“Was it worth it?”
I actively try not to cringe when I hear this question. I know it is coming before anyone vocalizes it. I can feel the tension between us heighten. My skin tingles as the anticipation grows in the milliseconds of their hesitation, as they weigh which is more important: avoiding sensitivities or satisfying curiosity. Then I answer with feigned confidence, but the truth is, I still have no idea if it was worth it or not.
The first weekend of February, two partners and myself set off to snag the North Couloir of the Red Castle in the Uinta Wilderness of Utah. I am not sure if it has been skied before. Given the notable athleticism of a high percentage of backcountry skiers in the Salt Lake City area, I would not be surprised if it had. The tricky part is that the couloir rarely fills enough to ski. With the healthy amount of snowfall Utah was blessed with early in the year, we decided to take the gamble and check it out. The trip would require driving 3 hours to the trailhead, traveling 8 miles by sled to the wilderness boundary, and 11 miles on foot to the base of the Red Castle. We planned to hike as far in as daylight would allow and set up camp, ski the couloir the next day, camp again, and head home. This would be my first time winter camping. I kind of questioned if jumping into a two night, remote camp in the middle of winter as opposed to to a single night, few miles off the highway in late March camp was a bad idea, but I wanted to do this trip, and you have to learn sometime right?
Here is what I learned: It. Was. Hard.
Winter camping in the coldest time of year, in the high Uintas on extremely faceted sugary snow is just consistently a little less than comfortable. Flat skinning for miles upon miles is surprisingly more endless than skiing uphill for miles. And the weight of knowing how far you are from civilization or even cell service had more of an affect on my usually up-beat backcountry persona than I expected. But we carried on.
The Red Castle stood small in the distance, steadily growing as we pressed forward. I would watch my feet and count steps by the hundreds. With each glance up, the mountain became more striking. Red jagged cliff faces covered in snow, rising above all the surrounding rolling domes of the Uintas. The dramatic contrast suggests the peak was divinely placed.
At the base of the mountain, it was clear the snow had not settled and filled the couloir like we had hoped. So much work for a non-continuous line. We discussed turning around, we discussed skiing something else, and then we began the ascent. A monotonous cycle of kicking, in steps and pushing the earth below you. I climbed in a body I hardly recognized it felt so tired. Questioning again and again why we do these things. What is the point, are we simply crazy? And yet something keeps us moving, some indescribable passion.
The snow pack changed consistency before we reached the top. An established and unstable windslab sat between us and the victory we had envisioned for months, a gate keeper we had no way of manipulating. My stomach twisted. We came so far, and now whether or not we could achieve our objective was out of our control. That small voice returns, the one that taunts you in your darker moments, telling you it was all a waste.
As we rearranged and transitioned our gear into ski mode in the middle of the steep couloir, (a process I am getting a knack for) I thought a lot about societal constructs of success and failure, of all or nothing. Looking over the serene landscape, lit by the golden late afternoon hour, I felt a renewed understanding of the importance of journey. Through trial and error we grow and revisit our deepest selves. I felt proud and satisfied for coming as far as we did and the new skills I learned. I felt intimidated by the journey back that still laid stretched before my eyes, camp was far enough away we would be hiking well after dark. I skied the mediocre snow to the base and put the skins back on my skis for the endless flat hike out. We were never here for the turns anyway, it was always about the adventure. Little did I know then, turning around early would not be the devastating part of this trip.
People do not ask me if it was worth it because we only got 75% of the line. They ask if it was worth it because after defeat, after the endless haul back, after sleeping a second night in frigid temperatures, I forced my frozen boots on and headed home. As I pulled off my socks at the end of the day to get into the steaming shower, my heart sank at the grey-purple color of the toes on my right foot. Shocked but optimistic, I felt sure it would recover quickly.
Turns out frostbite is a pretty significant injury. My foot swelled for weeks. It blistered. It turned black. It gradually shed all the dead skin. And the new skin is still gaining resiliency each day. I watched storm after storm roll through the rest of February and into March and waited. Waited for the day I could weight my foot. Waited for the day I could walk on it. Waited for the day I could fit it into a shoe, and finally the day I could get it into a ski boot again.
It is now late March.
I hit the corn harvest this weekend, and just left my final doctor appointment at the University Burn Center. They expressed awe at how fast my foot healed and mentioned again and again that I don’t know how lucky I am. They are right, I don’t know. With my “tough it out” mentality, I still simply feel petty about being stupid enough to freeze my foot in the first place. The real dagger was the severity of their tone when I was instructed to never expose my foot to cold temperatures for the next 6 months. The doctor didn’t bother hiding the wide eyes they tend to make when they are giving instructions to someone they think is crazy, who they doubt will listen. For the third time, at the third appointment, I was told my plans to ski Denali this summer were no longer possible.
I walked back to the parking garage. In the privacy of my car I let it settle in. I knew my chances of a significant ski expedition were cut extremely slim in February, but I had to keep hoping for something. I thought maybe if I healed quickly, if I looked into technologies to keep my foot warm, I could still go for it. I just did not want to accept defeat. I cried. I thought of how scared and excited I was to take this chance to push myself in elements I have always dreamed of testing. I reminisced on how stories of mountaineers in movies or on the discovery channel griped my imagination as a young girl. About how my parents, who often question where I came from, never took their child’s desire seriously, about how I stubbornly determined to do it anyway. I toyed with the possibility that this injury just goes to show I am not cut out for the kind of adventuring I always longed for, and then put those thoughts away. I thought about what a loop my season was thrown into by one night of ski boots in sub freezing temperatures. And I still wondered if that trip to the Red Castle was worth it.
Here is the conclusion I have found peace with. If I had not gone that weekend, I would have been able to chase all the lines I wanted this year. I would not have sat in solitude for weeks with feeble attempts to distract myself with reading, writing, and creating art. Failing because my body was too restless to allow my mind to focus. I would not have slipped in and out of depressive states, because the remedy I have learned to cope with these states was no longer available to me. I would still be trying to think of every possible way I could raise money for Denali, and dreaming about my first trip to Alaska, a place that has always been quietly but persistently waiting for me. I have missed so many experiences because of nothing more than a frozen boot liner. There is still more I will miss, because my foot is now forever susceptible to refreezing. I do not have the power to change what happened, but I do not regret it anymore. Perhaps it was a small step backwards that was necessary for progression. Perhaps it was my body’s way to knock my soul back into check. A single trial endured make us stronger athletes than the combination of all the successful lines we have completed. These hard days are the ones that stimulate our growth, that make us question why we are drawn to an alpinist lifestyle. The time forced away from those spiritually charged settings nurtures our desire to return, and the appreciation for the life we lead. I did not grow physically stronger this season, and my dreams of pushing those physical limits were broken. But I have grown mentally stronger and developed a greater confidence in myself, my abilities, and my identity. These personal revelations are building blocks in my journey as a mountain adventurist, and I feel more drive to push my passion than ever before. That is worth everything.
*All images by Michael Aasheim Photography