Standing in the early-morning shadow of the San Juan mountains at Silverton Mountain resort, the unnatural sound of plastic boots flexing and squeaking filled the air as we shuffled to keep warm in the parking lot. It was freezing. We were divided into groups of 6-8 skiers and snowboarders. We were all part of a larger group of over 100 riders that descended on Silverton for an event supporting the organization First Descents. Self-organizing ourselves into these smaller groups was our first assignment for the day. Theoretically, each group would be divided according to their downhill ability and willingness to hike uphill. My friend, Peter, raised his hand and offered up himself to a “moderate” group. As a Silverton rookie, Peter was weary about the hiking, the terrain, the altitude, the whole friggin package, and he didn’t want to hold anyone back. “I’m with you. We’ll take it easy today and have a good time,” I said, as he looked at me with not a little bit of doubt. Soon we were joined by Tats (an OG TREW ambassador) and Rafa (also a former TREW ambassador now riding for BC.com and brought to Silverton by his sponsor Sierra Nevada). Peter’s looking around at the pro riders that have now joined his “moderate” group and gives me a wide-eyed look of disbelief. I smile and shrug. We were joined by Lindsay and Tom from Stoke Brokers, John from Waffle Mountain (trademark pending), and Becca from Sierra Nevada. The group was set. We finished orientation with our guide, Nic, and paired up to ride the long, slow, two-person chair into the sunlight in the peaks above. Silverton Mountain is hyperbolic in its scale. The San Juan mountains are so steep and rocky, it’s hard to gauge their true scale unless you climb them, ski them, or slowly ascend one in an ancient two-person chairlift. Which is what Peter and I did as he nervously processed the day ahead. “Is that the summit that you can hike to?” Peter asked in unease. “Whatever we do, there’s no way that I’m going up there.” I got the hint from our guide that we were probably “going up there,” it being the best visibility-window and the freshest our group’s legs would be. “Yeah, that’s the billboard,” I said. “It’s not as far as it looks. Anyway, you could do it. One step at a time.” Answering his question but not really telling him what he wanted to hear. We unloaded and our group gathered around Nic to discuss the plan. “Let’s get our boards onto our packs and go for a walk. We could go for a shorter hike or a longer one. We can check in as a group as we get going,” said Nic. I darted a quick smile at Peter, not wanting him to know that I knew exactly where we were going. With our boards and skis strapped to our backs we boot-packed for over an hour up Silverton Mountain’s rocky ridge, pausing at about the halfway mark for a break, until we stopped at a shelf just below the summit. Hiking at that elevation draws your attention to every breath, as you struggle to fill the bottom of your lungs with air and pressure your diaphragm to exhale fully. Your thoughts can somehow waver in an instant between frantic fear or doubt and deeply calm moments of serenity, as your labored breathing flips your nervous system on its head. It’s a great time to observe your thoughts; I thought about different facets of my life and my family - the boys and my wife - and I thought about Peter’s son, Bobby. I never talked to Peter about it, but I know that Peter was thinking about Bobby, too. Every time Peter goes snowboarding he wears a shirt with Bobby’s likeness printed on it under all of his layers. Peter and his family lost Bobby to cancer about five years ago. Bobby was 19 and he had been battling cancer since he was 5. His loss is as heartbreaking to those close to him as we can imagine but his legacy is his unwavering celebration of life and his unwillingness to forgo any opportunity to get more out of life. I thought about that as I watched Peter, with his snowboard strapped to his back, bootpack to above 13,000 feet above sea level and prepare to descend several thousand vertical feet of intimidatingly steep and rocky terrain. Afterall, we were in Silverton together because of Bobby and the work that Peter and his family’s foundation, the I’m Not Done Yet Foundation, are doing in partnership with First Descents. We were there in Silverton, ultimately, to help raise money for their programs. First Descents provides free adventure programs for survivors of cancer and other terminal diseases. The outdoors as a catalyst for interior growth and community building. Standing close to the summit of Silverton Mountain, where about an hour ago he was certain he would not be, I'm sure Peter was experiencing some form of adventure-induced transformation. "Nice job, man," I said in Peter's direction. His back to me, facing the mountains, taking it all in, "Are you kidding me?!" Seemingly at a loss for words. Peter was first to drop after the guide. He got the jitters out with a couple quick tumbles and then descended into the couloir-esque "Pope chute." After a long descent, we caught the 80's era penitentiary bus back to the lift to do it all again. We made a lot of fun turns and met a lot of amazing people that week. The experience deepened my respect for the work of First Descents and strengthened my resolve to connect my life to outdoor adventures, namely, in the mountains.
By Chris Pew
Chris is the CEO of Trew, makers of high quality ski and snowboard apparel. Trew collaborated with First Descents to create a specialized line, of which 20% of sales will go directly back to the First Descents program. Check 'em out.
Pair this piece with Barton West's most recent poem Let It Snow.