For several years, there was a traverse at Bridger Bowl, Montana, that tied me in knots. After a couple hundred feet of manageable dips and doodles on the north end of the Ridge, the traverse took a hard left turn between the vertical mountainside and a 50-foot cliff. Making matters worse was a stubborn old pine tree, about 15 feet tall and 5 inches in diameter, that stood right at the crux. Over the years, the tree's branches had been snapped off by skiers who used it as an oh-shit handle. But the trunk wasn't quite smooth enough for you to whisk by without worrying it might snag a pack strap or rip your jacket and send you tumbling down over the rocks.
I hated that tree. I hated that traverse. I hated my brother, a Bridger local, for taking me on it. But there was always a choice: Take the easy way down, or see what's on the other side.
One of the beautiful elements of skiing is that it presents us with choices every day. Most decisions are small—daffy or spraffy?—with consequences that might tweak your knee but won't end your life. Others walk the line between a life well-lived—dawn patrol after a storm?—and the dark matter that means you better have your systems dialed. It's often hard to tell which is which until you are squared up against the moment, eyes wide as you stare down your own mortality.
In a lot of cases, the difference comes down to a simple left or right turn: left goes to a groomer, the base area, and hot cocoa. Right means you stay high. Nowhere is this more apparent than at backcountry gates and traverses, where the weight of that left-or-right decision typically comes to the fore right about the time you need a new pair of undershorts. Which is to say, we often don't appreciate the decision until it's too late.
I've made that choice to stay high on countless occasions, and questioned my decision-making many times. Maybe my pack felt too heavy, or my hat was too soaked with sweat. Other times it was fatigue, or the time of day, or too much chili for lunch. All those times at Jackson Hole, Big Sky, and Alta where rocky, rutted-out goat paths were necessary evils consisting of the worst snow imaginable. Or that one time in La Clusaz, France, where I had to leap over a failed snow bridge and landed awkwardly on my ice ax, with the tip puncturing my jacket but luckily nothing else.
But that one Bridger traverse got to me every time. I could always see myself getting hung up on the tree before falling over the cliff. My brother typically made it look easy, while I stood paralyzed thinking of my own demise. Just below my skis was a clear path to avoid the nonsense altogether. Many people had already made that decision, evidenced by the chopped-up mank they'd left behind, bypassing the tree and the cliff and the associated anxiety.
It's never fun to be scared, but we do risky things in order to achieve a certain goal: be it a thirst for an untracked patch of powder; the challenge; or, quite honestly, to vividly experience a vertical world of snow, rocks, and gnarly trees that grow in the most impossible places.
So after a minute of contemplation, I'd exhale, slowly ski up to the tree, grab a hold of it, and pause for a beat to look over the cliff, just to make sure it was still there. Then I'd let go and ski safely to the other side.
With the knot of the traverse successfully untied, I'd arrive at the top of a field of powder and give my brother a high five. Finally, the easy way down.
This story originally appeared in the October 2018 (47.2) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.