Spring is for backcountry … fair weather, corn snow, and the occasional late-season dump–it’s fairly predictable. Roll it back a couple months to January, however, and your chances of encountering Mother Nature’s full wrath increase dramatically, which tends to keep most mountain travelers at bay during winter. The smart ones, at least. Then again, powder is a powerful motivator.

The biggest storm of the winter was hitting the western U.S., blanketing the Sierras in snow. As kids built snowmen in places like Bakersfield, California, Jim and Bonnie Zellers were driving through Truckee en route to Tom Burt’s house. Their son Dylan was next to me in the back, sleeping away in his car seat and unaware of nature’s bombardment. Outside the car, that hyperspace effect you get from snowflakes streaking through the headlight beams had escalated to a full-blown meteor shower. All the while, I couldn’t get one question out of my brain: We’re heading into the backcountry tomorrow?

* **

I followed the barely perceptible tracks etched into the ice of a wind-scoured ridgeline. A strong, persistent wind was forcing me toward the edge of a place I didn’t want to go. I stopped, spread my legs wide, and straddled the force, doing my best to inch forward between gusts.

Photographer Richard Leversee was directly behind me, and Tom Burt and Jim Zellers were two beacons in the blizzard ahead. We’d already climbed several-thousand vertical feet that day, and a couple-thousand more the night before. In a state of white-out vertigo, I nearly fell over when I reached behind my back to grab a water bottle, only to find it frozen solid. Supposedly, somewhere out there was a cabin where we could thaw out. Tom guaranteed it.

Suddenly through the sideways snow, the sun parted the maelstrom just for a few moments, revealing snowghosts all around me, rime-covered trees with not a branch showing through the white. A rainbow burst open, painting the blank wasteland in Candyland colors. The moment inspired in me newfound strength, and I skied on my separated splitboard another 150 feet to where Tom peered over into yet another void.

“We’re here,” he said. Jim skied over and lined himself up with Tom’s outstretched finger.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Yep, there’s a chimney.”

The only thing Richard could manage was, “You’re kidding.” It was 12:30 p.m.–midday–and we’d started at 3:30 a.m. More than once we’d considered digging a hole and crawling inside for a break from the elements. It’d been a suckfest kind of day.

Yet with numb fingers, we transformed our skis into snowboards and chipped the ice off our fun-meters with a run through 1,500 vertical feet of nature’s finest. Finally, we were heading downhill, through a nice bowl, connecting with a gully section, eventually flattening out to the meadow that served as the front yard of the Bigfoot Motel. A legendary hunter’s cabin deep in the Tahoe Wilderness, the Bigfoot’s one of those desolate places you might stumble upon in the summer and wonder what it’d be like in the dead of winter.

The door was blocked with snow, but shovels made short work of it. Hinges creaked. Mice scattered. Nobody’d been there in a while. Inside, we started a fire, warmed up, ate, drank, and recovered.

Hours later, Richard peered out the door and said, “You know those little plastic things you shake up with snowflakes inside them?”

“Yeah,” Jim replied. “We’re inside a really, really big one.”

It was absolutely horrible outside, but we had to get a run in before dark. Warm and refueled, we scrambled into our gear and headed out. We walked on water, thanks to our splitboards and wide climbing skin I’d never had so much fun negotiating deep snow uphill. Choosing our route carefully, we zigged and zagged through thick forest. Spaced out in a line, the many moments of solitude inspired long internal dialogues. Old-growth trees surrounded us, the elements no match for their hearty bark. That place, right then, was as harsh and inhospitable as a snowstorm gets.

“It sure feels cozy out here,” Jim said, looking up toward the barely visible summit. “There’s something about being wrapped up in a shit storm like this that takes me back to the womb.” I immediately thought back to a time I’d asked Jim if the backcountry ever inspired him philosophically.

“I don’t come into the backcountry to write poetry, I come out here to ride,” he’d replied, dismissing the thought. I wondered if he realized that his latest musing about returning to the womb–even with the term “shit storm”–was as poetic a notion as Robert Frost might’ve uttered had he been there.

