The Colors of Touring

by Andy Dappen

My daughter paints in oils. One of her paintings on the living room mantle of a goat’s face, looks realistic from a distance but is swatch book of color when examined closely. “Painting makes you see color completely differently — there are so many shades of color and so many colors within color,” she has told me. “You don’t recognize that at first, but when you try to paint what you’re really seeing, it’s fascinating what you find inside the blue of the sky, the green of a tree … or the white of a goat’s face.”

I decide to practice observing like a painter on an early morning ski tour. Rather than believing what my brain says, I keep asking what my eyes actually see. The start of my tour is through the blackness of early morning. The sky is deep, deep gray overhead and brightens to a slate gray on the eastern horizon. In the southern sky a crescent moon hangs on a mottled charcoal curtain like a slice of cantaloupe.

The sky begins to lighten surprisingly quickly. To the east, dark gray fishbone clouds are stamped over a lighter gray sky. Contrails from jets flying to places east are gray ribbons strung across the sky. The trendy crescent moon, feeling orange was so last-half-hour, is now a pale shade of margarine.

The sun is 30 minutes from breaching the horizon but the stratospheric contrails suddenly light up. Are they orange, pink, or…something in between? I decide they’re salmon. The fishbone clouds have morphed, too. Now they are variegated shades of gray and white. The color of the snow around me is subtle and I fail to define if the highlights on the hummocks ahead are eggshell white or tinged with the palest of yellows. The shadowed sides of the same hummocks are equally confusing – are they pure gray or gray tinged with blue?

The sun keeps climbing at its relentless pace, and this kaleidoscopes the sky and clouds to the east through shades of pink, orange, yellow, and white. The contrails I’ve been watching flame to yellow and then wash-out to white. My fishbone clouds do the same.

On the western horizon a thin veil of clouds surrounding Pitcher Peak turns to magenta while the cotton-ball clouds over Twin Peaks go pink. Soon the whole massif of Twin Peaks facing the sun is pink-washed. But the pink is a momentary affair that’s as transitory as joy. As quickly as it arrived, the pink yellows and then whitens.

All these color changes have me reaching for the camera on a minute-by-minute basis. Bare skin on 25-degree metal turns my digits blue. Actually they are a dark red accented with blue to the point of being maroon. But they feel blue. I up the pace to pump warm blood their way.

Near my summit, the sun tops the horizon. The heat is immediate and I understand Twin Peaks better – the warmth makes me feel pink. The bark on the ponderosa pines I ski past are suddenly emoting warmth as well — their trunks are mottled orange poles, their canopies composed of countless needles that are green with a hair-thin white lines added by the sun. 

The summit view proves to be a gray affair. Yes, there are still subtle pastels of yellow and pink on the clouds to the east and the snow catching sun is salted with rainbow sparks reflecting off frost crystals. But around me is a landscaped colored by hundreds of shades of gray. The clouds in the western sky easily exhibit over a dozen shades — I see everything from bruised gray to dirty newspaper gray. The snow on the shaded side of the hill is rippled and layered from wind and each of the ripples is a different ring of gray. Meanwhile, looking out at the shaded hills on the horizon, my mind attaches green to the trees, brown to the rocks, and white to snow yet this all a trick – my eyes actually see a monochrome scene composed of complex gradations of gray.

During the descent the artist’s eye is shoved in the pack along with the climbing skins. The snow’s texture and composition is nearly as complex as its color. It’s windblown here, sun crusted there, firm in this place, breakable elsewhere, easily carved on one turn, and trapping the skis on the next. Strict attention to its appearance and feel is needed to keep on top of the snow rather than to find oneself inside it.

Half way down I stop to take in color one final time. Around Burch Mountain to the north, the shadowed draws of hills are the color of shark skin while the crests of those same hills glow in shades of yellow and white. Overhead the sky is anything but a uniform hue of blue — it stratifies into bands ranging from cobalt directly above to a washed-out robin’s egg blue near the horizon. The scene in every direction is head spinning — no wonder the brain generalizes — there’s so much color it’s impossible to catalog it all.

Only the overall color of this pre-work, morning ski tour is easy to peg: Pure gold.

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