By Merisa Sherman
It started like any other tour. I had my backpack full of goodies, including the best puffy coat in the entire world. It’s the coat that enables me to forgo my fear of the cold, knowing that no matter the temperature there is a nice warm bundle of heat waiting for me at the summit. It’s a trick I learned by accident, having left my coat on the radiant floor while packing. The heat from the floor was absorbed into the down and when I opened it up at the summit, that heat was still there. It was like a miracle that morning.
And every below-0 degree tour thereafter. I begin my tour without worry, wrapped in a bright orange PolarTec Alpha puffy that lets me stay warm and sweat at the same time. I’m not a tech guru any more, but I have an appreciation for a good coat. Well, let’s be honest. Lots of them. If I’m going to be super honest, probably too many of them. In fact, I want all the coats. And I do mean all of them. I live in Vermont, where the weather changes faster than my mood swings, and so I need a coat for each.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t even wearing a coat as I headed up the mountain on this particular sunny 6-degree day. I was wearing a cotton flannel over my wool base layer and under a thin vest just to keep my lungs warm. I laughed as I continued to slide my skis forward, one after the other, enjoying the internal warmth from my body as it contrasted with the brutally cold air seeping in through my flannel. It’s such a high, the two systems competing with each other and I love it.
And so I kept going, my legs feeling like the flutter kick of the freestyle stroke in swimming. It’s the perfect tour for gliding and I felt like I could swim up this mountain forever. The pitch is perfect, the track is smooth and I was just flying. I felt my ears, bright red against the nipping wind and my sunglasses began to ice over from my breath. My internal body temperature was losing the battle with Mother Nature and I started thinking about putting on that bright orange puffy once I turned left into the woods for the summit traverse.
I dove under the heavily laden pine trees into the woods and opted instead for my super stretchy lightweight soft shell. That one keeps the warmth buried inside while the hood protects me from having the snow fall down my back — like it just did. Seriously, that snow was cold against my skin. I took a minute to change and have a sip of the warm water in my purple HydroFlask. Yep, I said warm water — never hot. Hot water will burn your entire mouth and you won’t notice until you wake up the next morning. Trust me.
I kept skinning, following a set of snowshoe hare tracks for a while and thinking through my spreadsheet of jackets and scrolling through websites in my mind. The going was slower now, the flutter kick having become a more hiking rhythm as I was forced to break trail through the windblown snow. I love it, this freedom of making my own way through the woods. I know where I am, kind of, and I’ve got my compass if I get into any real trouble. But I can’t just stay on the skin track, not when there’s an entire forest to be explored.
Suddenly, I felt the arthritis in my right hip screaming at me and my stride turned into a frustrating limp. I had ignored the slight hum at my femoral ball for the flutter kick section of the tour and now, here it was shouting for attention. I’m not supposed to break trail. Doctor’s orders. I tried so hard, but my mind couldn’t stay on the track. A single tear froze on my cheek and I knew the tour was over. I stopped for a moment, focusing on breathing good energy into my hip, and turned back to the track to take the easy way home as fast as possible. Maybe next week I’d be smarter but somehow I doubted it.
Quickly, I changed course and got to the top of the nearest downhill section. It wasn’t what I had planned on skiing, but it would be perfect for today. I unclipped my backpack and laid it down in the snow, the skinning pass armband almost blinding me. I unzipped the bag and smiled — there, staring at me with all its beautiful day glo pink joy, was my beloved puffy coat. I wrapped it around myself and smile, looked out at the beautiful path below. The pain in my hip receded as I made the transition and the warmth embraced me. It was a beautiful day.