Because shared adversity breeds intimacy, it’s hard to beat winter ski touring

By Leonie Sherman

Couple camping in the snow

Photo by Bill Pilling

I have a friend who will not commit to a man unless she has beaten him at a game and deemed his reaction to losing satisfactory. She wants to make sure his ego is not too fragile to handle a strong, smart woman in his life. She wants to know how he deals with discomfort and embarrassment. She thinks this is the best way to test a guy for long-term potential.

Me? I just take my prospective partners winter ski touring.

Is there a better way to determine compatibility than to share a human-size zip-lock bag for 14 hours? Isn’t the true test of a man’s character the way he handles the task of melting snow for morning coffee? Can he maintain good cheer while chipping away at a frozen block of Nutella armed only with a titanium spork?

Lazing around on a beach enjoying a comfortable vacation is for established and complacent couples. Shared adversity breeds intimacy. But shared adversity that involves whiskey and poetry and requires cuddling will seal a relationship better than guiding a hypothermic partner down an icy slope after 15-hours of climbing — so don’t take it too far.

I came to winter ski touring through a devotion to the High Sierra and a new boyfriend who was obsessed with skiing — at least the lift-served variety. We met by chance in August in Darwin Canyon. He stalked me along Roper’s High Route, tromping into the high country to meet me on his days off, bearing gifts of smoked salmon and freshly baked cookies. Our shared love of the mountains brought us through the warm months and landed us at winter’s doorstep.

Snow spelled our demise. He got me free lift tickets and I sulked about the noise and crowds and manicured runs. I pushed him to winter camping and explorations and he cursed the variable snow conditions and frosty mornings. Even the glories of spring skiing couldn’t heal the scars left by a winter of struggle against cold and control and each other’s irritating habits.

Before the snow melted on Piute Pass, we were through.

Despite the hardship and the failed relationship I was hooked. One pre-dawn ski around Tuolumne Meadows, watching a full moon set as the stars fade and the sunrise casts a rosy shadow over Unicorn and Cathedral Peaks, and you’d be hooked too. When conditions are harsh and unpredictable, moments intensify and you are left with shards of memories that never fade. Those moments and memories have a distinctive glow when you experience them with someone special.

“Even the glories of spring skiing couldn’t heal the scars left by a winter of struggle against cold and control and each other’s irritating habits. Before the snow melted on Piute Pass, we were through.”

Any glossy ski rag will tell you what gear you need for winter touring. In the Golden State we are blessed with an abundance of amazing locales for ski touring — the western slope of the Sierra, the Shasta/Lassen region, the Trinity Alps, and even some of the ranges rising from the smog of Southern California. But in my mind you can’t top the Eastern Sierra for pure unadulterated wild beauty. The rangers in Bishop or Mammoth Lakes can give you reliable trail conditions and ideas about where to go.

Rather than relaying those tracks, I’m going to give you some tips on how to keep love alive when you’re neck deep in snow and it’s 10 below.

Be Humble
Arrogance will introduce you to a world of dramatic misery and piss your partner off. If you fail to heed the weather gods, they may remind you of your puny existence on this great spinning, breathing dust ball.

Photo by Bill Pilling

Once I let a similarly inexperienced but over-confident boyfriend convince me that tomorrow’s high-pressure forecast was more important than today’s horrendous conditions. Thus, we found ourselves skiing across Minaret Summit battling 90-mile-an-hour winds. Once we gained the top of the pass, the normally mellow descent proved even burlier than the climb; we needed to plant our poles and exert incredible effort to avoid being blown back uphill.

The same boyfriend led me into the Ghost Forest near Badger Pass in Yosemite on the shortest day of the year. We failed to take note of an unseasonable rainstorm that had occurred the previous day. As the temperature plummeted, the water in the dead trees froze and expanded so rapidly that the snags exploded like gunshots. We lay awake all night shivering, waiting for the shrapnel of dead trees to rip through our flimsy shelter.

