Sliding and swishing through the snow like the polar bears in this year’s Coca Cola Super Bowl commercial, I cruised around Mount Catherine at the Snoqualmie Summit in Washington this past weekend. With blue skies, warm weather and hardly a cloud in sight, I strapped two skinny skies to my feet for a day in the backcountry snow with hardly a second thought.
The Nordic Center at Snoqualmie Summit features over 50 kilometers of groomed trails for all ski and snowshoe levels. Showing off the natural beauty of the Washington Cascades, the Nordic trails weave through the dense evergreen forests, follow creeks and ridgeline ledges and serve up stunning vistas of the surrounding jagged mountains and high elevation lakes. But the cross-country course serves up something extra too – a healthy helping of courage.
Courage to Try Something New
Meeting up with an old friend and three new, I started the day by familiarizing myself with my ski-bum buddies for the afternoon. Initially afraid that I was going to be the rusty fool on the slopes while cross-country skiing, I was happy to find that the rest of my group was new to the sport as well with one exception. I have Nordic skied many times since I was a kid but it had been several years (5+) since my last trek, but three others had only gone once or never before.
Trying a new sport – or anything really – especially one that includes attaching a slipper stick to your body takes a whole lot of courage. Anytime you are willing to look like a crazy-ass nutcase, fall down a hill, and then do it all over again…is amazing. We should all act so silly more often!
Courage to Find Balance
Starting out on the Mt. Catherine Loop, a 15K trail circumventing the ski park, the first thing we had to do was find our balance and rhythm, side to side and toes to heel. To keep grip and forward motion, you will get nowhere on x-country skis without a little ballerina skill – except for maybe face first in the snow. Settling in the tracks, with polls swinging we slowly built momentum like a steam train over the rolling flat sections of the trail.
Like having your legs clicked into the Nordic skis, balance is also key to life. To keep moving forward and to avoid cold wipe-outs, the scale has to be kept equal between all the important paths in your life. For me I work hard so I can play hard because both are equally important and then on top of that I also make time for my family, friends and of course everything else. This gets out of whack every once in awhile, but when you place value in each of your corners they will always return to even.
David Sedaris wrote in an article for the New Yorker that life is like a stove top, “one burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health and the fourth is your work.” To be successful, many people cut off one of their burners, to be really successful they to cut off two. But this creates a horrible and unhappy unbalance. What you need to do is change your definition of success. Like out on the snow trail, success isn’t always just finishing the loop but on some stretches it is to not fall down, or making it to the next bend, or to keep pushing until lunch. At times you may need to lower the burners, but I never-ever turn off the flame. The disproportionate balancing act that inevitably creeps into people lives is not by any means the rule – sometimes it just takes a little courage to keep your feet solid and to strike a balance to stay standing.
Courage to Conquer the Mountain
Just when we thought the trail was easy, it started to climb…and climb…and climb. We would think, oh just around that next bend and we will be at the top for lunch, but no. Following a thin ledge around the backside of the mountain for several kilometers, each of us kept sliding one foot in front of the other as we continued up in elevation. Stopping for lunch we savored in the beautiful rugged views as the wind wiped up clouds of white swirling snow and replenished our tired bodies with food. Though wearing out from the endless incline, there is something invigorating and internally motivating about reaching for a peak. It’s a deep sense of courage tangled with faith that keeps my eyes up. (Matthew 14: 22-33)
Finally we were greeted with a kiss from the wide-open blue ski at the top of the run and white humps of snow speckled by trees. In our narrow-sightedness to reach the top though we overlook one small problem – the challenging descent and sinking sun.
Courage to Turn Back
Sometimes it takes more courage to realize your limitations and turn back then to climb the mountain. As much as we wanted to complete the full loop we had to take into consideration that we did not have the needed resources to make it – the time, skill or endurance. Toasting our toes in the warming hut, which is located just about as far away from the Nordic Center as possible on the backside of the mountain, we re-organized our attack for the trail. Though we had already traveled more than half-way around the loop, the upcoming kilometers mixed more uphill and steeper downhill according to the backcountry ski patrol member stationed at the hut. At 2:30 in the afternoon (our rentals were supposed to be back at 3:30 p.m. – whoops!) we turned our backs on the forward trail and retraced our trenches.
Going back the way we came though was no beachy stroll. Anyone who has ever cross-country skied can tell you that skinny skis – especially when they are too long – are not built to go downhill. Sliding along the crusted ice, my skis grinded along the surface offering little resistance to help me slow down. Unable to make turns in the snow, all of use took many hard tumbles into the snow banks as our nerves gripped our bodies. Looking down the mountain, the slopes appeared much, much taller! Yet we couldn’t stop, so in a perpetual wedge that burned my thighs and knees, we slowly continued down the trail.
Courage to Let Go
On my way down the mountain, with shaky, tired legs attempting to hold a steady wedge and poles dragging behind me through the icy snow, a middle-aged man powered up the steep slope like a steroid-duped Frozone from the Incredibles. As he passed me, he turned and yelled back with a Norwegian accent, “just let go!”
And he was right, my tight ridged form was just holding me back – and cramping my legs and grinding my knees. Once I loosened up and looked passed the ledge, my turns became smoother and the trail more manageable. Like my fear of sliding down the slope, sometimes we need to let go and stop trying to control the situation. The baggage we drag will, yes, slow us down, but that apprehension will also leave its sore spots the next day.
Letting go of the GPS is not an easy task just like cross-country skiing down that mountain was for me, but the exhilarating fear tends to steer right. By putting a little trust in my ability and mustering the courage to point my tips downhill, I not only made it down the mountain faster but fell fewer times along the way.
Once down the steep sections of the trail, we still had 3-5 kilometers of rolling hills to ski to reach the Nordic center. With the sun already below the ridgeline, I was starting to get chilled from my sweat coloring in the crispy dusk air. As a more regular skiing than the majority of my travel buddies (snowboarders), my pace also outran the group. After waiting for over 10 minutes for my friends to catch up, I finally decided to just continue ahead alone. Sailing through the sparse trees of the lower hills, my shadows cast by the low sun raced ahead of me.
At times, we just have to go it alone. Don’t let yourself be held back by your fear of being solo. You can do just about anything by yourself and easily have just as much fun if not more. Some days I am my only best friends, and yes it can be lonely at times, but I am more independent and confident for it. I refused to wait around – doesn’t help I’m not a super patient person, but that’s another post – because time won’t wait for me to catch up.
Sailing into the Nordic Center back at the base of the ski area around 5 p.m. – just a tad late with our rentals – I was rosy cheeked and glad to be back. Warming up inside and enjoying the tail ends of my trail mix, I rested my sore feet up on a bench while waiting for the rest of my group to slide on in from our courageous journey.