* **

The last thing I heard from Tom at the summit was, “Damn, this Sierra cement sucks!” With that, he disappeared below, Jim riding at his side, both enveloped in a double-whammy of thigh-deep feathers and relentless snowfall. The trees were tight and the drop-offs were abundant and unexpected as we descended on the Bigfoot Motel once again.

“I’ve never tried so hard not to get face shots,” Jim said, dusting himself off back at the cabin. Now the heavy packs we’d cursed on the way in were rewarding us with fancy-eatin’ foods: chunks of cheese, canned ham, tortillas, chocolate, and Vogelvasser … Vogelvasser? According to Richard, Vogelvasser is any form of alcohol you can mix with tea, hot chocolate, coffee, or the like. Jim, who’d done the provisioning back in town, observed two nights in, “When you’re shopping, everybody says, ‘Tea or coffee is fine.’ But the cocoa always goes first.”

And still it snowed, but the cabin was full of good vibes. The writing was on the walls. And on the bunks, and the ceiling. There were notes from snowboarders dating back to the mid 80s–guys like Terry Kidwell had left their mark. A Mike Hatchett etching of a mushroom patch was no doubt inspired and created on a stormy day like this, a day in which the snow kept coming down. Visibility? Pea soup in a blender.

Despite the relentless storm, we sampled wet, deep freshness. This was the daily routine: skin up, take a run back to the cabin, get warm, eat, dry out, repeat. Such was life at the Bigfoot Motel.

It got lively sometimes, like when we played cards with “Whiskey” Zellers. Obviously a poker shark in a previous life, Jim’s stern demeanor behind his hand of cards said one thing: You beat me, I beat you. And he meant with a heavy piece of firewood. He was one mean son of a bitch until we got a few slugs of Vogelvasser in him. Then he tamed right down and became a pussycat. Still, we knew better than to mess with Whiskey. More than once, that pussycat lashed out and tossed one of us out the door into the darkness of the storm late at night.

And the night was spooky. Legends loomed large in those parts about a certain reclusive resident known as Bigfoot. We’d even found a pair of size-thirteen Wigwam socks hanging over the fire when we arrived. And as ornery as he was, even Whiskey would be hard-pressed to deal with whatever wore those foot warmers.

Just walking around the corner of the cabin when nature called was an exercise in controlling your imagination. You’d do your business, constantly scanning the darkness with your headlamp. Just beyond the beam lurked the unknown. I grew goosebumps on my arms and the hair on my neck stood up–something was out there in those woods, and it wasn’t human.

Back in the cabin, I took my mind off it, slowly sipping one of Whiskey’s specialty–Gatorade/Cuervo snow margaritas. I entertained myself by reading all the bad poetry scrawled on the underside of the bunk above me: “So we lined up our bagels each morning with care/ With hopes that the sun might give us a stare.”

Yet it snowed, continuing to come down the next day in an endless waterfall, flakes meandering through space like so many tiny parachutes. It seemed like we were in the eye of the storm as a strange calm took hold of the forest. The squeaky crunch-crunch of snow beneath our splitboard skis was actually audible in the absence of the wind we’d grown so accustomed to. This magnificent storm filled in every track we’d laid; each morning it was as if we’d never been there.

We explored a section of forest where we’d turned back from the previous day due to severe whiteout conditions. The day before we’d opted not to risk dropping in for fear of riding off the cliff we knew loomed somewhere in the quagmire. Instead we retraced our tracks back down. But this day–through the windless calm of the storm’s eye–we negotiated the maze of Wile E. Coyote rocks and pines to a place where couloirs drained down like rivers.

Assessing avalanche danger, Tom and Jim dug. And dug and dug, finally discovering the layer of snow that started this entire storm cycle. We could just barely make out the top of Tom’s head, and Whiskey was completely out of view in the snowpit.

More than six feet of fresh had fallen since we’d stumbled upon the Bigfoot Motel. And so it went, piling up outside the cabin until late one afternoon.

“What in the hell is that?” Tom asked seriously as he looked out the window. We scrambled to see for ourselves. It was the sun!

