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My Big Backyard

Skiing the wild and wildly familiar on Vermont's 300-mile Catamount Trail

Text and photography by Leath Tonino

We were trudging, not skiing, when we happened upon Willy Graf. I couldn't be sure—and getting sure seemed rude if not outright perverse—but it looked as though he was peeing. His SUV was parked where our trail crossed a dirt road, and the driver's side door and back door were both open, with the space between the two forming a kind of privy. My expedition partner, Ross, and I had been transacting a considerable amount of "business" in the great outdoors ourselves, and I must admit that I felt some camaraderie with this old man right away. I dropped my pack, pulled out a four-pound bag of gorp, and said hello.

Noting that our skis were strapped to the outsides of our packs rather than shooshing along nicely beneath our feet, Willy said, "Pretty crummy winter for it, eh?"

He was right. All across Vermont, people were talking about it—one of the warmest winters on record. We told Willy that we were end-to-ending the Catamount Trail, that we'd started at the Massachusetts border nine days back, and that, yeah, earlier this morning our precious three inches of crusty base had finally, completely, crapped out. We'd tried skiing on some moss, and even on brown matted leaves, but opted instead for a painful, steady forward trudge. Our goal, the Canadian border, was still 180 miles away.

Rather than submerge yourself for weeks in the wild, you shoosh for a day or two, then stop to buy doughnuts.

Willy commiserated. "I snowshoed 103 days out here last year," he said. "This year, maybe 6." As he spoke, he leaned over to strap to his boot a lightweight crampon, the kind dog walkers use on icy sidewalks. His movements were shaky. I was tempted to offer a hand, maybe stabilize him, but then it hit me: 103 days. He looked up at us and said, "I probably know every rock and root in the whole place."

It turned out that Willy was 89 years old. He told us about his youth in Switzerland, tromping and tramping. He told us about the importance of choosing to spend time outdoors, and with family, over spending time in the office making money. He told us about bushwhacking, about falling on a frozen pond last year, breaking a handful of ribs, and dragging himself back to this very trailhead so he could drive to the emergency room. Ross, whom I've known since preschool and who reminds me of a small moose—strong, quiet, completely at home in the woods—was impressed. I could tell because the rate at which he was sucking down gorp slowed the tiniest bit.

It would have been easy to sit and listen to Willy for hours, but Willy hadn't become Willy by standing around yapping all day. With some difficulty, he secured his other crampon, then stepped down onto a frozen gully paralleling the road. At the far side of the gully, a steep, eroding bank led up to the trail. We said goodbye, and he crossed the ice and bashed his way up the incline, kicking in steps like a mountaineer. There was no shakiness in him now.

At the top, he stopped and turned. "Hals- und Beinbruch," he said, and for an instant my heart sank. Gibberish. What a shame. Maybe he wasn't the strong, sharp, fierce outdoorsman that Ross and I so badly wanted him to be. Maybe he was just a kooky old babbler with a pee-anywhere-anytime philosophy.

But he went on. "It's German. It means 'Break your neck and your leg.' We used to say it as kids skiing in the Alps."

I repeated the phrase back to him, across the gulch, and he corrected my pronunciation. "It's something like 'Give 'em hell,'" he said. "And that's what you boys are doing. So keep it up. Hals- und Beinbruch! Give 'em hell!"

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