So dark. So cold. A completely unreasonable hour to be awake, let alone stumbling out of a heated car, into the icy wind below the moon-kissed Boulder Mountains. Shoving feet into ski boots, stripping off the armor of a down jacket, putting your faith in sheer effort keeping you warm.

    Your partners’ faces are ghostly behind a wall of headlamp-lit breath. No one says much—it feels like breaking the silence just invites in the cold. But the cold is why you came. Why the sunrise on the summit ridge will paint your world as red as spilled blood, impossibly beautiful.  It’s why the snow will be so dry and deep that a perfect turn will send a diaphanous white wave into your chest before disappearing silently behind you. Why you and your partners are alone on this mountain, all the work, and all the reward, yours for the taking.

    Backcountry skiing is a defiance of the easy. Ski lifts, groomed runs, patrollers to pick you up when things go wrong. You get none of that. Substitute instead the satisfaction of breaking trail, of a switchback perfectly executed. Of breathing hard. Paying for your reward in sweat and endorphins. If you’d ridden a lift to get here, the payoff would be in the turns alone, each one fun, each as forgettable as the last.

    Instead, you’ve earned it. The real reward is not the skiing, the sublime submission to an interplay of muscle, snow and gravity. The real prize is the closeness of partnership. The kind of relationships that mature in making careful, consequential decisions. The mountains don’t care about you. Avalanches don’t take prisoners. The margin of safety lies in the choices you make together. In being comfortable enough with each other to say aloud, “I’m not feeling it, let’s go home.” In the faith that in the worst case, they will come for you, dig you out. But today the snowpack is stable and the powder is deep.

    You share the exuberance of high fives, laughter and grins as you rocket off the peak, out of the powder, and onto the flats. Of an experience shared. Of walking together into Galena Lodge just in time for the first oven-hot raspberry cornbread muffins.

    By the time you’re done eating, recounting the morning, and petting the occasional “loaner dog,” the day has turned bright and sunny. You don’t want it to end. Lucky you, it won’t. So, switch fat, floaty alpine-touring gear for the speed and precision of skate skis.

    Heading north out of the lodge on Gladiator.  Coasting up the perfectly groomed trail, each lateral step and glide slicing a samurai slash through the corduroy. A right turn and the climb up Rip and Tear begins. For the second time today, your pounding heartbeat reminds you just how good it feels to be alive. Flying toward Senate Meadows, you ride the exhilaration of centrifugal force keeping you upright through each bend. In the warm winter sun, the final hero cruise back to the lodge is the cherry on top, the final payoff of a day fully lived.

    Backcountry enthusiast Paddy McIlvoy is a member of the Blaine County Recreation District’s Galena Trails & Advisory Committee and is a longtime Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation cross-country skiing instructor.

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