It was an entirely cloudless morning. I was following a Russian woman toward a couloir deep in the backcountry somewhere in the middle of her country. I barely knew her, but she seemed good-natured. Toni was a schoolteacher in her 30s from Irkutsk who spoke conversational English with a British accent. Midway into the two-hour, 2,000-foot climb, I paused and wiped sweat from my brow as she gained distance on me.
I looked up at the 40-degree, 500-foot-wide slope she side-hilled across in order to reach the trees on the ridgeline. It was an obvious avalanche path. I had that familiar pit of anxiety. What was I doing here? Literally in Siberia, I felt like I was moving farther still from my comfort zone with each step.
Toni had only skied for four years, but she was hooked. She taught herself by following people who skied faster than her at a nearby hill with a few chairlifts. Eventually, she discovered a niche clan of backcountry skiers and did everything she could to be a part of it, driving five hours to these remote mountains every weekend. Now she was known in these woods.
For Toni, skiing provided an identity and community she never had. Growing up, her father didn't allow her to play sports, and her mother still didn't understand why she spent so much time in the mountains. Toni said skiing taught her the independence to go after the things she wanted out of life on her own.
Toni's sense of earnest pride warmed everything around her. Her big blue eyes grew animated whenever she spoke about her newfound love of skiing.
"Skiing for me is a journey to the mountains and a feeling of freedom," Toni told me. "I enjoy being first to put a line on the slope, shred the powder snow, and ride at a safe speed. It's a great thing to ski tour up the mountain and ski down with the greatest pleasure. I can stay in harmony with the nature, leaving behind all the routine."
Toni had reached the trees across the way. I noticed the silence. How rare, I thought. How far I had come to find it, only to realize it was as frightening as it was beautiful. I started dragging one ski in front of the other, almost holding my breath as I slithered across the slope. I quickly caught up as she zigzagged her way between the pines.
We didn't say much until we emerged from the treeline at the top of the 1,000-foot-long couloir. The mountains surrounded us, revealing their endless nuance, their untouched expanse, our own smallness. We passed around tea from a thermos. Then we got ready.
A number of rocks peppered the wide mouth before the slope funneled into a 20-foot wide channel full of fresh snow between walls. I was nervous, but also content. I realized I had been here before, after all. I had embraced the unknown and put my trust in someone not despite our different worlds, but because of what we shared: At our core, we were skiers. Toni's enthusiasm came into light. Skiing has a way of expanding worlds, connecting them through a language and faith unto their own.
Toni dropped in first, sliding into the entrance with her wide eyes. The snow was velvety. It made a deep woosh with each turn, and I could hear her giggle as snow sailed toward the edges of the run. I watched her until she disappeared below me. Then I buckled my boots tight, lowered my goggles, and followed her into the abyss.
This story originally appeared in the October 2017 (46.2) issue of POWDER. To have great feature stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.