The distant dusting of snow on the upper reaches of the Rattlesnake wilderness slowly fades from view as the sun sets. Lights spring to life in the valley below, and taking the cue, I switch on my headlamp. My calves barely register the elevation gained with every step, a sure sign the months of regular hiking will pay off big this winter.
"I'm thinking I might get a splitboard this year," my friend and longtime skiing companion Emily says as we pick our way up the darkening trail, her French bulldog Wallace bounding along ahead of us. "I have a feeling it's going to be nuts with lodges and everything."
"Yeah, might be smart to hit the backcountry more," I reply. "Just hit Lolo Pass a ton."
As we continue discussing the coming ski season, I find myself getting excited. It's a strange, almost foreign feeling after months of pandemic life. But already Emily and I have hatched a plan to scrounge up a projector for an outdoor Warren Miller movie screening later in the month. Other friends have floated the idea of targeting fairweather days for on-area skiing and tailgating as an alternative to the usual lodge hangs. Mix in a few backcountry days and I can't help but think this season is going to further prove the old adage right: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Over the past few months, ski areas across the Pacific Northwest have rolled out their plans for dealing with COVID-19. And the common theme seems to be that riders this winter should be looking to their vehicles as their day lodge. Why not? A decent chunk of the skiing public already boots up in the parking lot anyway, and the use of a truck or Subaru as winter HQ has worked well for backcountry enthusiasts for a long time. Heck, one of my fondest skiing memories came on a sunny June day on southern Montana's Beartooth Plateau when two co-workers and I lapped the Gardiner Headwall. After our first run, we hitched a ride back to our cars in the flatbed of a pickup, then spent a while sharing beers with strangers and gazing out at the view.
Skiing is a sport that breeds community. Sure, we shouldn't be congregating in crowds this year or palling around too closely with strangers. But most of us already have our winter pods established, and perhaps our first full pandemic winter is a chance to build even crazier memories with them. We can trick out our new mobile day lodges with chairs, coolers, good music and portable grills. We can swap old stories and forge new ones. We can ride together even on those powder days when normally, according to the skier's creed, there's no such thing as friends. We can, for just a day, keep each others' spirits high even as we hike up our buffs to contain this blasted thing.
At the end of our hike, as Wallace plops at my feet near the trailhead begging for one last ear-scratch, I wonder how many people will be taking the backcountry leap this year as a direct result of the pandemic. I wonder what other ingenious ways riders are planning to get their winter kicks without threatening public health. As considerate and vigilant as we all still need to be, somehow those questions start to alleviate the anxieties of the past year, replacing them momentarily with a feeling I always get above a glade after a big snowstorm: the recognition of unexpected possibilities. ♦