Hut Trip Basics

You did it. You signed up for your first hut trip. Whether you’re heading into an old Forest Service cabin for a night or two, or taking a helicopter into the middle of Alberta, you’re in for a good time.

You’ve gone through the packing list three times and you’re ready to go. Your skis are waxed, you’ve got extra batteries for your gadgets, and you’ve been wearing those little down booties all over the house because, well, they’re the best. But are you ready? Do you know what to expect? If you’ve never been on a hut trip before, probably not.

Here’s a few pointers:

The Skiing Will be Terrible – Which, obviously I hope it’s not. But chances are, that for much of the time you’re out there the avalanche danger will be high, or visibility will be poor, or the snow will be crummy. I hope every turn you make is the stuff of Instagram heroics, but you’ll have a better time if you measure your expectations and don’t plan on blower face shots all day every day. And in the end this won’t really bother you, because of the next point:

This Is Not a Ski Trip – Again, this is clearly not the case. You just got your skis tuned, after all. But if it was really a ski trip, you’d be sleeping in a tent and cut your toothbrush in half and packed the unabridged Moby Dick to help you through the storm cycles. This is better than a ski trip. This is a hut trip.

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A few minutes from the front door.

And yeah, you’re going to ski your face off. But when you hike from the front door, you can get a solid 6-8 hours of touring in and still have pretty much the entire day to screw off. Relish that. Bring board games and strange cheeses, good whiskey and bad beer. The hut is your bastion of gaiety against a twisted world. A long weekend in Valhalla. Savor it.

Bring Worse Beer – This is a common trap that even seasoned hut trippers fall into. In an effort to save space and be efficient with weight, folks always seem to bring big ‘ol 11% double IPAs and the like. Those big beers are great, sure, but not what you’re actually going to want while you sit in the hot tub for 5 hours after skiing all day. Bring Schlitz, or Modelos and lime,  or hell – even a wine cooler or two. Your friends will mock you on the approach and beg you for a Rainier on day two.

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Hut trip essentials.

Dinner is Competitive – A communal meal around a roaring fire is the most basic, beautiful, truly human experience. It was the first thing we did to separate ourselves from the rest of God’s critters, and meal time in a yurt is a direct connection with hundreds of thousands of years of human ancestry.

It’s also an opportunity to vanquish your friends and loved ones. Dinnertime in a hut is, whether anyone will admit it or not, competitive. It must be filling, delicious, and copious. Canned tomato sauce and spaghetti will not be tolerated. You will be judged by your efforts – be sure to bring enough butter.

Beware the Groupthink – Hut time on a hut trip is for telling jokes and eating butter. Ski time is real. You’re going to be secluded in the middle of nowhere, probably with no cell reception, perhaps a helicopter ride away from the nearest help. Do try not to get hurt.

It's easy to do.
It’s easy to do.

The good times and cohesion of mealtime at base camp is great, but it’s better to keep it there. Don’t be afraid to peel off in 3’s and 4’s to go find your own adventures on the skintrack. Even people who do this for a living get into trouble when group sizes swell and the stoke gets too high. High fives are for the hot tub – you have to make it there alive.

Book the Next One Now – Hut trips are so hot right now. The best ones are booked two years out. So pick a date and get it on the calendar, it’s the best thing you’ll do all winter.

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How to be a Skier

The topics covered here frequently assume a certain level of familiarity with skiing and ski culture, and I understand that this can be alienating for some readers in southern California, Texas, and New Jersey. This is not my intention. To appeal to a larger cross section of our Obviously-The-Best-Ever-But-About-To-Be-Made-Much-More-Greaterer Nation, I’d like to offer a few pointers on how to be a skier in the hopes that moving forward we can enjoy the best season of the year together.

Step 1. Talk Loud

The principle responsibility of any skier is to inform the people around him of his intentions. To do this most effectively, I suggest speaking clearly and audibly at all times, and especially when discussing the epic-sicky pow and how much gnar you will definitely shred this coming weekend. This is most effective in public trains, baggage claim areas, and bars with PBR specials, but is also applicable for fancy restaurants, wedding receptions, and first dates. Be sure to focus on what you’re definitely about to do, not what you have actually done.

Step 2. Dress Like an Aquarium Fish

Sometimes simply speaking loudly isn’t enough, or you’re too busy on the shot ski to state your shredding intentions. When this happens your clothing should speak on your behalf. When you dress yourself in the morning, avoid blacks, browns and understated patterns. Mauve is out. Earth tones are only allowable if they are actually digital camouflage. Goggles should be mirrored and imposing. When in doubt, leave the helmet at home.

Step 3. Go Fast; Huck Your Meat

It used to be there was a time way back in the day when skiing was difficult. The hard men and women of mountain towns across the world would tie themselves to a couple of old floor joists with leather straps, take a nip of schnapps, and point ’em downhill – damn the torpedoes. Simply surviving the run from top to bottom was a feat of strength, finesse, and emotional fortitude. A very few people on earth had the technique to make it look good.

