Trail Report. Dawn Patrol. Teton Pass. Wyoming.
The ritual starts the night before by packing your pack, which if you’ve had a good winter is packed already and just needs replenishment. Water. Powerbar. Apple. Chocolate. Layers. Headlamp. First aid kit. Lighter. Multi-tool. Eyewear. Avalanche kit: probe, shovel, beacon, inclinometer. Optional small thermos for coffee on the summit. Keep pack light, but bring some comfort. Next check the weather and the avalanche conditions. Plan your route for time allotted (punch in at work at 8:30 a.m.) and safety. Maybe wax snowboard or wrap duct tape around pointer finger of glove to fix the hole worn from cranking on bindings all season. Drink a cup of tea and stretch. Bed by 9 p.m.
Alarm, 4:45 a.m. Reach over, grab your snowpants and slide them on because every skibum house is drafty and cold in the morning. Next, pull on long sleeve base layer and socks, then bang on roommate’s and backcountry partner’s door. He grumbles and rises. In the living room, slide feet into snowboard boots hoping they dried before the wood stove died. Shiver. They are always a little damp and cold. Now into kitchen, brew coffee, set oatmeal boiling, then dash outside to warm up the truck, which moans twice then sputters and kicks over. Back inside. Roommate’s up. Eat, checking weather and avy conditions for last minute changes. Pour coffee into travel mug and add two ice cubes so it’s a drinkable temperature. Grab pack and snowboard.
Outside. Your breath freezes; what doesn’t stick to your hat and beard drops to the ground. A perfect winter morning. Still. Hard. Dark. Look up. So many stars. Look down. Hoar frost on snow reflects the starlight, sounds like crystal in the wind.
Slot snowboards into bed of truck between sandbags, over the tires and into snowdrift behind the cab. Slam door. Shift. Pick proper music for drive, something with a beat. It’s fucking early and you are goin’ fuckin’ snowboarding. You’re pumped.
Track two. Town is dark. Chimneys pump smoke and steam, which billow white, then dissolve into dark. Take right at the flashing stoplight. Clutch. Shift. Fifth gear, track three. Caffeine. Sleepy but alert, always waiting for black ice to kick the truck sideways.
The two lane country roads are dark, black skids through dark grey valley; flat, seductive, a good thing to drive while waking up. Ahead, a black hole in the stars. Mountains. Track four. You will be standing at the event horizon of mountain and stars in an hour. Maybe you pass a car, an early commuter. You are grateful you no longer work the breakfast shift, grateful you only make coffee and breakfast for you and your lovers.
Ahead, the road disappears up, into black, towards the mountain pass. Down shift, fourth gear, start climb. Track five. RPMs and BPM’s increase. You know this road, know the straightaways and the speed of each corner in every condition. Track six; turn it up, nod your head to the beat. Turn one, downshift through switchback. Partner sparks one up, hiking preflight commences. Turn two, plows came early, sand pings off undercarriage. Turn Three, preflight complete. 9500 feet, the pass, your parking lot is on the left. A white F150, a blue Tacoma, a brown Legacy, and a patchwork Dart are parked in the lot. Buckles and boots clicking, shaggy silhouettes move, steam under dome lights and headlamps, last minute gear checks. You know those dudes, but will see them on the summit.
Inversion today, so keep shell and fleece layer in pack. Unzip the vents on your snow pants. Nothing between you and the sky except base layer. You are grateful to be above the valley, above the stale cold and smoke. Still winter up here: must move. Finish coffee, shoulder pack, go.
The boot pack starts at the edge of the parking lot, a ladder of kick-steps up the six-foot snowbank created by snowplows after the last storm. You are not the first hikers this morning. Another group has broken trail through the fresh snow, probably going for a longer tour across ridges and around cirques, probably looking for an untouched line in the middle of nowhere. Lucky bastards. Your consolation prize: freshies and a sunrise before work. Leave headlamp in pocket—plenty of starlight.
Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Check technique. Check posture. Repeat. Follow the staggered, black-manicured craters, your staircase in the snow. At 9700 feet, 5:30 am on a clear day, you walk towards the stars. Breathe.
Left foot, right foot, breathe….
You follow the footsteps before you, each step taking you five inches higher, towards a peak where you will watch the sunrise. Then, when cold and satisfied, you pick any number of lines, dropping off the top, falling from the stars, surfing white noise.