Freidlein Prairie is where it all started—sidecountry access from the top of the Arizona Snowbowl's chairlift to the southside of the San Francisco Peaks and beyond.
As an introduction to backcountry skiing, you could hardly do better. Yes, this is all south-aspect stuff at a relatively low latitude, but something truly magical happens when that Arizona sun hits the Peaks' southeast aspects, producing the smoothest, finest corn snow I've ever found.
There is no place like home. I could gush, endlessly, about the snow here, but (1) I don't think you'd believe me and (2) I think I'd rather keep this stash for myself. So, for the record: nothing to see here, please move on.
I've been eyeing the Freidlein Prairie area since I got here for the holidays, but tragically, I did not bring my touring gear. No Problem! I've got XC skis at my parents' house, and how different, really, is three-pin versus A/T?
So I hit Freidlein Prairie Road this morning, intending to climb up at least high enough to take some photos of the gorgeous terrain on Agassiz Peak's southeast face.
From the get-go I missed my skins.
We really don't appreciate how easily we climb in Alpine Touring gear. Switch to waxless Nordic, and you too can experience a different kind of ascent—a really shitty one. I was having trouble getting my skis to bite even on the lowest of low-angle climbs. One, maybe two degrees of angle and I'd have to start switchbacking to keep from sliding backward.
Ok, that is frustrating, but maybe I just needed some sort of special Nordic wax. And the weather was beautiful, and the mountain was beautiful, and life, to be honest, was beautiful, and I was climbing not just upward in elevation but backward in time, to the very roots of my backcountry skiing genesis.
So I kept going.
As you climb, the meadows open, and you get a stunning view of the town of Flagstaff, nestled at the foot of the mountain, and the sprawling wilderness of Northern Arizona, horizon to horizon.
That incredible view was fuel for my fire. I did what I had to to make those damned skinny skis climb, and climb we did.
At some point the snow got wetter, which made it stick to the bottoms of my skis. Great! I thought. Sticky skis would stop the backwards-sliding, making it much easier to climb. The sticky snow did stop the backward-sliding. It also made my skis very, very heavy.
Great clumps of snow now joined me for each and every step.
No problem! I thought. I banged my skis with my poles to knock the clumps off. I banged them again. And again. At that point you could have tied lead weights to my feet—I was in climbing mode, and no amount of glopping, great or small, was going to stop me.
I ran out of water, because of course I did, but I kept climbing, and now I had a plan: I was going to ski those marvelous glades beneath Agassiz' southeast face.
These are—let me just say it—these are special.
They open diagonally down across the face, such that you ski one, on possibly the best corn snow you've ever had in your life, and then you traverse right into the next glade, and ski that, and it's even better, and there's another one after that, and another, each one opening up before you like a brand-new mountain just waiting to be explored.
And I was thinking about that as I was climbing higher, and if anything I was getting stronger, water or not, and if in fact I wasn't actually on skis that I knew how to ski, I wasn't thinking so much about that.
I climbed up to about 10,500', where my boot's upper lace bracket broke, and maybe that dimmed my enthusiasm a tad, but I rigged a workaround, and then I traversed down into the steep gully between Agassiz and Doyle Saddle, and here...here I began to realize I was going to have some trouble on the down.
I got right to the start of those glorious, gleaming, perfectly-smooth snowfields, and I realized the pitch was completely beyond my capabilities. I had planned to make big, long, slow traverses for my descent, but even that proved to be like a Red Bull challenge.
So instead, I fell.
I fell forward. I fell backward. I fell to either side. I learned you can run—you can sprint, in fact, full speed—while wearing cross country skis, in a spirited but futile attempt to avoid falling on your face.
I tried dropping my knee. I tried remembering which knee (downhill? uphill?) you're supposed to drop. The snow dropped me instead.
In the transitions between the glades, I tried sidestepping. I fell. My legs began to cramp. I contemplated, for a time, just taking off my skis and rolling down the hill. But something funny began to happen: with each fall, my grin just got bigger.
I became one with the mountain in ways that skiers who can start, stop, and turn simply cannot imagine.
When at last the pitch receded, and I reached the long gentle runout to the car, covered in snow and soaking wet, I did not ski so much as soar, a three-legged gazelle, a drunken ballet dancer, a Greek God of falling, reveling in his immortality.
Happy 2022 everyone—I'm back from the grave and ready to party.
— January 4, 2022
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
Joseph Gregory January 5, 2022 at 11:07 am
Glorious. Utterly wonderful.
James Seely January 5, 2022 at 8:58 pm
I smiled and laughed my way through it. Happy New Years!
charles January 12, 2022 at 10:48 am
This is brilliant, amusing, and beautiful, thank you!
Every now and then I'll take my eyewear off on a resort run for a minute, to reduce the technological advantage for a moment and get a truer appreciation of quiet, space, speed and scenery. But that's just a toe into the pool you just swam through. You write it in a way that gives a sense of immersion in the moment. Much appreciated.
Brad Brown January 17, 2022 at 10:22 am
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll hate yourself, you’ll wanna quit….: something like that is how old movie ads would gush on about their latest cinematic triumph. That’s about how I heard this one….sounds like a Warren Miller segment of the clueless learning to ski. Cows on ice, er corn, or something!? Some days without a laugh at myself I’d have an otherwise humorless day. This is made funnier by comparison with your legit mad mountain skills, which, um, apparently took the day off. Thx for this, made my day.
george January 28, 2022 at 6:48 pm
Great story! It's all about just getting out there right?
Little tip...fill your water bottle with some snow...maybe half and hang it outside your pack and it will melt if sunny. Better yet, over hydrate before you venture out.