An experience by: Reese Freeman and Vasu Sojitra
'Tis the season for big lines. Access to the backcountry is at last freed from its winter constraints and the steep chutes and couloirs are now just a day trip away. However, that is not to say that those big lines become any less frightening when you are staring them in the face. So just take a deep breath, exhale, listen to your gut and maybe one day when you look back at that line you can say to yourself, “wow, I did that”.
It was late in the day on June 6, and Reese Freeman and I were creeping our way up the ridge to the summit of Naya Nuka in the Bridger Range of Montana to descend “The Great One”. As we neared the summit, the entirety of the range that zig-zagged south of us opened up with each step. Despite the beauty of the landscape before us, we found ourselves distracted by a beast, “The Ruler”. We paused for a moment, fixated on our daydreams, contemplating the day that we may be able to see this couloir up close. From afar we could guess that the majority of the line was a pinch ranging between 7-15 feet wide and it looked steep, very steep. But as scary as it seemed, deep down, we knew we had it in us.
As an athlete that has to adaptive due to an amputated right leg, overcoming challenges is a day to day process. It was I who realized that this new level of accomplishment was right in front of us and that there was no reason to wait until next season to see what we can do. So on June 14, we traveled up the same dirt road to Fairy Lake, this time with bikes. The thought of a victory ride down the long road back to the car was enough to keep our stoke up high. Biking on dirt roads, hiking rooted trails, bushwhacking, climbing talus fields and finally snow, how could we be spending our summer days any better?
Summer is the time of the year when we embrace the oddity of waking up on a hot June day to pack up our gear and go slide around on snow, a venture that is unusually exciting and satisfying. We trek in the fresh spring wilderness wearing a T-shirt and shorts with our winter gear at the ready, all for that one run. This is the time of the year when the potential for accomplishing that one run we have been anticipating all season is real. We live for this sublime and euphoric experience that is summer skiing and snowboarding.
“The Ruler” hides itself quite well in the rocky aspects of the Bridger Range. As we biked and hiked up the steep grades, our minds were at rest awaiting our first view of the beast we had just met a week earlier. But with each passing step we encountered occasional moments of reasonable doubt that seeped into our minds. A record high temperature for the week in Montana had melted nearly every last patch of tourable snow we had used the week prior for our approach. We found ourselves asking, would there be enough snow in the couloir? Would the snow be too rotten to ride?
Four hours into our journey we had made our first footsteps on snow, a satisfying feeling to say the least. The opportunity to be encompassed by such a majestic view was indeed a reward, but we were here on a mission, which was to scare the shit out of ourselves. 100 yards of boot packing up the snow field and “The Ruler” finally began to show itself. That is when we asked the true question that was on our minds, “are we good enough to make this a safe and rewarding ride?”
It’s odd, we never discussed this question upfront to each other. This is a question that at some point in our trek we asked separately to ourselves, our souls. Intuition is a sublime experience in itself. Without the ability to ask our hearts the subjective questions that our minds may be too clouded to answer, we may be losing a lot of opportunity to the rational and at times fearful decisions of our brains; ultimately falling short of our goals. So it was our intuition, in what always seems to be an impulsive manor, that gave us our answer. “Yes, do it”. Our separate moments of reflection led to minimal discussion as to wether we were “good enough”, our vibe was letting us both know that we were ready. Scared, but ready.
Mentally, it seemed that fate had already decided that this run was going to happen, but that didn’t mean we could start acting like cowboys. We have a choice in our action but not in our consequence. We must be smart, alert and aware. It was time to start the long and steep boot-pack up the couloir, and all that comes with it. Risk management, physical suffering, mind games, and gut-wrenching feelings, all combined into what seems to be a type of masochistic pleasure. A pleasure that is an incredible effort of focus and endurance to keep our minds grounded on the goal and the wildly amusing lives that skiers and snowboarders alike experience.
It was sunny until we started our climb. The persistent Bridger clouds rolled in when we were half way up the couloir and our exit was eerily existent only in memory. The line was littered with the loose rocks that had fallen from the surrounding walls, so we took the time to clean the of path the debris in our path. Between two narrow walls of loose rock, engulfed in fog and essentially crawling on hands and knees in the steep 50 degree shot, never had we felt closer to the mountains than in that moment. We couldn’t help but smile in between the thoughts of panic from the occasional collapsing footholds in the snow.
Reaching the apex of the couloir was sweet relief - looking back down however, was less so. The snow was thick, saturated and coated with specks of brown rock. Deep deformations gave the snow a texture that resembled waves on a windy day that were frozen in time. It was rotting away back into the ocean. Our descent was going to be a fight to maintain balance between each jump turn.
There was about a five foot section of melt at the very top of the couloir which merged with the rest of our ascent, a comparably mellow snowfield that we could use as a warm up. We lucked out, this melt was new since we last saw “The Ruler” from the top of Naya Nuka. Perhaps another week of heat and this line would be too dangerous to descend from top to bottom. We scrambled over the loose rock , gripping small alpine trees to continue the last remaining yards left of our climb. There was’t much to see when we reached the top, but we could feel the elements. We were tucked away into the core of the mountain, the heart. There was no way out except back down the claustrophobic artery from which we had arrived.