By Dina Michev a Jackson, Wyoming-based freelance writer
At night, I might not be able to see the Tetons in the distance, or Cache Peak or the Game Creek drainage closer to me, but I can hear owls coming to life in the aspen and whitebark pine. I can hear coyotes (and I swear, twice I heard wolves) howling as they get ready for their nighttime hunt. I can follow the tracks of moose and deer and be amazed at how I never manage to catch a glimpse of them even though their footprints and beds are everywhere.
The sun was setting just as I hit the halfway point of my backcountry ski tour. I had already skied 12 miles along Cache Creek, up to Game Creek Divide, and along an undulating ridge to the backside of the Snow King Ski Area. Enjoying the peace and quiet of my ski tour – and always preferring longer to shorter — I opted to turn around and retrace my tracks, a three-hour trip, rather than hit Snow King and civilization, a 30-minute trip.
Taking a final glance at the last pink rays of the setting sun, I executed a fairly graceful kick-turn and started sliding back in the tracks I had just made. There wasn’t a movement or noise that drew my attention to my left, but something made me turn and look in that direction. No more than 40 feet away sat a mountain lion. It was looking directly at me.
Years ago I read somewhere that 125 was the magic number for mountain lions, or puma if you prefer. The article reasoned that if you were bigger than 125 pounds, which I am by several multiples of 10, a mountain lion would think you too much trouble to be prey. Pulling my earphones out, I hoped this mountain lion had gotten that memo.
I paused the book I had been listening to on my iPod, began checking over my shoulder every 10 seconds for a big cat sneaking up on me, and strained my ears listening for sounds of puma pads crunching snow. Oh, and I flicked on my headlamp. Usually when the moon is out I go as light and small as possible. That afternoon though, for whatever reason, I put a Stella 200 in my pack. I doubt the orb of daylight that surrounded me mattered to the mountain lion, but it certainly made me feel better. I began looking over my shoulder only every 20 seconds or so.
Obviously, the mountain lion did not attack me. In fact, I never saw it again after the 40-foot stare down we had. By the time I lost sight of it behind a tree – I don’t expect any light to penetrate a pine — it hadn’t budged an inch, with the exception of its head, which moved to follow my retreat.
I know mountain lions can have a range of at least a couple of hundred miles, but about half-way back I began to find the meditative groove that make nighttime ski tours such a favorite of mine.
Sometimes I do this tour with a girlfriend – when we’re training for the annual Elk Mountains Grand Traverse it’s a favorite of ours; but other than Jill, I’ve never seen another person or tracks back there. I don’t always do it at night, but as it takes between 5 and 6 hours to do as an out-and-back, and the sun sets before 5 p.m. in Wyoming in the winter, I’m usually in the dark for at least part of it.
My first few winters in Jackson, I was under the delusion activity ended when the sun set. With the sun setting as early as it does, days were short indeed. I’m embarrassed at how much time I, an avid backcountry skier, wanna-be snow biker, and ice climber wasted with this line of thought. Bring on the dark! (Provided I’m carrying the proper equipment….)
Dina Mishev’s work appears in Sunset, Outside, Skiing, Shape, and Via. In February 2009 she set the Guinness World Record for the most vertical feet skied uphill by a woman in 24 Hours (34,546 feet). She used a Stella while training for that too. Read more of her work at dinamishev.com.