THE TAO OF POW
Duncan McCallumIt is a picture totally synonymous with Japan in winter: the snow monkey sheltering in a thermal hot pool from the snow that settles tens of metres deep in the Hakuba Alps near Nagano. There the all-seeing Zen monkey sits with a little cap of snow on his wise old head. On this day, however, the reality was somewhat different. It was raining lightly, and the hot pool – far from being the secret pristine gem imagined by those who seek it – was in a shit-covered grubby gorge, full of squabbling monkeys surrounded by what looked like a meeting of National Geographic’s amateur photographers’ bus tour.
Thirty Canon lenses the size of bazookas were poised just a few centimetres away from their furry targets, who looked like they just hung out at the pools every day for a free lunch. With careful shot selection and editing, there is no doubt that every one of the 64mb files in each camera would echo that famous image. They would ignore the jostling, the monkey crap, the shrieks from the young monkeys being bullied by their elders.
The image of the snow monkey, although clichéd, is one of those internationally recognisable pictures that sits in our unconscious, drawing us to the exotic, the new and unknown. For me, the snow monkey was just as important as the tales of waist-deep powder, empty forest ski runs and steaming volcanic peaks when I decided leave the fresh snow of Chamonix for the +4C drizzle in Japan.
This was a lesson in travelling without expectations, preconceptions or prejudice. At that moment I stepped away from being a ski tourist to being really there – aware but without judgement, an observer of all; aside, above or apart from the image makers and it was good.
The next morning we arrive at the ski lift at the same time as the horde of Japanese snowboarders, descending upon the resort for their lessons. At bib 505 I give up caring how many there are, astounded by the numbers of people all crammed into a 50m-wide piste. I know what lies beyond the carefully manufactured and prescribed world of the ski resort.
At the lift top, instead of turning downhill into the battalion of crashing masked boarders, we drop our packs onto the parallel lines of corduroy piste and pull out the skins that had been carefully dried out the night before. Tearing apart the cold skins heralds the transition between the normal and the abnormal. They have a slow glue-ripping sound, like sizzling burgers but staccato. The first sinking steps off the piste break that surface tension, the barrier between the controlled atmosphere of the resort and the deep dark unknown forest.
For the first ten metres, until we turn into the woods, I can feel a thousand burning eyes questioning our steps. We are not following ‘the rules’ and in fact we may be breaking one or two – it’s a difficult cultural tension. It’s remarkable how little effort it takes to cross from managed resort into the wild backcountry. If this were Chamonix there would have been a huge line of adventurers seeking the wilderness experience, but here, just 100m from the lift station, we are alone. It’s a frozen landscape with trees that look like they have been dipped in sugar frosting, frozen ridged and hard, filling the forest. It is Narnia in the harsh grip of the White Queen: inert, dormant and waiting for the lion hero to release them with his roar of spring.
Backlit by the low morning sun, the trees glow as if powered by millions of fibre optic filaments. It’s indescribably beautiful – one of those fleeting moments in nature which will have been repeated countless times through the millennia, rarely seen and seldom appreciated. We skin up though the enchanted forest, ducking under the twigs which reach down to stroke our heads. The ice-encrusted branches are surprisingly robust; if brushed, they sway heavily under their beautiful yet transient burden. Occasionally they release a tinkling shower down my neck, making me shrug sharply, alive to the icy trickle against the heat of my skin.
The air is filled with airborne ice crystals. They appear and disappear as they twist and turn in the morning light. So fragile, they would not exist without the combination of light breeze and moist sea air snap-frozen at the perfect temperature. These vampire crystals drift from the shadows into the light only to be instantly evaporated, their vapour returned to the snow cycle to reform in another place at another time.
WITH EACH STEP I FEEL THE EFFECTS OF THE WIND, THE NIGHT, THE DAYS, THE WEEKS AND MONTHS THAT HAVE COME BEFORE, SCULPTING THE SNOW PACK.
The snow-laden mountains stretch ahead of us until they plunge into the sea. At the higher elevations where we are headed, ghostly pine tree hoodoos sit on the lee of the ridges wearing their shrouds of ice. As we thread our way softly onwards into the deeper, higher backcountry, the beauty amazes me – but the appreciation of a scene often drifts away under physical effort, as the mind prioritises the monitoring of pace, temperature and energy levels. Today is different. The visual and sensual stimulation is so great that I seem hyper aware.
