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Horse Mountain Snow Sense 

You have got chains, right, Ben?"

We had skipped town again, this time with cross-country skis, to take advantage of the recent cold snap -- finally a benefit to the omnipresent Humboldt County winter precipitation. The joy of writing an outdoor column is that you always have a handy excuse to escape, nearly guilt-free, and try something new and adventurous. I have learned, however, when it comes to adventuring with Ben, who seems to be a professional at every extreme outdoor sport out there, that I need to ask the seemingly obvious questions. Ben of course did not have chains, but he reassured me that only a handful of times had he ever been stuck, and only a few times had he driven off a snowy road.

There were five of us: my wife Dana, Ben's girlfriend Tamina, friend Julia and Ben and myself. As usual, with just about all wintry endeavors, everyone but me had experience - in this case, copious time spent strapped into heel-free skis. So I would be the Gumby again, hiding behind my camera and the necessity of credible documentation instead of letting my entire body slither through the icy snow, as would be inevitable.

But I did ski, and I found that I had a natural balance that I could rely on, even given the lack of friction. I made good time and was sure-footed, heading uphill at least. I was suddenly enamored by the seasonal kiss of white, something I rarely choose to engage. The air was bitingly crisp and refreshing and cerulean skies afforded views of Humboldt Bay and waves breaking along the coast. Eastward, snow dusted the majestic line of Trinity Alps, and a lone ivory monolith towered above them all. Not possible, I thought, given the incredible distance - but I swear it was Mt. Shasta.

Dana and Julia grabbed a towrope and Ben steered as all the horses hidden in the Subaru Outback pulled them along the snowy road. I begged off the opportunity, with the camera as scapegoat. Ben had shared that the week prior he blazed to 45 mph in tow and the line snapped, sending him headlong into a snow bank; still without proper health insurance, I wanted to stay injury-free. Thankfully, Ben kept the horses in check and the speed to a reasonable 20, for which I was thankful, not only for my wife's sake, but because my purchase in the open hatchback was less than secure, with one hand on the camera, shooting.

Tamina then left in a separate car for the distant slopes of Shasta, and the four of us stayed to explore more obscure contours of the peak. There were legions of snow-goers in the main parking area and nearby roads. A large group had pitched camp just down from the radio towers. We wanted to get beyond the sledders, hikers, snowballers and beer-swilling partiers. With the all-wheel drive, Ben was confident we could get off the well-beaten path and make fresh tracks. We headed up along the hogsback ridgeline for several miles before finding an offshoot road that likely led to Hayfork or some more obscure location, with Dana and Julia once again in tow.

Soon the one lane road angled sharply downhill, and when Ben hit the brakes the girls were fired forward ahead of the car, slingshot-style. They deftly stayed upright and continued down and out of sight. Ben and I then tried to negotiate a 180-degree turn and discovered the all-wheel drive had suddenly become all tractionless. It was only the second time I had seen Ben truly concerned.

We were imagining waiting for the spring thaw to retrieve his vehicle. It was going to be a long hike out. Dana and Julia eventually skied back. Undaunted, the girls de-skied and began pushing the car uphill. Again I used the excuse that I had to document the experience, but it didn't go over too well. I could only grab a shot. Amazing what can be done with a few sticks, a bouldering crash pad (traditionally used as protection from falls at the base of boulder that is being climbed) and a lot of muscle and perseverance. I am fairly convinced that Ben and I would still be out there, two big blue popsicles, if it was not for Dana and Julia's ingenuity and the altruistic crash pad.

With a little encouragement, the pad offered up the ultimate sacrifice. To get traction we would throw it beneath the back tires on the uphill side for five-to-10 foot stretches. We managed to make it to the main road before dark, after a couple hours of exhausting work. Ben saved his back by driving, but lost his $300 crash pad. We opted for tamer pursuits in the little time before sunset after our misadventure.

Once back on the main road we parked the car and conservatively hiked to a section where only snowmobiles had yet dared to tread. We contented ourselves making snow angels, climbing on the chossy boulders and catching snowballs with the backs of our heads. From the summit the land fell away rapidly to the south and west, past naked black oaks and brilliantly green pines. Had it not been for the huge blank swaths from clearcuts at the other hillside of the South Fork of the Trinity drainage, the views would have been nearly unparalleled.

As usual with these rare days, it ended too soon. The body was pleasantly aching from new activity, different muscles had been engaged and new regions explored. The multi-dimensional map of experiences was again expanding: adding contour, seasonal expression and new physical pursuits to the dynamic canvas. Life enhanced with greater depth and ever-greater heights attained, forged with the promise of new dreams to engage. We talked of going to Shasta soon, winter camping and skiing in the backcountry, our personal landscapes and our shared worlds expanding ever outward.

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