The Art of the Uptrack 

by Andy Dappen

Sir Arnold Lunn was among the first mountaineers to take skis to the high Alps in the early 1900s and he quickly fell in love with all aspects of skiing – including the aesthetics of tracks left in the snow. In his books about skiing, he wrote such lines as, “An intersecting pattern of tempo turns on a canvas undefiled by beginners is among the loveliest of man’s contributions to natural beauty.”

Lunn, of course, was speaking of the downhill tracks etched by skiers, but I’ve come to believe the same applies to a beautifully scribed skin track. Laid with mindfulness and skill, a smooth line curving upward across the white canvas of winter is a calligrapher’s pen stroke that draws the eye into the scene and divides a large foreground into smaller, more interesting shapes.

Many uphill skiers swerve erratically, painting sloppy skin tracks that will have followers wondering whether a drunkard wandered through. An unwavering track, however, speaks tangibly of competence and confidence. And that’s just the aesthetics of the line. Riding on the back of aesthetics, the well laid uptrack saves energy, avoids kick turns, dodges avalanche slopes, assesses snow safety, and scopes out the best terrain and snow for the descent. That’s a lot packed onto the simple action of shuffling feet uphill.

Last winter, the snow fell softly on the foothills surrounding my town and piled up deep. Each day I skied different ridges and peaklets within a few minute’s drive of home. One moonlit evening I explored a new ridge made possible by the winter’s bounty. The ridge was steep and plowing a trough upward through shin-deep snow quickly brought on a pungent lather. After an hour, I was surprised to intersect a track. My headlight showed it headed my way, so I hopped aboard, anxious to let my heart rate drop while I coasted along in the wake of another’s effort.

It didn’t take long to recognize I was following someone who took pride in this labor. The track, cut so straight here and curved so smoothly there, it had me wanting to congratulate the artist. And surely I would get the chance to do so because the only people frequenting these slopes were a handful of friends who were ‘in on’ the secret that such good skiing existed so close to town. This had to be the work of Adam, Tom, or Matt – the three who showed their skill on both the downhill and uphill end of the game.

I thought about the pitch of the line – it was perfectly graded to climb as steeply as possible without relying on arm strength and without the counter pressure caused by boot cuffs when the trail becomes too steep. Adam’s lines tacked on a little extra distance by climbing a tad gentler than I preferred — I scratched him from the list.

The track moved onto a north-facing ridge and snaked along both sides of the crest, sampling snow quality on the western and eastern exposures of the ridge. The west side was packed with wind-affected Styrofoam, but the snow on the eastern exposures was dry sugar – that clarified the descent route.

An additional advantage of the snaking line along the ridge? Variable views. From one moment to the next I was gazing east over the lights of town, south out over the moonlit foothills, or west at the silhouettes of the high Cascades. I crossed Tom off the list, rather than rubberneck he preferred the straightest line to the goal. That left Matt as the prime suspect. But Matt always called to tell me what he had recently skied.  Doubt set in: Could an interloper, one who was also OCD about skin tracks, actually have found our stash?

After the ridge, the track failed to succumb to the shortest route toward the summit  — that option dropped slightly before climbing again. Instead, the track cleverly cut a longer, less obvious contour that would allow a returning skier to glide through the shin deep powder with absolutely no poling or awkward shuffling on locked-down skis. There, in the moonlight, enlightenment suddenly dawned.

This was no stranger’s trench, this was a line I penned several days earlier when I skied the same peaklet from a different starting point. No wonder I found such rapture in  the artistry and the objectives of this skin track  – this was the same sort of shameful egotism leading some people to praise the perfume of their of their own flatulence. With red cheeks I strode on,  grading the evening’s performance:

Uptrack: A

Memory: D

Navigational Skills: F

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