The drifts are unexpected. There’s easily six feet of snow, piled high in velvety waves, just a few feet shy of the cliffed-out mountain rim. They roll one after the other, like an ocean swell, for as far as I can see into the forest ahead. I assume the trail is somewhere beneath the snow. I lost the blazes a half-mile back, but the ridgeline is so narrow (maybe 10 feet wide), there’s nowhere else for the singletrack to go but forward, beneath the undulating snow. Forward is the only choice I have, too, so I put my cross-country skis back on for the one thousandth time today and ski into the drifts, sinking to my knees under the weight of my backpack.
This isn’t how my backcountry ski adventure trip was supposed to go. I was supposed to spend three days backpacking the glorious North Fork Mountain Trail, a 24-mile ridgeline path that hugs the cliffy North Fork Mountain as it splits two forks of the Potomac River in West Virginia. I brought my skis along on a whim, in case I had the chance to drop into nearby Canaan Valley and sample their sublime cross-country specific singletrack. Skiing was supposed to be a distraction, not my main mode of transportation through the wilderness, but a freak spring storm dumped two feet of fresh powder across West Virginia’s Highlands.
When I originally drove over the North Fork Mountain, scouting the trail at the beginning of my trip, I took one good look at the icy, snow-covered cliffs and headed straight for Canaan Valley, thinking my notion of a meandering backpacking adventure was completely sunk.
I parked my truck in a ski in/ski out campsite with electricity in Canaan Valley State Park and proceeded to spend the day skiing solo along the trickling creeks of the park while listening to The Police on my headphones. I raced half a dozen deer (the deer always won) and only once thought I was entering into a “To Build a Fire” moment because I was completely lost.
I could have stayed in Canaan Valley for the remainder of my trip skiing fresh powder and eating chicken wings and drinking bottles of Miller High Life at the state park lounge. It would be a beautiful vacation, but not much of an adventure. So in a moment of hubris, I packed my truck and headed back to North Fork Mountain looking to redeem the original plan. If the trail was covered in snow, then I’d ski it.
That’s the beauty of the solo trip, after all. You can do what you want, when you want. I came alone so that I could change my mind on a whim. So I could sandbag it or go full tilt with no one else to consider. So I could ski and eat chicken wings or embark on a backcountry ski adventure with my trusty PBJ’s. Don’t get me wrong—I love a good “bro” trip as much as the next dude, but every once in a while I think it’s important to set forth solo for a few days when you don’t have to compromise, and the only body odor making the tent toxic is your own. Three days in the woods being selfish—what’s not to love?
The juxtaposition between the Valley and the knife-edge North Fork Mountain is stark. The snow I skied yesterday in the Valley was like cotton. Soft and pillowy. Up here, along the cliffs, it’s icy and underpinned by a layer of rock. The views are incredible, but the skiing is shit. Most people mountain bike the North Fork. Others backpack it. I know one guy who’s gunning for the trail running speed record. I’ve never heard of anyone skiing it, though, and I can see why.
There’s no snow at the northern trailhead when I begin my hike south, so I strap my skis to my backpack and climb the monstrous 2,000-foot vertical slog in my cross country ski boots. The blisters come fast, but as soon as the trail levels out on the ridge, the snow begins to get thicker. Soon, I’m clicking into my skis and kicking slowly beneath a canopy of hardwoods. The snow is patchy for the first few miles, so I’m constantly having to take my skis off, then put them back on, then take them off…My pack weighs roughly 75 pounds even though I’m only going for a 12-mile, overnight jaunt. I blame the obscene number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and extra pairs of socks I felt compelled to pack.
There are occasions of flow. Brief moments when the snow is deep enough and the terrain rolling enough for me to glide down a little hill, then kick-kick to another crest and glide down a little hill and repeat for maybe 100 yards. It’s unexpected and blissful. The kind of flow you get when mountain biking or cross country skiing, but never experience while backpacking. It feels like cheating, and I love it.
I don’t bother making a fire when I set up camp six miles into the trail. I clear a square out of the snow big enough for my tent, then scramble to the top of a cliff to watch the sunset while eating three PBJ’s. I’ve never liked camping solo and I’m convinced every sound I hear throughout the night is a yeti. When I wake up, I see tracks surrounding my tent. I’m no Natty Bumppo, but I can tell they’re too small for a yeti. I figure something cute and furry came to visit, lured by the aroma of peanut butter wafting from my pack.
The skiing is better as I hit the high point of the trail and find myself in the sea of snowdrifts, sinking to my knees with every step. Then the trail drops elevation through rhodo thickets and the snow gets thin and rocky again. I tell myself this is what I wanted. I eschewed deep powder and groomed trails for something more adventurous and difficult. This is the decision I made. I chose the harder option. This is the problem with traveling solo. Not only is there no one around to take your picture, there’s no one around to blame but yourself.
Near the gravel road where I stashed my truck, the ridgeline broadens and the forest turns from rocky rhododendron fields into a canopy of tall pine trees. The grade is mellow and the forest is open without a hint of underbrush. Here, the skiing is good. Actually, it’s great. There’s a foot of untracked powder offering unlimited tree runs. You can make wide arcs through the pines for 100 yards to the bottom of the slope, then kick back up to the top and pick a different, fresh line. I drop my pack at the top of the slope, ready to ski laps until my legs turn to jelly, and look around. There’s no one else around to claim the first tracks. It’s just me and the snow. Not exactly what I expected when I planned this trip, but exactly what I wanted.