With each step I feel the effects of the wind, the night, the days, the weeks and months that have come before, sculpting the snow pack. The layers in the snow give at different rates and with different sounds. Some squeak, some flump softly; others scrape, challenging the sharpened metal edges of my splitboard to bite. 15,384 sliding steps later and once again the skins are off and I’m rummaging in my backpack for layers of down and wind protection.
The ritual of transition, with its familiar actions and sounds, is like an old friend. The shovel handle knocking against the blade, the careful ordering of layers, the tear of the Velcro as the ABS handle is armed. It triggers a magical change of state. The anticipation of the descent brings a flush of adrenaline, signalling to the muscles to prepare for compression instead of slow extension. It’s a change of pace marked by the extreme: from 400m of ascent in an hour to 400m of descent in five minutes, from 4kph to 40kph, from the heat of climbing to the wind chill and cold of face-shot descents. It’s a wonderful contrast.
To be comfortable and engaged in this movement is the subtle difference between being here on the hill and being of the hill. It’s the difference between buying into an image of touring and it being part of you. Maybe it’s the culmination of seasons of touring and being in the mountains, or perhaps some of the forest spirit has been absorbed. Either way, flow has come.
A wide and deep channel leads out below us, a natural halfpipe snaking down through the forest. In summer it’s the start of a watercourse which turns into a series of rubble-lined gorges oozing sulphurous slime farther down the mountain, but for now it’s our playground.
Through the forest we float, riding just under the surface of crystals. Curling plumes of powder rise and fall, displaced from nature’s freshly laid blanket, temporarily disturbed until the night’s breeze flattens the sheet of white once more. We stop on a small rise below our next skinning target, a small col 400m above us. We skirt the contours in an effort not to lose any more elevation and make our transition.
Recent earthquakes have ripped apart the earth, releasing sulphur and heat. I am sharply reminded of the devil. The deep and fiery depths ooze yellow poison to the surface. Superheated water, normally buried deep within the earth’s crust, now runs between the ground and the snow. We pass the rotten stench of sink holes, boiling with foul liquid. These volcanic spectacles remind us of the unique dangers that lie throughout the snow pack
A steady rising traverse away from the streambed hooks us quickly to the col. A gentle pink tinges the sky; night is coming and time is pressing. Opting to skin a further 100m out from the col lands us on a rounded summit with a multitude of wind lips to slash. On a board or fat skis this ribbed landscape offers more of an oceanic descent than the old-school fall-line ski experience. It’s startling, expansive and complex.
Fixed white breaker waves provide tubes, lips and drops, deep and forgiving, fun and light, spreading out below us. In this ocean of snow we float downstream, crossing a multitude of watercourses, wind scours and tree-topped ridges. A Japanese black bear nest hangs above us as we stop to check our bearings; GPS blipping guidance safely sees us to a small bridge hidden in the vast forest. A forest road, buried deep by the winter freeze, is a shallow groove in the snow: a strangely geometric line within an otherwise totally natural picture. Pink turns to grey as the night begins to encroach over the expansive vista. Under its protective shield, the night creatures, start go about their claustrophobic foraging. We the creatures of the day have some way to go, however.
The last transition of the day, this time less careful, sees us skinning along the road line, which is threatened by steep avalanche chutes here and there. We skin 50m apart – this separation preserves the safety of our progress but also reinforces the feeling of this being an individual journey, uniquely framed by our own influences. It’s vital to stay open, embrace each blind turn, each false summit as part of a process to be absorbed and not fought against. This is especially necessary when tiredness begins to settle in.
As with many long tours, combat skiing finished the day. The buried hairpin turns force an artificial rhythm to the descent. Instead of flow, the mantra is fluid. As the light leaves us, the visual feedback from the snow surface disappears and we have to feel our way with soft compliant legs. Soon the sodium glow of streets and houses paints the dark grey sky with pools of orange focus. Hot sulphurous water used to keep the streets free from snow and ice steams beneath our boots as we remove our skis. Sliding gives way to steps. Those who care less about their skis, or are just better at verge skiing, engage in the often one-legged snow-strip hopping so common at the end of a tour.
As the day unfolded, the layers of beauty were punctuated by the essential skills required to make progress in the mountains. The confidence to enjoy such a day is anchored on many things: the ability to travel without stress, to remain open to an ever-changing landscape and set of challenges, to have the fitness and skills so you can move without having to micro-manage each step.
But ultimately the goal is to create the space to embrace a shift of image if required. To fight against that change in perspective, and narrow your focus to a point where you fail to see the whole picture in pursuit of that one narrow preconceived frame, will ultimately lead to a struggle. This is Zen and the Art of Ski Travel Management.