The week of August 13 - 20, 2016, Jim Smoak, John Willardson, Drew Willardson and I went backpacking in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. The original impetus for the trip was that I had been on several prior hiking and backpacking trips to GTNP and I had approached a particularly high altitude and somewhat difficult trail section called Paintbrush Divide two times - once each from the north and the south. Both times I was feeling tired by that part of the trip and had taken a bail out route; I had not crossed the divide. I suggested this trip for the purpose of crossing Paintbrush Divide and the Willardsons agreed to go. Then Jim Smoak joined us, and he and his wife Luci graciously offered to host us by running our shuttles to and from the airport, the trailheads and allowing us to stay at their cabin in Moose, WY, the days when we were not on the trail. Jim also provided us the supplies that could not be brought with us on the airplane - bear spray and stove fuel.10/24/200307/15/200202/15/2002
In February of 2002 Carroll Lowe and I started our several year long tradition of an annual snow skiing trip to a western state. We started big by going to Salt Lake City and skiing at a half dozen resorts. Our good friend Annie Garwood was our travel agent, so she made the arrangements for our flights and hotel in Salt Lake City. Like a good mother hen, she called us several times during the trip to be sure we were okay.
The trip began on a tough note. Our flight left Charlotte, NC, at 6:45 a.m. on a Saturday. Carroll drove to my cabin to pick me up about 3 a.m. The weather was completely foggy. We could barely see the roads. We even missed the turn off NC-115 to Harmony and had to backtrack a few feet.
The first couple days we skied together at Alta Resort and Park City Resort. Carroll is a ski patrol member at Appalachian Ski Mountain in Blowing Rock. He is a better skier than me. He would usually head for the black diamond and double black diamond slopes while I warmed up on the greens and then opted for the blues. After a few hours or a half day of practice, I would try a black diamond or two.
On my first trip to a western ski resort a couple years earlier with a bunch of bankruptcy lawyers, we went to Park City. I had brazenly ridden the farthest lift to the highest, steepest, ungroomed slope, not even paying attention to the fact that it was a double black diamond. I thought, with all this deep snow, how hard could it be? Little did I know. The snow was older, consolidated, dense and tracked up. It was like trying to ski in a plowed field, hanging sideways on a mountain. I got the stuffing beat out of me. I was afraid I would never make it alive to the end of the run. Eventually I figured out to take off my skis and walk to the bottom of the slope. Then I was lost and did not know how to find the lodge or the closest lift. Some other skiers happened by and gave me directions. After that, I learned to follow the signs for both difficulty and direction.
After a couple days of sunshine, blue sky and mostly older, consolidated snow, we went to Snowbasin Resort. We got in my first ever big powder snow dump. We were socked in by fog and several feet of new snow falling in several hours. Once more in my hubris, I thought, with all this fresh, soft powder, how hard could it be? Again I went to near the top of the mountain, and promptly got lost. I was not really afraid of finding my way back to the lodge, since all the slopes lead downward in that direction. The real problem was the cloud cover and thickly falling snow meant I could not see two feet in front of me. And my glasses were completely fogged over. I could not tell where to go or where to turn. Eventually, I made it to the bottom. In the lodge shop I got my first pair of ski goggles. Visibility was still poor, but at least I could see a little better.
Skiing in deep powder is way more fun than in consolidated snow, but it still takes work. It is just different. If the powder is only a foot or two deep, it is wonderfully creamy feeling. If it three or four feet deep, it requires a whole new technique I can best describe as soaring. I tried to get into the soaring at Snowbasin, but the experience was too new for me to get very good. I mostly floundered. It is not true that deep powder snow is easy to ski. The snow will pack under the skis like real tall railroad rails, and it is easy to lose your balance and fall off to one side of the rail. It is more fun, though.
Then I tried something totally new to me. Carroll and I drove our rental car east of Salt Lake City to Little Cottonwood Canyon. Carroll dropped me off on the south side of the road at a trail head located at Jordan Pines campground in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, while he continued up the canyon to Snowbird Resort. He would leave me to my own devices for the day and come back to pick me up at a certain time in the afternoon. I had with me my randonee skis with bindings that can be locked down or left free in the heels. The skis also had skins that can be attached to the bottoms to facilitate hiking up a mountain in the snow where there are no mechanical lifts.
