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A few weeks before my neighborhood mountain opened this season, our UPS driver delivered a peculiar-looking package: a skinny cardboard box longer than I am tall. Inside was a brand-new pair of Völkl Nunataq AT skis with Marker F12 Tour EPF bindings, plus a little blue nylon sack bulging with custom-fitted climbing skins: an early Christmas present on long-term loan from a Marker-Völkl rep who wanted me to experience the nascent phenomenon of alpine touring, the fastest-growing market segment in the ski industry.

Overnight, more than a foot of snow fell on our mountains, so two hours before dawn I was chugging up Arrowhead Mountain in the company of my companion, Halo, a wire-hair labradoodle I’m training as a volunteer canine handler for Vail Mountain Rescue Group. Halfway up, heart pounding in my ears, I stopped for a breather, switched off my headlamp, and marveled—because that morning, the already thigh-deep powder on Cresta, which had yet to be compacted by grooming machines or skiers, glowed in the moonlight like the luminescent collar on my dog, bounding and burrowing through drifts with abandon. An hour later at the summit, sweat-soaked and thighs burning, I stripped off then packed my climbing skins, locked down my bindings, and clicked in. Then, with the lights of the valley below shimmering like the firmament above, I floated downhill, with Halo porpoising through the powder at my side like a dolphin frolicking at the prow of an ocean liner.

That’s the magic right there.

And so I became hooked. I enlisted in the dawn patrol, the odd corps who precede the sun and the crowds and experience an altogether different Arrowhead and Beaver Creek and Vail Mountain, relishing the darkness, the silence, the loneliness of a world in hibernation, imagining—and seeing, sort of—what it must have been like out here before the lifts, and all the people. But unlike most skiers with AT gear, I was perfectly content to limit my excursions to controlled terrain.

The first time I took my Nunataqs into the backcountry was on a night just after Christmas, when I responded to a mountain rescue team page. After snowmobiling two miles into the wilderness off of East Lake Creek Road in Edwards, I skinned a quarter-mile to a pair of local teenagers who hours earlier had snowboarded out of Beaver Creek at Larkspur, dropped into the Y Chutes (avalanche terrain), took a wrong turn, and found themselves mired in waist-deep powder.

A few weeks after that, in the cold and black of midnight, I was postholing through Stone Creek above Eagle-Vail on another rescue mission, carrying the snowboard of an exhausted and frost-nipped rider from Long Island who had ducked under the rope at the entrance to Stone Creek Chutes (after Beaver Creek ski patrollers had cleared it), discovered at the bottom that the lifts had stopped running, and as darkness descended, exited the resort into the creek drainage.

Experiences like these inspired me to assign Devon O’Neil to write this edition’s cover story (“Powder Keg,” p. 56), which I hope you’ll read. Then I’d like to hear what you think about the issue of backcountry risk-taking. Perhaps we’ll meet late one night—ideally over beers, and not with the help of Halo, who’s been showing a lot of promise as a search and rescue dog.

Ted Katauskas
tkatauskas@vailmag.com

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