The mountains are in charge and that’s part of the joy of being out in winter. Most people are charmed by humility and repulsed by conceit. Where better to highlight your modesty than in a blizzard at 10,000 feet in December?

Slow Down
One December evening I shared the Tuolumne ski hut with a man who had tried to break the speed record for climbing all of California’s 14,000-foot peaks. We huddled around the wood-stove as he recounted his days with famously speed-obsessed climber Hans Florine.

Afterward I asked him, “What’s the rush?”

He never came up with a satisfying answer.

Barring horrific weather or acute health issues, I’m not sure there is ever a decent reason to rush through an exquisite place with a charming companion. But I am sure that short of those emergencies, there is never a decent reason to rush through an exquisite place with a charming companion in the winter.

In December, you don’t need to go far to find magic in the Range of Light. Your favorite summer campground, normally bustling with cars and people, is a desolate wilderness in deepest darkest winter. You will find more solitude four miles from the road head than you can find almost anywhere in August.

You’re not going to make 20 miles in deep winter unless you enjoy hypothermia, hypoglycemia and fatigue. Even if you do enjoy those hardships, there is every chance your partner will not. Take some time to enjoy where you are. Make camp before it gets dark and cold. Gaze at the multitude of winter stars. There’s nowhere to get to anyways; you’re already there.

Photo by Daniel Kangas

Mentally Prepare
It’s going to be cold. You’re going to be lying down in your sleeping bag for 14 hours. Your water bottle will freeze. Each morning you will jam your foot into a block of ice shaped exactly like your ski boot. These are the harsh realities of winter ski touring.

But have you ever snuggled your sweetie and drifted into a dream only to be interrupted by the hysterics of your alarm clock? Ever longed for just one more hour of spooning and sweetness, but work and obligations force a hasty exit from bedded bliss?

Winter camping is the answer. You are sharing a space hardly larger than a double bed with someone you like and there is nothing to do but hang out and make out and talk and laugh and drink whiskey and read poetry out loud and tell stories.

My friend Jason loves taking long car rides with friends. He calls it “captive time.” Winter ski touring and camping provide the same quality of connection, but without the noise and traffic and fuel costs.

Proper Equipment
The specifics of which skis and down jacket will serve you best are beyond the scope of this article. I only want to offer a few ideas about how to stay close enough for comfort but allow enough space to avoid chafing during your ski-touring days and, more importantly, nights.

Get yourself a three-person tent. That lightweight two-person mountaineering shelter will only make you cranky after 10 hours of forced confinement. You won’t be able to find your socks, or your headlamp, or the whiskey. With a three-person tent you can spread out a little, organize your stuff and make yourself at home.

Do not zip your sleeping bag to your lover’s. When you double the circumference of a circle you quadruple the area, which means you will be warming the dead air inside your zipped up bags, and not each other. What you need is one warm bag and one expander or doubler. This nifty piece of equipment zips to your sleeping bag and transforms it into a cozy double bed.

Of course, your companion is the most critical component of your equipment. John Krakauer says it best in his brilliant essay, On Being Tentbound:

“A candidate’s repertoire of amusing stories, a store of gossip and a sense of humor that blossoms under duress should be weighed at least as heavily as endurance on the trail or ice-climbing expertise.”

Or how cute they look in their ski outfit, I might add.

Photo by Leonie Sherman

Even if ski touring does not bring you a partner, it will show you a person’s true nature in a hurry. When you go through so many emotional highs and lows, so much beauty and suffering together, you develop a certain affinity and closeness that can never be erased. They may not prove to be spouse material, but they are at least the fabric of a lifelong friendship.

A writer and self-defense instructor based in Santa Cruz, Leonie Sherman still thinks a snowplow is the most useful ski technique to have in your skill set. She has spent over 50 nights shivering in a tent over the past four winters and cannot wait for the snow so she can take her new partner for a spin.