
(or sometimes at me) when one of us makes a mistake or does something comical.
They must be humble – an ego is really never welcome in the mountains. There are so many instances when we
must accept our fully human qualities and realize that we are in the presence
of a much bigger spirit – Mother Nature – who will always overrule us. And they
have to be able to give me a confidence that will propel me along on the most
strenuous of adventures, even when I’ve lost sight of it myself. Ultimately, I
must be able to trust them with my most coveted strength and simultaneous
weakness, my vulnerability.
The people I ski with are former bike racers and
triathletes, they’re super-moms, they’re World Champion adventure racers,
they’re hunters and photographers. Sometimes they’re even kids. This past
season I had the pleasure of skiing with Mac, at the ripe age of 13. And when I
say skiing, I mean ski mountaineering. I watched this kid slay the Sickle with
more grace than most of us, and I guarantee he’s already skied more classic
lines than most people who will read this. I know that when I tell people I
sometimes go into the backcountry and tackle big goals with a 13-year old, they
assume that it’s dangerous, not as fun, more work, and probably slightly annoying.
But Mac has the right attitude, carries his own gear, laughs his way down a fun
descent, and grits out the long days with a smile – usually ahead of me, I
might add. In the end, it really doesn’t matter that he’s more than a decade
younger than me.
What I love is that all my ski partners have different
careers, different paths, and different strengths and weaknesses. But a common
adoration of being in the backcountry, all together, creates a friendship
stronger than most I have encountered in my short life. And who knows, maybe
Mac and I will be invaluable ski partners to each other down the road when his
parents are no longer skiing with us. The idea that such a passion has
allowed me to meet people I may never have otherwise known, brings my heart great joy, and I’m always
grateful for their teachings and friendship each day I get the chance to spend
All photos taken by Adam Wirth and Michael Tobin. Checkout www.alpineuntracked.com in my Friends and Inspiration tab for more stories and photos!