Backcountry Revival

Words by Katherine Oakes Englishman
Photos by Katherine Oakes Englishman

How do you turn the harshest months of winter into some of the best of the year? You get outside.

For so many of us, the months following the holidays are on the wrong side of January. It’s dark, it’s perpetually cold and we’re all very melodramatic about it. The idea of hibernating suddenly feels like a very valid activity, as does a tropical getaway with tiny umbrellas, mariachi bands and none of the snow, cold or icy rain that’s taken over all of our lives back home. But as much as I love the idea of sand between my toes (trust me, I do) I also stand by the somewhat unpopular belief that the harshest months of winter are actually some of the best.

This coming from a girl who used to trudge through this time of year along with the best of ‘em. Without having easy access to the mountains and shimmering, snow-filled forests, the dead of winter had very few redeeming qualities. I struggled with seasonal depression, as I know so many do, that left me feeling moody and unmotivated to say the least. Inspiration was absolutely nowhere to be found. To top it off, I’d struggled with mental illness as a teen which made it all the more stressful. But I knew — and maybe this is also true for you — that a backcountry revival would be the cure for all that ails. Simply because nature is some of the best medicine and being outside is a refreshing reminder that mood follows action, perspective is everything and even a flicker of gratitude can cast a brighter light than we think.

Being a resort skier all my life, I didn’t exactly know what the backcountry would bring. As you might imagine, this sort of free range skiing was appealing to someone who had grown accustomed to being one of six puffy jackets stuffed onto a chairlift. Fresh tracks and no lift lines? The best leg (and let’s be honest, full body) workout of your life? Yes, yes and yes. It wasn’t that I no longer appreciated the groomed trails and camaraderie that a resort has to offer. Instead, I was fueled by a desire to see what was beyond my comfort zone and the marked ski boundaries that got me clicking in to my new touring skis and heading outside.

These days I like to balance out the thrills with the stillness. It’s one part adventure (let’s not die of hypothermia, k guys?) and one part wintry forest bathing. There’s no sugar coating the fact that skinning uphill is very hard work. It’s gritty, arduous and at times hard on the ego. You will sweat. You will be out of breath. And you will definitely wonder if you’re actually in shape at all? Don’t worry, you are.

This is the kind of hard but good work that asks you to summon all of your patience, persistence and effort in the interest of just getting to where you’re going: I realize now the positive impact this has on your brain in the age of insta. Being forced to take a slow and steady pace is for sure a soothing balm to a stressed out soul in a fast-paced world.

Navigating my line within a steep and narrow chute requires a focus and determination I can rarely access without the impending threat of tomahawking down the crusty hill (don’t forget this is the Northeast). It’s in those moments that I’m reminded of everything I’ve got below the waterline just waiting to rise to the occasion of keeping me from breaking a bone and having the time of my life, in unison. Obviously, you can’t always recreate these situations in everyday life but you can certainly do them more often. Feelings of awe and wonder that fill our cups and make us feel whole. Not to mention a deep appreciation for the natural world and a silly adventure that doesn’t quite make sense but is still so much fun.

The combination of exhaustion and euphoria when you finally get to ski down is strangely addicting. Even though you’re tired, you know that somehow you’ll find the strength to do this again and again. Which you could say is, in a way, a lot like life.

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