MSR Contributor Aili Farquhar shares her thoughts on the shoulder season.
Closing-day skiers adorned in neon one-pieces and Mardi Gras beads (most probably under the influence of several blue-ribbon winning adult beverages) fly off jumps and stock makeshift slopeside bars carved in ice with cans from their backpacks. Across the river gravel bike trails and million dollar homes of the valley I fill my living room with well used down gear and the finest rock and ice pro money can buy. Skiers wait at the bus stop down the street as tennis players in shorts dodge lingering snowdrifts in the court across from my house. My small calico cat looks on with nervous attention. She knows the drill. All year she has seen my going and returning. I have left with skis and returned covered in snow. I have left with ice tools strapped to my pack and returned with healing face wounds and ripped pants. Always I came in trailing a plume of cold air and wet gear. Each time I have returned within a day or a week. And now– the duffel bags. Nearing fourteen, she knows duffels mean an extended absence for the human that opens the can.
The morning after I am packed and ready my friends and I crowd into our trucks and take advantage of the fine sunny weather. All day we crawl up the sharp rock of Hoback Shield with legs strong from skiing and upper arms strong from swinging tool into ice and pulling up onto tiny metal picks balanced on rock. Our finger tendons and tender finger pads creak and strain with the novel use of sport climbing. Our arms, uncovered for the first time all winter, soak in the warm rays. We lay horse blankets over the lingering patches of snow and belay on top of them. Our laughter is as copious as the meltwater in the river below as we relearn the dance of the rock and goof off with nobody around to hear our raunchy banter but the ravens and each other. The vast Gros Ventre mountains fold our crag and the road that leads to it into a wilderness stretching from the Red Desert to the Beartooths bordering I-90 a few hundred miles north. Hundreds of tan-butt elk in the midst of their migration to the high mountain slopes feed on the new grass at the road’s edge. Signs flash warnings about their sudden ephemeral presence as we drive home.
It is the transitional season. The road to Hyalite Canyon is closed and the mysterious hidden ice ribbons of Cody are melting. The resort in our small Wyoming town (of Jackson, no need to be vague) has shut down for the season. The tourists and winter warriors are on their exodus back to points unknown – points not here. A peace has come over the valley. I say first our small Wyoming town before I say Jackson because that is what it has become, for one short month. It is a tourist town taking a breath before the next wave of visitors. It is not the Jackson of Teton Gravity Research and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. This is not the time to huck sick cliffs in-bounds and send hard mixed routes in the ice climbing canyons. Depending on the vagaries of the melt-freeze and spring snow cycles I might yet get something big done in the distant Tetons, but I will have to skin for it. It will be an alpine objective. It will not be crowded, and I will not wait in line, but I will pay with assumed risk and sweat the admission to these ski descents and climbs. It will be quiet. The trees will steam in the hot mid-day sun, then it will cloud up and freeze again. Spring will come and go in an instant. The mountains are still white, but the valley bottoms are bare, brown grass shivering in the passing late season blizzards.
I make calls to climbing and ski partners to get just one more adventure in before the Alaska season and hear voices transported via cell tower from just outside Indian Creek or Anchorage or Valdez. People are leaving. People have left. The ice is falling down. The snow is variable in quality. For those of us still here it is the time of two for one specials at local restaurants and plenty of parking on Teton Pass. I know there is still lots of powder to be had – some of our best Wyoming ski days have been in April – but those duffel bags and that ski bag are sitting in my apartment, attended by one very nervous kitty. Time to go. I, too, am headed for the greater ranges.