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Toni Matt knew how to be a skier.

These times are no more. With all the newfangled shaped skis and powerful boots, the equipment pretty much just does its thing. The skier is just along for the ride – no technique required. And so to demonstrate your superiority, it’s important to go as fast as possible and jump off the highest cliff you can find. Remember, no one cares if you land it. Disregard other, slower mountain users. If they were real skiers they would be going faster.

Step 4. Make Fun of Snowboarders

While you’re out sliding over snow with a board strapped to each foot, you may notice some jobless Communists out there sliding over snow with both feet strapped to a single board. Be sure to ridicule these people, they are of a lesser class. Everyone knows the only way to really enjoy sliding over snow is with two different boards. It is well documented in the that when people slide over snow with only one board it means their parents were siblings and they are of substandard intelligence and really they should feel lucky they’re allowed outside at all. You can’t argue with science.

Step 5. Drink Enough Booze

You can’t always be the best skier on the mountain, but that shouldn’t stop you from being the best drinker in the bar. To be clear- as soon as you’ve put on ski boots, you’ve gone skiing. There is no need to actually go outside. So take that shot of Fireball. Order up another bucket of PBR. Just be sure to talk loud while you’re drinking.

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Is It Ski Season Yet? A user’s guide.

It’s that time of year. The days are short, the nights are cold, and you just keep braising things. You sold the bike to make room for the wax bench. You bought a pass (or didn’t, whatever). For some reason your new goggles have a speedometer that talks to your phone. You’re ready for winter.

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Looks like ski season to me.

But is winter ready for you? That’s the question. Is it ski season yet? How can you know?

  1. Look Outside – Are the mountains brown? If so, maybe just settle for another pot of hot cocoa.
  2. Check Instagram – The surest way to know if anyone is skiing anywhere near you is to check Instagram. This early in the year, you can bet that a single day of mediocre touring will yield dozens of chipper social media posts about early rising birds and worms and “the goods.” Be aware that Instagram should inform the earliest bracketing of ski season, and photos of skiing on the internet do not necessarily mean you should get out there. Beware of nostalgic posts from last year!
  3. Consult the Roof Racks – If you’re still seeing a lot of bikes up there, it’s probably not ski season yet. When you start seeing snowboards, it’s time to think snow, but maybe not head out quite yet. Downhill skis on the roof mean it’s probably ready for you to get out there, and tele skis mean green light. Once you see nordic skis, it’s full on.
  4. Ask Blake – He’ll know. Or, if you don’t know Blake, ask someone else. Chances are, you know someone without a real job or any kind of prospect, who just skis a lot. Just as likely, that person has been out already, regardless of whether or not it’s actually ski season. Ask that person. Then use this handy decoder to figure out how the skiing actually was.
  5. Reference the Data – If you’re really curious about mountain snow accumulation, you’ll do well to consult the vast network of remote sensing data supplied by the good people at the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Deep in the SNOTEL database you’ll find a wealth of valuable climate information. Information so valuable, apparently, that the minds at our USDA have seen fit to bury it like treasure. Treasure that they hope is never found. The end-user interface of the SNOTEL service has about as much polish as a third place third grade science fair entry, but if you’re patient you’ll find some really good stuff in there.

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    This is definitely from this year. Definitely.
  6. Go Up There – I know, it sounds crazy. But give it a shot. Just go up there and look around. Maybe it’ll be a winter wonderland, and maybe it won’t. At the very least you’ll go for a walk, and that’s not all bad. Don’t forget to bring good snacks.

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Tough Decisions

Al Allen, from what I recall, is not a tall man. By my junior year in high school his thinning black widow’s peak stopped just above my shoulder. He had the paunch of a man in his 50s that crept past his belt and had a way of picking up ink from the white board on the wall as he moved back and forth across the room.

He addressed us by barking last names, or nicknames, or grossly phonetic caricatures of Christian names, but almost never what our parents had in mind. In my class was Peanut, Giraffe, Steed, and Pa-owl-la, among others. I remember him being a kind of excitable little man who routinely yelled at us to “shut up.”

He also had the uncanny ability to appeal to a roomful of comatose, bleary eyed sixteen year-olds and make trigonometry absolutely fascinating.

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Here’s Matt working out one of life’s tough decisions: one more lap or the hot tub?

Al’s (we called him Al) uncouth approach to instruction was disarming. After a lifetime of tutelage-through-obedience, this class offered an early glimpse of how fun and important learning through collaboration and mutual respect can be. In less than a semester I went from never actually quite learning my multiplication tables to deciding to study math in college.

I can think of two other teachers who’ve shaped me this much, but I can only remember a single lesson from his class. Of course what I remember has nothing to do with math.

