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A Fool Rides Into The Backcountry – By Reilly Capps

Okay, students, listen up. This is Skiers Safety 102.

Instead of lecturing, Im going to tell you a story of a ski run I took off the back side of the Telluride Ski Resort. You tell me whether the decisions I made were smart — or dumber than Jessica Simpson.

Through Forest Service gates that are at the top of Lift 9, I entered the out-of-bounds area behind Telluride known as Lower Bear Creek. This is some of the best skiing you will ever find anywhere, like skiing through your own private ski resort. All it takes to navigate it are some common sense tips.

First tip: You dont want to get caught in the dark. So start early.

Me? I like to take a long lunch.

So it was 2 p.m. before I headed out.

Second tip: Never ski alone.

I like to ski with a buddy. I called him and left a message, but getting messages returned takes forever. So I went solo.

Third tip: If you do backcountry, read the avalanche report. Dont go if its high.

I always read the avalanche report. In fact, I myself had typed up that days avalanche forecast in that days newspaper. It was high. In my report, Id even quoted what the dude from the Knights Templar says in Indiana Jones And the Last Crusade: My soul is prepared, how is yours?

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Fourth tip: Wear a beacon, shovel, probe and Avalung, tools that might help you survive an avalanche.

I was wearing all these things. I knew how useful these tools are. I forgot theyre totally useless when youre by yourself.

Anyway, I blew through the gates and into the luxurious snow, and kept skiing trackless, endless, weightless powder until suddenly I found myself in a beautiful bowl, lit by the suns soft slanting afternoon rays. I was stoked on my place in the mountains and in the universe until I realized there werent any other tracks from any other skiers.

This is a good place to be on a regular ski slope. But there are a lot of cliffs in the backcountry behind Telluride. If there are no tracks where you are, the run probably ends abruptly.

I decided to traverse back toward my regular route called, conveniently, Regular Route. But after a long traverse, I found myself at the top of a tall cliff. Taking off my skis, I climbed around the cliff, huffing and puffing (Im nearly in the same shape Walruses are) until I arrived at oops … another cliff. I hiked around that cliff until, over a ridge, was a slope I knew had to be the Regular Route, even if there werent any other tracks there. Thank God, I though. Since it was starting to get dark. I skied down the steep slope, making wide turns around big rocks until I came to another cliff.

Oops oops oops. This was a huge cliff, maybe 40 feet fall. One I realized was not part of Regular Route. This chute must have been in the area locals call the Suicide Chutes. I only have a few friends who can ski the Suicide Chutes, and most of them are due back at the insane asylum before dark.

I was unable to climb out. Too steep was the slope, too deep the powder. Inching toward the precipice, I could see that it was just a black band of cliffs wrapped around a dagger-steep canyon. It was so narrow I knew could never land a jump. Plus, I was worried a mini-avalanche might come down with me, burying me with no one to dig me out.

A call to ski patrol was my last resort. I pulled out my shiny, futuristic iPhone, which knows which song is on the radio and the driving directions from Denver to Singapore. But it couldnt get a single bar. I have never been madder at AT&T.

I was running out of daylight. And I was totally out of options.

After promising myself I wouldnt wet myself, I took off my skis and poles. I took off my jacket and backpack, tied them together and tied them to a tree. Then I scooted forward, hung on to the jacket/backpack/rope, which shortened the fall by about five feet, and I fell.

Not gracefully, not in control. Like an action figure flicked off a two-story building. Like a stunt double in an old Western. Like a sack of potatoes. A tumbling, sliding fall, grabbing onto a treeroot for a second, then a 20 foot free fall onto a little ledge that ragdolled me forward, so that I flopped another 15 feet into the couloir, landing headfirst.

Fifth tip: Wear a helmet. Falls on your head can be painful.

I own a nice helmet. It was still sitting in my hall closet.

Sixth tip: Do not be an idiot like me.

But I landed okay. I dislocated my shoulder, okay. And a pole disappeared, okay. But otherwise I survived the fall okay.

I checked the rest of my body. I was okay! In pain, but okay. I skied out gingerly. I told almost no one about this. And, class, lets keep this embarrassing episode between us, okay?

Okay?

Now, were these the moves of a smart man? Surely not. If you want to ski gnarly, steep terrain, Im probably not your best guide. In fact, you should probably do the opposite of whatever Im doing. Now, class … hey, class, where you going? You havent lost faith in me, have you? Why are you all walking out? I still have so much to cover! Class! Class! Hey class!

Reilly Capps is writing a book about traveling around the world on other people’s couches. He can be reached via reillycapps.com.