The first thing I saw after Carroll drove off was a big Forest Service sign listing all the dangers of skiing deep snow in the back country. It also listed all the kinds of equipment that are required - including avalanche transceivers, snow shovel, avalanche probe poles and a group of other people. I did not have any of those things. If I got caught alone in the back country, I could actually be arrested. Very fortunately, as I read the sign, a group of back country skiers drove up and let me join them. They gave me a quick course in deep snow travel. Among other things, it is deadly. People have been known to simply lose their balance and fall over into eight feet deep, soft snow and be left hanging upside down from their skis. They could not dig themselves out or get back upright and died there.
After getting oriented, we had a good time skiing up the mountain on our skins. This group was not hard core. We stayed on existing trails and avoided avalanche chutes. The going was fairly easy and I was fitter than most of the members, so eventually I moved to near the front of the line. I bravely made a few short side trips into deep, soft, untracked snow and was chastened by now difficult were even the simplest maneuvers. Just making a 180 degree turn was a yoga-like exercise in body control and mental concentration.
Then came the fun part! We took off our skins and skied back down the mountain in big, swooping turns. As long as you keep moving the deeper, softer snow is less dangerous, or at least more likely to hold you up when you start to fall. Back country skiing yields less downhill time than at a lift served resort, but it feels better to earn your turns.
At the appointed time, Carroll picked me up beside the road at the trailhead. I was quite tired and really enjoyed supper and a good sleep that night.
For our last day we chose to go back to Alta. I think it is my favorite resort. It is more basic and has fewer amenities than the other resorts. But it is a pure skier's mountain. It is known internationally for the most snowfall, smallest crowds and the longest lasting powder in the world. On the lifts I heard other skiers speaking more foreign languages at Alta than anywhere else that we have been.
As we flew home, we made plans for our next year's trip to Jackson Hole, but that is another story.01/10/2001
One thing I have learned about life is that giving a little bit more effort than the average guy, maybe just about 10% more, is some times enough to open up a whole new world of fun.' Putting up with a 0 degree weather and 4 feet of snow, when it would be easier to stay home by the fireplace, may yield your best day ever of powder skiing.' Dealing with buckets of rain may show you the sky clearing scene that produces an award winning photograph.' Handling hordes of mosquitoes may bring to your landing net the largest rainbow trout of your career.' Climbing the extra half mile of altitude may reveal an awe inspiring vista that stretches for miles.' Dealing with a difficult to handle new piece of gear may be the ticket to a whole new sport.'01/20/2000
The first month that Bob Laney, Kimberly (then Laney, now Naegelen) and Leslie (then Dancy, now Greer) was with the McElwee Firm, in January 2000, the Firm sprang for an all expense paid ski trip to Big Sky, MT. I thought, I could get used to this! Is this a great law firm or what? (Then) partner (now solo attorney) Chris Lane had settled a big decedent's estate case and earned a large fee. Rather than have it all go to profit, Billy McElwee and Chris agreed to spend some of it in recreation for the attorneys and their families. Karen McElwee chose Big Sky because it was near where she was raised and it had great family appeal.
Our group was a large crowd of about eight attorneys and about ten spouses and children. Bright and early one morning we flew out of Charlotte. After arriving at the Montana airport we rode a shuttle bus to the Big Sky resort. We stayed in a hotel right beside the slope. Most of us could check the snow conditions right outside our windows.
Scott, spouse of lawyer associate Beth, was the best skier in our crowd. Several times he rode the highest lift to the top of Lone Mountain and skied down the double black diamond slope. One time he took Billy's daughter Mary Catherine's husband Brian Mendenhall with him to the top of Lone Mountain. Brian was over his head and had such a big fall that the called it a yard sale ' his gear was scattered all over the slope. Fortunately, nobody was injured.