For three glorious hours our legs were like pistons, cranking out as much vertical as possible before the gray world of the storm closed back in on us. And in those three hours, Richard made up for days of impossible shooting conditions as his shutter clicked rapid-fire. We hit the best lines we’d discovered during our storm sessions. Cornices were dropped, face shots were farmed, and bowls were carved up.

***

The fourth and final day, the Vogelvasser went dry, and we skied up and out of our haven. A 4,000-vertical-foot tree run stood between us and civilization. We milked it, eventually hitting blacktop on a certain highway not far from Lake Tahoe. The storm had already turned to slush at this lower altitude, in sharp contrast to our upper runs just that morning, which were as dry as Utah might boast.

We walked on the side of the highway like four musketeers, wielding boards under our arms, bulging packs on our backs, and mouths full of cotton. While shell-shocked townspeople recovered from the storm, digging out vehicles and repairing homes, we passed by largely unnoticed. My mind drifted back to the cosmic sunset during that magical break in the storm the evening before, so brilliant after the long inhospitable days of complete whiteout, and I smiled. With all due respect to The Perfect Storm’s author Sebastian Junger and the people he wrote about, this had been a perfect storm. Even better–nobody died.

ose woods, and it wasn’t human.

Back in the cabin, I took my mind off it, slowly sipping one of Whiskey’s specialty–Gatorade/Cuervo snow margaritas. I entertained myself by reading all the bad poetry scrawled on the underside of the bunk above me: “So we lined up our bagels each morning with care/ With hopes that the sun might give us a stare.”

Yet it snowed, continuing to come down the next day in an endless waterfall, flakes meandering through space like so many tiny parachutes. It seemed like we were in the eye of the storm as a strange calm took hold of the forest. The squeaky crunch-crunch of snow beneath our splitboard skis was actually audible in the absence of the wind we’d grown so accustomed to. This magnificent storm filled in every track we’d laid; each morning it was as if we’d never been there.

We explored a section of forest where we’d turned back from the previous day due to severe whiteout conditions. The day before we’d opted not to risk dropping in for fear of riding off the cliff we knew loomed somewhere in the quagmire. Instead we retraced our tracks back down. But this day–through the windless calm of the storm’s eye–we negotiated the maze of Wile E. Coyote rocks and pines to a place where couloirs drained down like rivers.

Assessing avalanche danger, Tom and Jim dug. And dug and dug, finally discovering the layer of snow that started this entire storm cycle. We could just barely make out the top of Tom’s head, and Whiskey was completely out of view in the snowpit.

More than six feet of fresh had fallen since we’d stumbled upon the Bigfoot Motel. And so it went, piling up outside the cabin until late one afternoon.

“What in the hell is that?” Tom asked seriously as he looked out the window. We scrambled to see for ourselves. It was the sun!

For three glorious hours our legs were like pistons, cranking out as much vertical as possible before the gray world of the storm closed back in on us. And in those three hours, Richard made up for days of impossible shooting conditions as his shutter clicked rapid-fire. We hit the best lines we’d discovered during our storm sessions. Cornices were dropped, face shots were farmed, and bowls were carved up.

***

The fourth and final day, the Vogelvasser went dry, and we skied up and out of our haven. A 4,000-vertical-foot tree run stood between us and civilization. We milked it, eventually hitting blacktop on a certain highway not far from Lake Tahoe. The storm had already turned to slush at this lower altitude, in sharp contrast to our upper runs just that morning, which were as dry as Utah might boast.

We walked on the side of the highway like four musketeers, wielding boards under our arms, bulging packs on our backs, and mouths full of cotton. While shell-shocked townspeople recovered from the storm, digging out vehicles and repairing homes, we passed by largely unnoticed. My mind drifted back to the cosmic sunset during that magical break in the storm the evening before, so brilliant after the long inhospitable days of complete whiteout, and I smiled. With all due respect to The Perfect Storm’s author Sebastian Junger and the people he wrote about, this had been a perfect storm. Even better–nobody died.