A New Wilderness: COVID-19 Through the Eyes of a Backcountry Skier

When Alaskan skier Alex Lee came down from the mountains, the world had all changed. He knew exactly what to do.

On March 14, I woke up in my sleeping bag. I put on down pants, stuffed cold toes into stiff boots, and set to melting snow for water, taking my hands out of big mittens just long enough to turn the knob on my stove. It took four hours for the sun to crest the mountain ridge flanking the valley.

Malcolm, Chris, and I had spent the week skiing in the Neacola Mountains of south central Alaska. We had wanted to have fun, get a little scared, and slide around in a beautiful place—and we did. It was mostly bad snow and good conversation, with just enough perfect pow to forgive the wind-board jump turns and bitter cold. Sastrugi, snow pits, and whiskey kept us motivated. Only after three days of exploring did we add powder, couloirs, and sunburns to the mix.

Our camp was in Lake Clark National Park, about 100 miles southwest of Anchorage. Normally, I look at these mountains wistfully from my deck. This time I was there, among some of the most picturesque ski terrain in the world.

ABOVE No chaos here, just big turns in big terrain. Photo: Alex Lee

In the early morning light, we watched avalanches flush down massive south faces as the orographic oven heated up. Shedding layers, we broke down camp, and, at 2 p.m., two small planes skidded onto the glacier toward our pick-up zone. The Piper Super Cub and Bush Hawk flew us back to Nikiski, Alaska, a half an hour trip across Cook Inlet, but a world away. Plugging back in from a trip in the mountains is always a bit of an adjustment, but this reentry was particularly jarring—the world turned out to be not quite as we left it.

I got back home to Anchorage that evening to find everyone scrambling to maintain control, as COVID-19 forced millions to shelter in place and millions more to reorganize daily life. I immediately wished I stayed in the mountains, but now it feels like maybe I hadn’t ever really left. Here we are facing a rapidly-evolving, unexplored wilderness at home, and though this has not been one we can choose to opt out of, perhaps its a wilderness ethic that can help us make some sense of it.

In the backcountry, we find freedom in the temperamental instability of the mountains. We learn about uncertainty and how small decisions have consequence: Can I put my glove down here? Can we travel unroped? Should we traverse left, or right? Is this slope more than 30 degrees?

Balance comes when we respect the consequences of those decisions, while also embracing the power of our agency. Working together, trusting each other, and building confidence in ourselves through experience, lets us take on new places, new challenges, and new hazards. Our plans don’t always work out—things go awry. Sometimes we get to laugh later over a beer with friends, sometimes we cry when the indifference of mountains takes its toll, but we still go back because there is more to learn about that vertical world, more to learn about ourselves.

ABOVE A different kind of distancing in the Neocola Mountains. Photo: Alex Lee

The mountains offer a chance to traverse an authentic, yet uncontrollable reality—a world unmediated by computer screens, thermostats, and pavement. We can find our way in uncertain territory if we travel with care, reason, and a healthy amount of grit.

Experiences in the mountains are experiences of deliberate social distancing, planning, consideration, scarcity, care, and acceptance of risk. If there is a problem in the mountains, you have to face it. If a binding breaks, you fix it—zip ties and all.

These types of lessons offer insight into navigating the world we now see before us. Crevasses and outbreak are both hazards that can be managed, but also not entirely avoided. Skiers know that mitigation and control are not the same, and we work through the trade-offs between risk and consequence with explicit decision making—vital skills when faced with the unknown.

Don’t hoard food, help your neighbors, and wash your hands. Take this seriously. Trading wind slabs, facets, and cold for uncertainty of a different sort, our own journeys may seem different, but we are all roped together. Individual choices have collective impact.

As I’m writing this, we find ourselves in hazardous terrain. The wind is blowing and the visibility is low, but that’s okay. We’re here to face a new challenge, working together to make this our most epic round trip yet.

Author’s note: If you live far enough north, remember that snow works great when the T.P. runs out.


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