Learning from Mr. Winter

An outdoorsman and his student plunge into the backcountry during the season’s first big storm

Photo by Steven T. Jones

I’ve always thought of Mike Werst as Mr. Winter, throughout our 15-year friendship. During late summer, when I’m trying to milk the very most out of the waning warmth, his blasphemously gleeful mantra begins: “The days are getting shorter.”

Werst is an all-around outdoorsman and recreationist—a strong mountain biker, backpacker, water-skier, rock climber, you name it—but it is falling snow that truly stirs his soul and puts a gleam in his eyes. If not for the responsibilities of having a son and a good state of California job as an air pollution specialist, I have no doubt that he would be a full-time ski bum.

As it is, Werst logs more days on the slopes every winter than anyone I know, usually up to 70, and he’s accepted by all-season lifestylers as one of their own, even if he does live in the real world. It helps that he’s primarily a telemarker—that ultra-cool and beautiful style of free-heel skiing—but also able to master any terrain, from steep and deep to the half-pipe. (God, how the snowboarders gape when they watch Werst tele the pipe.)

Yet, his skills at the resorts aren’t what earn my awe; I’m a fairly strong and bold alpine skier, and I usually can keep up. Where Werst truly defines himself is the backcountry, that rugged, avalanche-prone wilderness away from the groomed resort runs or trampled, well-marked cross-country parks. He knows every peak and valley of the Sierra Nevada from Lake Tahoe down to Bear Valley and has skied them all, mostly for fun but also for his training as a member of the El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol.

To Werst, even the training is fun: Long, sub-freezing, overnight climbs and nocturnal ski adventures that include building and sleeping in a snow cave. That’s just the kind of freak of nature he is. Werst delights in sizing up potential avalanche fissures, logging terrain observations in his field guide, watching how storm systems sweep over familiar peaks and preparing his backpack for any eventuality.

I admire and aspire to that level of mastery over winter. So, after recently buying (from Werst’s old supplies) my snow backpack, avalanche beacon and portable snow shovel—absolute essentials for backcountry skiing—I was finally ready to learn the ways of Mr. Winter. In the language of Tibetan Buddhism, he would be my lama; I, his chela.

And so it was on the evening of Nov. 7, during the season’s first big blast of winter weather, when I arrived at his home to prepare for setting out into the eye of the storm, into the backcountry.

I barely made it to Werst’s house in my little Toyota Corolla. With deep puddles and gusting winds on Highway 50, I was sliding all over the road, and a wee voice inside my head was questioning exactly why I was headed into a severe storm that was blanketing the Sierra in a couple feet of snow.

But, when I pulled up in front of Werst’s open garage—where his gear was laid out, his skis were on the waxing mounts, and he was smiling like an anxious child on Christmas Eve—I remembered why I came. “It’s snowing at Carson Pass,” he said with a grin, referring to our next day’s destination.

We had a couple beers and some conversation and then started preparing the backpacks. Werst has the gear to survive for days in the backcountry, but he planned to bring only the essentials on this trip.

“On a day trip, I usually go light and fast, taking a little risk that I’ll be cold if I have to spend the night out there,” Werst said, noting that he was leaving behind things like the sleeping bag, stove and rescue rope that he would bring on more uncertain forays.

I, too, had packed for light and fast, keeping in mind Werst’s previous warnings to wear only layers of breathable synthetic materials. “Cotton kills,” he had told me many times. Yet I quickly realized what a backcountry novice I was, as Werst ran through his list of the basics, most of which I didn’t have.

“Food, water, shelter, fire, first aid, beacon, shovel, probe poles, map, compass,” he rattled off quickly, covering the 10 essentials. He turned toward the gear he had laid out on a tarp, stuff that had been stowed since his trip to Mount Shasta in May. It was time to prepare for a new season.

First into his backpack was the Sam splint, for wrapping and supporting broken bones. He gave me a spare, along with a small tarp to use as a shelter if things went wrong. His bivouac sack went in next, and then a bag containing his first-aid kit, ski-repair kit, fire starter, a blade for cutting branches, a headlamp and other survival tools. Then, he packed an extra pair of gloves, a pair of socks, a hat and a light parka. Being dry and relatively warm means avoiding hypothermia and frostbite after an unexpected night in the frozen backcountry.

I felt a little foolish for not even packing food or water as Werst packed his insulated water bag and about a pound of food, most of it just precautionary.

“There is probably stuff that stays in my pack all winter,” he said, like leftover Halloween candy.

Rain blew in through the open garage door as the storm growled a warning at us. Werst smiled.

After getting our bags packed, we checked weather conditions on the Web, and Werst used a computer program he had to chart and print our course on a topographical map. Then, we settled onto the couch for his final night-before ritual—watching a television weather forecast out of Sacramento.

We climbed into Werst’s Subaru Outback and hit the road a little before 8 a.m. on a fine Friday—not as early as Werst would have liked, but he didn’t give me too much flak over my late rising.

