Photo of David Sartwell

By Dr. DavidSartwell
Photos by Peter Hines

I Love Tree Skiing


Sierra at Tahoe---Dick Butler dipped his skis over the edge and slipped into a downhill field of giant Tamaracks and boulders, his diminutive form belying the wiry strength and iron will beneath. I stopped a few yards from where he launched and stared down the mountain, watching his blue jacket flit through the dark brown trunks. Here there were no trails, no man-made avenues of groomed snow. Here there was only that which nature intended.

The fine snowflakes that started falling the night before just kept coming down, adding to the knee deep blanket of powder that sat lightly on the boulder-strewn downslope. I love skiing with Dick. He really understands the essence of tree skiing. It is not about speed and power. It is about grace under pressure. It is like dancing a ballet on snow crystals except here a mistake can really hurt.

Powder skiing is that fine line where fantasy and reality meet. When you find that rhythm where decision making becomes subconscious rather than worrisome, when you get to that skill point where you can relax and the whole run slows down in your brain, trees don't go whipping by, they ghost on past.

Skiing in the trees at Sierra at Tahoe
Dick Butler cuts some fresh tracks in the powder at Sierra at Tahoe

There is an intimate relationship between powder snow and me. Neither of us actually speak, but I sometimes feel the opening of the door, the beckoning of the finger, the seductive music welling up from underneath, and the flashing out of focus boulders and trees that go rocketing by. The mistress of the deep crystals waves me in close and protects me, allowing me to penetrate her most private of parts and then letting me float through this cold smoke as if there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, only the here and now.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said that "A goal without a plan is just a wish." However, you can not plan a descent down through a mountainside of trees and boulders. I guess it follows, then, that a drop down a tree-covered vertical snow field is simply a wish that has come true.

Skiing in the trees at Sierra at Tahoe
The author makes turns in the fresh powder at Sierra at Tahoe

For some the ultimate thrill is to go where there is no path and leave a trail. I want something different.. I want to go where no one has gone before and let the wind and snow cover my run so no one will ever know I have been there.

Carve your own patterns; be a performance snow artist; look back up the mountain and marvel at your own creative genius. Grooming a trail is like putting a goopy gel in your hair to make it behave. Powder, on the other hand, is like the long flowing tresses of Mother Nature that move gently in the wind, enfolding you in their thick lovely strands.

I pitched down into the sea of green-spotted white, floating on an uncertain medium. The wide powder skis disappeared into the fluff and all I could see, if I looked down, was a vee of snow peeling away from the top of my boots. But in powder skiing you don't have time to look down.

Skiing in the trees at Sierra at Tahoe
Dick Butler skis past a huge Tamarack tree

In fact, what you are forced to do is to hunt for the white openings. If you concentrate on the trees or boulders you are in trouble. There has to be an internal calmness that recognises that every turn is a leap of faith; you have to know in your heart that there will be a way out even when you can't immediately see it. I know I am there only at the pleasure of the snow Gods. I never assume that I am in control because I know there is always the danger of a stump just under the surface of the snow, put there to remind me of my limitations.

Unlike on groomed runs where you power up the downhill ski, here you get both skis equally involved in floating just underneath the surface of the snow. Gentle pressure, forward movement, never looking down. Find the snow, find that small chute that gives you the lane down the mountain. When you put your skis together all you need is enough space to get the core of your body through. Sometimes the opening is so narrow you have to turn your shoulders to fit.

Think of a narrow doorway in your house. If you can find an open lane about that size you can move on down. The trick is to seek out a series of doorways as you drop through the trees.. Every turn you have to believe that there will be another opening revealed to you when you round this boulde

Skiing in the trees at Sierra at Tahoe
David Sartwell rounds a Tamarack stump in the deep powder

The lovely part of big mountain tree skiing is that it is not a small glade off some major trail where you hide for a few turns and then break out onto a groomed surface. In really big mountain tree skiing, once you commit to the drop you are in it for the duration.

That doesn't mean you can't stop and enjoy the moment, but what it does mean is that you are in the woods where all you will hear is only the occasional locational shout from your companions that have joined you in this roller coaster of joy.

What fascinates me about barking is that you have to make a series of choices, sometimes in a nanosecond, so that you avoid hitting something very hard. You have to turn when Mother Nature demands, not when you happen to want to. You don't control the course, you only control your reaction to it. This is not a hostile environment until you introduce speed and movement. Our own speed brings the challenge. It is in that process of control that I find the most solace.

No one is in control of my movement. No one else says turn right or left. No one else says go fast here or slow there. It is my challenge and I control the pace of my movement.

Skiing in the trees at Sierra at Tahoe
Dick Butler "Barking" the trees

At first I struggled a bit. All I could hear was my heartbeat and air rushing into demanding lungs, my mind was hollering out commands, and I struggled to find the spot. I was trying too hard to be analytical. Then I began to relax.

A really great Robert Johnson blues song started to work its way up from the recesses of my mind. Conscious choice, which take time to process, started to give way to reaction. My body started to simply move. Soon I became this tiny figure on the surface of this huge mountain, dropping down its uncaring sides, finding spaces where there were none, turning and dropping ever downward. The music swelled, the rhythm came and then even that soon fell away as I simply disappeared.

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