Quandary: How real do we make teenage adventures?
Big mountains need early starts. Early is not a teen thing and we were a little late out of the gate. Still, it was a beautiful morning and seeing our goal come into view was exciting. Quandary Peak 14,271 ft. Considered one of the easier 14ers to ski it is still an undertaking.
I’ve been waiting a long time for this. Skiing a 14er is no easy task. It requires a large skill set, considerable strength, stamina and a lot of grit. I’ve dreamed about the day and what it might look like. I’ll be honest it looked nothing like this.
Every time we play outside we iron out some inefficiency. This is a process that takes years and benefits from having to overcome big obstacles. I learned more about efficient paddle strokes at the end of a 100 mile kayak weekend than the four years leading up to it.
Quandary is a big obstacle. To summit it you have to put one foot in front of the other for 3,500 vertical feet. For a young man who is coming to terms with the way his body is changing, this is a lot. But, isn’t that the point? Teens need to experience a lot. If Cai was a young native American this is the time when he would be going on a vision quest. He would be given an ordeal to contend with. It would stretch him to his limits. That’s how we find them?
I do not wish to push him too hard. Yet I know I can put up with a lot because I have had to. This is one of the things I love about adventure. The line between misadventure is fine. But, when you come out of the other side you have a whole new understanding. Besides when I take Cai out I can make sure he courts the edge but does not cross over. At some point that safety net is not going to be available.
With this in mind we ground uphill. It was inevitable that it was going to be slow. I knew he was going to be tired at the top. I knew we had a weather window and that snow was coming later that afternoon.
The sun was still shining. The snow was softening up and suggesting a beautiful descent on a thin, velvet veneer of corn. This is the spring skiers happy place. The snow freezes over night and creates a flattish, supportive surface. Then it softens on top. If you time it right then it does not become too soft and it stays supportive. This is heroic snow. You are almost forced to ski well. We were looking forward to nearly 3000ft of it and a consistent alpine slope.
Cai was slowing as we gained height. This is inevitable. He was not as acclimated as I was. I did not want to force him to go faster but he does not know as well as I do how weather changes.
As we approached the summit we met a friend of Cai’s mom. Social media jungle drums had alerted Bill to look out for us. He took a photo of us and we chatted. We then headed for the top. Five minutes later the world was beneath our feet. We could see into the local valleys. But the big views of the morning had been exchanged for cloud. We didn’t stay long. Skins came off, skis went back on. We went through our pre-descent rituals. A few minutes prior we were looking at the lake we were heading to now we could not see 50 yards. It started to snow. The temperature dropped. The wind picked up.
I hoped that dipping below the cloud would return our view. So we opted to continue with our plan of the Christo Couloir. It is a much steeper than the route we came up. I also remembered that it is not a true couloir with cliffs enclosing you on either side. That said there are a lot of rock bands that would give us contrast as we lost visibility.
Christo Couloir would normally take about 30 minutes to ski. A video of people doing it the day before contains folk in shorts. They are pointing it and doing slash turns, whooping and hollering. Our experience was so different. Their fun became our nightmare. The slash cuts and roller balls having softened in the morning had set back up. We know them as death cookies. Our glasses warmed by our breath attracted the blowing snow which then froze to them. The light was so flat we could not make out the surface, or textures at our feet. I knew the route was straightforward from a previous descent. But, mountains have a funny way of being imposing when they choose. We could not make out how steep the line was. We could not see if we had a continuous line of snow to ski. We could not see if the wind had deposited localized slabs of snow that may be prone to avalanche.
It was an adventure. The outcome was uncertain.
As we descended I realized I was glad I was skiing with Cai. I do not have to tell him what to do. I know he will stay in view and will look for islands of safety to ski between. This is something we have developed through shared adventures. There is a level of trust. I am not so sure he felt the same way. It appeared as he thought I may have been on the phone to friends to arrange the weather. He did not seem to like me much.
The thing was we succeeded in descending. We skied out. He was beat but when we talked about what he had achieved it sunk in. He was proud. He forgave me and he had a little window into what he is capable of.
This to me is what it is all about. He can hold his head high knowing he is resilient. When things are not going his way he can remember what he overcame on Quandary. Climbers call it type 2 fun. Something that is enjoyed after the event. But this is what shapes us long after we have left the mountains behind.
How real do we need to make teen adventures? I believe so real they can not avoid the fact that they are incredible people. So real that they can look a person in the eye when they are called useless or lazy and state calmly, "that is not who I am."