Friday, April 28, 2006

Powder day infuses perfect return on tax day

Simplicity rules in high country at Tornak Hut


The entrance to Tornak Hut welcomes weary backcountry travelers to its simple comforts.

Among most of my friends and family living outside the Wood River Valley, powder turns were a very low priority on the morning of April 15. But me and my hardy band of friends touring and snowshoeing to Sun Valley Trekking's Tornak Hut, thoughts of a white tax day reigned supreme.

Meeting at 8 a.m. in a dreary, drizzly Ketchum Park & Ride Lot, low expectations had taken hold. Forecasts for the weekend set the rain-snow line high, around 8,000 feet. The hut sits in the Smoky Mountains at roughly 8,500 feet; we were looking at a wet climb and maybe even terrible skiing.

Early skinning up Easley Face was saturated. Skis sunk, skins slid backward and we took turns learning the finer points of getting up from a fall in bottomless rotten slush. Add a 50-pound pack to the awkward free-heel acrobatics and I felt like Sisyphus trying to roll my boulder up Richard Dreyfus' "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" mashed potatoes monument.

Perseverance prevailed. Near 7,500 feet, the rain turned to grapple that soon turned to snow. Wet potatoes hardened to a spongy crust and happy skins slid like pucks across air hockey tables.

The wide skins on my backcountry sticks were so happy they screamed. On short downhills I bent into a stooped crouch and the velvety strips emitted a satisfying high pitched whine—jet engines warming up for takeoff—that increased with my speed.

On backcountry tours, you become one with your equipment and, for better or worse, you are the sum of its many parts. When the gear fails you (one leg gets stuck on a steep kick turn), you are crippled, lame, the weak link in the party. But when you find synchronicity, the rhythm, feel and even sounds strike a musical balance. Over the course of a hike, your discordant middle school brass band practice evolves into a harmonic jazz trio groove session.

Nothing is as well suited for mood rehabilitation as a high country hut. The final leg to Tornak is actually a gentle descent ending in a four-foot cornice drop onto a too-flat landing, itself a keen provider of some skin-sticking crash entertainment.

With this winter's epic snowfall, Tornak was no more than two quietly smoking chimneys poking out of a bottomless snowpack. After our initial surprise that we would not, in fact, be yurt-bound (a yurt being a strictly round structure), we dropped our packs and settled into a palpable sense of ease. Our group of 13 was overwhelmed by a peace and goodwill that seems, in retrospect, cliched and hard to explain.

We made fires, melted snow for drinking water and rested content. At 8,500 feet with pine smoke wafting from the hut's two ovens, we found solace in a—temporarily at least—simpler life. Tibetan prayer flags draped across the entrance. Often I think of them of empty gestures of spiritual affectation, but the significance of their colorful strokes against the whiteness were, I thought, never more poignant.

Simplicity carried us through as we stuffed 12 sweating bodies into the wood-fired tiny sauna, put on a huge pot of jambalaya with chorizo, okra and mushrooms, and took a respectable dent out of a our massive bag of wine.

As night fell, the snow followed suit. It started in blowing fits at sundown; by midnight it was dumping at Tornak.

"It's probably raining in town," we said.

Morning progressed unlike any April 16 any of us had ever dared to predict. A quick climb in silent whiteness and dig an avalanche pit. All was safer than we had expected. Cold smoke turns ensue.

The tour out was a bit less ideal. Hours after setting out, piled into the back of a pickup, the slide danger anxiety and uncertain route frustrations fade quickly into memory. The vision of a dozen lines snaking down a backcountry bowl remain.

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