Another lift, the next-to-highest, went to the upper east slope of Lone Mountain. This lift had huge exposure ' between some of the towers it stretched what seemed like a hundred feet above the ground. It must have been an old lift because it did not have a safety lap bar. Every time I rode it the winds pushed it around in the ski and scared the stuffing out of me. I found the lift to be worse than the single black diamond slope. On one of those high mountain runs I was in several feet of powder snow when my ski bindings broke. I had to search for about 10 minutes in the deep snow to find the part and put it back together with my Leatherman tool.
It snowed on us several times that week. I loved getting into the new powder and feeling the creamy smooth sensation of skiing on a foot of frosted air.
Billy excelled in skiing at high speeds nearly straight down the groomed slopes. He did not have much use for fresh powder or moguls, but he did not need to traverse back and forth to slow down. Billy left a wake of snow like the jet stream of an airplane. Karen and Will were also excellent skiers and spent a fair amount of time with Billy. Will's wife Lani and Kimberly were somewhat newer skiers and needed to be encouraged to stay on the slopes for very long. I personally liked to take the mid-level lifts, blues and greens, and traverse the slopes, snooping in the trees, looking for pockets of powder and unskied snow.
Near the end of the trip I found a snowshoe trail that started at the lodge and wandered out of bounds, up a small mountain, to the southwest of the main slopes. My equipment was randonee skis. That meant the binding toe was hinged and the binding heel could be clamped down for downhill skiing, or unclamped for walking uphill. To give the ski traction for going uphill, I had skins, or pieces of fabric that attached to the bottom of the ski. At the top of the mountain the skins were removed to expose the slick bottoms of the skis for normal downhill skiing.
One morning I packed a lunch and took off up the snowshoe trail. The trail had not been used since it last snowed and was covered by several feet of fresh powder. After a couple hours I made it to the top of the hill and had a great view of Lone Mountain to the northeast. I carefully removed my skis and daypack and sat down to lunch. I say 'carefully' because the deep, soft snow made it hard to keep my balance, and if I dropped something, I might not be able to find it. The run back down the trail to the lodge was a fun exercise in making swooping first track turns in fresh powder.
It was a great trip. Many thanks to Billy and Karen for making all the arrangements. Maybe if I can settle a big enough case we can do it again.12/15/1999
Early one winter weekend in the late 1990's, Cassie Stone decided to go biking on the Virginia Creeper Trail with her friend and employee Martha Rizoti and their myriad children. All the kids were in their early teens except for Katie Stone, who was in her late teens. Since I was familiar with the trail and knew both families, I was invited to go along as an adult leader. All the kids were excited to do anything outdoors, especially the boys. That is, all except Katie. She was being pushed to go against her will.11/15/1998
In November of 1998 my good friend Bill Booth invited me to join him on an elk hunting trip to the Wyoming Range in west central Wyoming. Our guide and outfitter would be Chuck Thornton. Chuck was a retired game warden from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Bill had already been on several fishing trips with Chuck in the summer with his family. This was to be Bill's first elk hunting trip. I did not want to spend that kind of money, so for a discount, I went without a gun but with fishing gear. I tagged along on the daily hunts and fished in the beaver dammed streams near camp in the evenings.01/15/1998
One winter day in the late 1990's, we got a good snow. I wanted to get a more natural outdoor experience than skiing laps at one of the lift served resort slopes. So I took my cross county skis to Cone Estate on the Parkway outside of Blowing Rock, NC. Cone is laced with carriage paths that make for wonderful walking in the warmer seasons. When covered with snow, the trails are perfect for cross-country skiing. Most winter days find dozens of Boone and Blowing Rock area skiers traversing the horse paths.05/10/1995
In late spring of 1995, my friend Ed Martin called me to go backpacking in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Ed is like Jim Smoak, a tall, strong, rangy guy who is a natural backpacker. Ed was a Morehead Scholar at UNC Chapel Hill, which requires both brains and athleticism. He still has plenty of both. On this trip he invited about three other guys, all good buddies from First Baptist Church North Wilkesboro, which we both attended, or from Lowe's, where Ed worked.