A2 (sometimes we called him A2 ) also coached the basketball team. If he was a good math teacher, then he was a great basketball coach, apparently, and saw numerous players progress to the NBA over 21 years at the helm of the team. That role blurred with teaching. He brought energy from the court to the classroom, and acted as a mentor for players who might not have guidance elsewhere. His office was usually occupied by a student athlete working on homework or studying between classes.

I overhead a conversation once between Coach Al and a girl who was unsure of whether or not to try out for the varsity team. She’d played as a freshman and a sophomore, but didn’t know whether she wanted the additional commitment of a varsity sport.

“What do you mean you’re not sure?” he asked her. “It’s not up to you right now. You haven’t made the team yet, so don’t worry about it. Try out, and if you make it, then you can worry about all that.”

I understood, at the time, that she was a shoe in for the team, but he was right. She didn’t really have an option yet.

I’m not planning on trying out for a basketball team any time soon, but the advice holds up. It’s easy to stop short of applying for a job because you’re not sure if you’ll like it, or not looking at grad school because you don’t really want to move, or to not strike up a conversation with that girl at the coffee shop on the off chance that she’s boring.

But by walking away from something before you apply yourself, you’re making a decision that isn’t yours to make. No matter how good you are, how smart, or how attractive, if you assume that you’re a good fit, then you’re probably not.

Most of us have something on the horizon that we think we’d like to do, but aren’t really sure. It’s easy to talk ourselves out of taking a crack at it just for that reason: we’re not totally sure. Maybe the timing is wrong, or we don’t have all the information, or we’re still figuring out what it is that we really want.

The fact of the matter is that until you’ve got an offer, it’s really not up to you. All you can do is put your head down and try, an worry about some of the logistics later.

You might just find that having hard decisions to make is a good thing.

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Balancing Reward

“It’s really not as hard as people think,” he said. Two ice cubes floated in amber liquid and clinked against the rim of the glass. He held it between his thumb and middle finger, and punctuated every point with an index finger that he brandished like a foil.

“The secret to happiness,” he said for the third or fourth time since I’d wandered to this archipelago of half a dozen people at the fringe of a crowded party, “is simply to lower your expectations.”

The party was several years ago, I think in Chicago, or California or somewhere, but I found myself thinking about it again as I hiked through boottop powder the other day for another short lap of skiing through excellent snow.

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The day before skiing I’d hoped to make it a big day. My usual morning routine involves hitting snooze until the last possible moment, groping in the dark for clean socks, nearly forgetting boots/skins/poles/skis, and leaving the house with neither food nor water (requiring a gas station or grocery stop on the way to the trailhead).

But this time I laid out my gear after dinner and got to bed early. I had snacks and water already packed, and even found my repair/first aid kit. When the alarm went off at 0530 I think I only hit snooze two or three times.

Eight hours later my skis whispered across the snow on a climb back to the top of our short run. It was already after lunch and we’d skied multiple hundreds of vertical feet. It was clear that we would not be hiking anywhere near the 10,000 vert that I’d prepared for the night before.

No one seemed to mind. The unspoken routine in this group of ski partners is for everyone to meet around 7am with an idea of where we’d each like to go. Over coffee and bacon burritos we’ll discuss the weather of the last few days, the avalanche report if it’s recent, any time constraints, and the disparity of our relative gumption. We’ll hem and haw for a while, and by 8 usually have a pretty good idea of where we’re headed and what kind of day it will be.

By the time we consolidate vehicles we’re all on the same page and have a good feel for the social dynamic before we even slip into boots. The morning after I’d laid out my gear and prepared like you’re supposed to, we decided the conditions ruled out steep terrain and settled on a day of conservative tree skiing.

A morning tradition like this sets the tone for good communication and safety. It does not, however, set the tone for doing anything ambitious. The tree skiing the other day was really quite good. We found soft snow blowing in to lee aspects and that wind slabs were easy to avoid. We had a good time and told a lot of jokes.

What we didn’t do was stand on top of anything noteworthy. We didn’t descend anything exciting. Really, nothing we did was worth writing about at all.

When we decided on a plan over coffee and sausage gravy, we categorically rejected expectations for the day. There was no angst about whether or not we’d succeed, because there was no stated goal. There was no risk, because there was no bet. There were simply a few friends wandering around in the woods cracking jokes and skiing powder.

Balancing reward and risk below the East Couloir on Grey Wolf Peak.
Balancing reward and risk below the East Couloir on Grey Wolf Peak.

There’s nothing wrong with cracking jokes and skiing soft snow in the same way that there’s nothing inherently wrong in whiling away your working years without risk or creative endeavor. But the unstated foundation of the idea that happiness is got with lowered expectations is that happiness itself is mutually exclusive with ambition.

I don’t know if I agree. I do think that it’s worth thinking about. Recall Annie Dillard’s warning that “how we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives.”

A day of low stress fun with friends is a beautiful thing, but a life without creative expression is heartbreaking. The daily balance of reward and risk extends beyond our morning routine. It’s the foundation for how we will have lived our lives.

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