Endless Winter in El Chaltén
It wasn’t the first time I’d thawed peanut butter on the dashboard. But this time I thought I was doing the right thing for the environment and my body with the all-natural variety—turns out separated oil has a higher freezing temperature than Skippy. C’est la vie, you live and you learn. Like the frozen jar above the steering wheel, some of my ski-bumming rituals remained the same. I still mix a spoonful (or two) of peanut butter in my oatmeal.
I still spent many après evenings at the aquatic center, trying to absorb as much heat as possible through hot-tub osmosis with all the other dirtbags in town. I still used gas station washrooms, library wifi, and did laundry as infrequently as possible. I still didn’t pay for a lift pass because I preferred to earn my turns in the adjacent world-class backcountry.
But my process had significantly evolved from years past. I shuddered at the memory of hanging damp outerwear, boot liners, and socks anywhere in the cab where they’d receive heat from the defroster, the stench filling the cab as I drove through the night to the next destination, praying things would dry by the next morning.
This season was different. And not just because I’d made the luxurious (in a ski bum’s mind) upgrade from the uninsulated bed of a cramped pickup to an over-the-cab camper with room to stand and a full-size bed. It wasn’t even for the miniature wood stove installed in the back that dried out my liners in a fraction of the time (and without causing the whole cab to wreak something awful). Rather, it was the latter of the previous process that had evolved the most: these days, I wasn’t going anywhere. My home on wheels was, ironically, staying put.
Storm chasing is a common refrain among the vehicle-dwelling community of ski bums. That’s why you live in the back of a cold, damp rig all winter, right? Ultimate mobility. The option to pack up and move with the wind. Twelve hours away never felt so close as when a meter of fresh snow fell on the other side of the range. It’s a frenetic, addictive pace of life.
I used to feel that way. A gnawing itinerancy pushed me from one locale to the next. The grass was greener, the pow deeper, the beer colder. Living on the road, I felt pangs of guilt when I stayed somewhere for a length of time—wasn’t that contrary to the point of this lifestyle?
But in the constant pursuit of deeper turns afar, sometimes you’ll ski right past the biggest pow stash of all, hidden in plain sight.
I’ve come around. Maybe the price of gas went up. Maybe I grew jaded pursuing something as mercurial as weather. Perhaps I remembered the old adage, “you don’t leave powder to find powder.”
In my early years on the road, I could see how those words played out literally. I wasn’t going to leave in the middle of a storm cycle for the chance at an extra couple centimeters down the road. But over years of rambling from mountain town to alpine hamlet in search of something a bit better than the last, I’ve come to see powder in the proverbial sense as something more than the lightest, fluffiest dendrites dancing down from the heavens.
Among the snow-shredding community, powder is a place where we find peace and happiness. A state of mind where we live most intentionally, fully present amid the all encompassing lightness of perfectly crystallized water. Now, I can’t guarantee any place on earth delivers the surfy flow of bottomless powder day-in and day-out (British Columbia? Japan, maybe?), but I promise, if you slow down and embrace your surroundings, you’ll find that local stash.
It won’t be found on a long bushwhack nor on first chair nor by stealthily following locals around the hill. It can’t be bought and neither can it be stolen away. Powder takes patience—let the figurative snowfall add up. Stay awhile. Powder is a feeling, a serenity and sense that you are exactly where you should be. When you feel it, you’ll know.
Us ski bums don’t live in our vehicles because we like to drive. We do it because we like to ski. And the less often I’m behind the wheel dreaming of better conditions elsewhere, the more often I can be present on my skis cultivating a community and sense of belonging that makes every day on skis feel like a powder day.