The weather was blustery but not terribly cold because of this unfortunately warm storm, one of those Pineapple Express fronts that shoot in from the Pacific instead of down from the north. That’s why we were headed for Carson Pass near Kirkwood (elevation 8,573 feet), one of the highest points in the region and where the moisture certainly would turn to snow.

On the way up the mountain, we stopped by the El Dorado National Forest Information Center in Camino, so Werst could buy his snow-park pass for the season, something backcountry skiers need if they want to avoid getting $75 tickets for parking at the trail heads.

“Hey, Mike, what are you doing up here today?” asked office director Kristi Schroeder, who knew Werst from the Ski Patrol.

“It’s snowing, isn’t it?” Werst answered with a smile, but he knew what she meant. It certainly wasn’t snowing yet, at least not anywhere lower than about 7,000 feet. The ski season hadn’t really begun yet, as evidenced by the fact that the passes hadn’t yet been delivered. They were expected in that day’s UPS delivery. Schroeder said Werst probably would be OK without the pass, but she gave him her business card to put on his dashboard, just in case.

Just past Sierra-at-Tahoe, we saw our first snow on the ground. A few minutes later, the rain that had been hitting our windshield turned to a slushy snow. As we continued to climb, the snow got lighter in the air and heavier on the ground. Werst’s cell phone rang, and it was his Ski Patrol buddy Mike O’Keeffe, stuck at work. “It’s snowing over Echo Summit,” Werst told the envious O’Keeffe with a mixture of excitement and cruelty.

Heavy snowfall made driving up Highway 88 toward Kirkwood a little squirrelly at times. But, by the time we arrived at Carson Pass, a summit spot with a small parking lot for backcountry skiers during winter and backpackers during summer, everything was covered with a few feet of freshly fallen snow.

“There’s a lot of fucking snow here!” Werst joyously exclaimed upon getting out of the car and sizing up the scene. “It’s gonna be a wicked day. We’re gonna have fun!”

He tossed me my boots for the day—old-school, leather, cross-country boots. We have the same foot size, which is a good thing for my backcountry and telemarking apprenticeships. After getting geared up, I stepped the boots into a pair of his old, thin, wooden, cross-country skis. “Leather and wood,” my lama said with a professorial air. He was starting me off with the basics before he would move me up to more high-tech equipment. This was the way.

We trekked out on a route toward a string of Sierra lakes that was marked by blue diamond reflectors on trees, but Werst knew this region by heart, including all the hidden hills where we could climb and do some downhill skiing. He led, getting the very first tracks in the season’s first significant snowfall, and I followed in his path.

Werst told me how to get a feel for the skis, how they moved, where I felt the pressure in my boots, when I would hit my balance points. Soon, I moved fluidly on the straightaways: Step and glide, step and glide, step and glide. As strictly a downhill skier, I was amazed at the fairly steep angles you can climb on cross-country skis without sliding backward. For steeper climbs, Werst has special skins that attach to the bottoms of his skis.

It was thrilling to be back in the snow, even if I spent a lot of time falling into it. I was particularly clumsy on the downhills, unable to bring these straight, thin skis around through the heavy snow for telemark turns. I’d been spoiled by my short and responsive side-cut skis. But this, too, was a part of the process that I accepted without complaint or irritation.

After about an hour of traveling, we came to a clearing where I learned to use my avalanche beacon. This device, which is about the shape of a personal CD player, transmits radio signals at an internationally standard radio frequency of 457 kilohertz. When a skier is buried in an avalanche, those skiing with him switch their beacons to “receive” mode and hone in on the signal.

Once they get close, they use telescoping probe poles to locate their friend and then snow shovels to dig him out. If you can extract your buddy in less than 15 minutes, he has a 92-percent chance of survival; beyond 15 minutes, those odds take a precipitous dive, as he falls victim to a combination of suffocation and hypothermia.

For my training, and so he could practice with his new super high-tech beacon, Werst had borrowed and brought along a third beacon, which he placed in a baggie. Each of us took turns throwing the beacon as far as possible into the snowpack, while the other hid his eyes and then tried to find it. I learned, and once I got the hang of it, he had me do a few more to work on my speed. After all, his life could depend on my skills.

The backcountry is not for dabblers and dilettantes. Every year, many people die in avalanches or get lost and have to be rescued by Werst and his winter comrades. Werst loves the snowy wilderness but respects its power—a reverence not lost on me, his chela.

By the time we returned to the car, at a little after 1 p.m., I was exhausted. Werst wasn’t, but it still had been a great day for both of us. Eager to get down to the Strawberry Lodge to get some warm food and cold beers from our bartender friend Petch, Werst backed the Subaru over a snow bank at the edge of the parking lot and got stuck.

We got out and grabbed our unused snow shovels. Within five minutes, we had freed ourselves and were back on the road. Werst said he didn’t mean to get stuck, but I’m still not convinced that this wasn’t yet another lesson from my friend and teacher, Mr. Winter.