Friends try not to stare, but they can’t help it. Stop with them at the garage to pick up some motor oil or lag screws — floaty toys in summer or cider jars in fall — and they stop cold in their tracks. They did not see it coming, this descent. You did not seem so obsessive, like a hoarder, like those addle-eyed freaks on TV. But it’s hard not to notice. The paint cans, the fire pump, the beer fridge, the rubber boots, the broke-down saws all turn, apparently, invisible. Skis are all they see.
Skis tucked in cinder blocks. Skis leaning on stovepipe. Skis hanging, properly, from a ceiling rack scabbed together with rough-cut scraps: tips in two-by-twos, tails in plastic six-pack holders, scissored in thirds. Skis with spiders. Skis with dust. Skis with bindings that look like paper clips and hold like a vice, bindings that were only available for two seasons in the mid-1980s, which have lasted against all odds, like Madonna or Prince. Side-cut skis that don’t edge on ice. Straight long skis that slide fast in slush and turn poorly in slop, though god knows you tried. For years, for decades.
Which ones do you use? your friends ask.
All of them, you say.
Then they know they are in for it. The stories. Skis you stuck like a cage into the crust to keep your bivvy from sliding down the ridge. Skis you held like swords to fight off coyotes encircling the tent. Skis you wear every Tuesday, no-whining day, to slog with friends up this same untracked road and back down. Once you saw wolverine tracks; often you see elk. Not the skis you wore when you fell — those like the ligament are long gone — but the ones you wore after surgery, inching back, sliding through hoar frost tinkling like glass, tentative but stubborn. Stubborn, too, on the lifts in your leather, in your three pins, shrugging off the sneers at resorts or near-resorts — Targhee, Bachelor, Bridger Bowl, Purgatory — splitting a half-day pass with a friend and switching jackets after each run, eating jerky from the pocket of your anorak with the dirty Kleenex and the slushy cans of Pabst or Rainier. Sometimes, when you were learning, you skied with these pink Minnie Mouse poles to keep your arms low. Then later: for the hell of it.
You can’t show your friends the ones that didn’t make it. Skis you shredded on cinders, red stone rooster tails spewed behind each sunlit turn. Skis that delaminated in the woods. Bindings epoxied then heli-coiled until screw holes grew wide as dimes then nickels, until wood puddled to rot. And you don’t show them the tool kit with steel wool and zip ties, screwdriver and wood screws, matchsticks, duct tape, candles, wax.
Time is getting scarce. There are other things to do: hiking, biking, kayaking. Your friends fidget, check a watch, gaze out the open door.
You show them the snowshoes you use to take the nephews to the gravel pit to sled, the ones you used to carry for emergencies, like the time you got lost on a trail you’d skied a thousand times before and ended up in a canyon bottom and had to climb back up and …
Why don’t you carry them anymore?
Because we’re dumb?
But it’s not true. You’re older; you’re wiser; you have more discretion. You are a better skier, a more balanced person. You know that it is time to leave this musty hole. Get on with life. But you’re not ready; you’re not even really in the garage anymore; you’re thinking ahead to the day, not too far from now, when you’ll haul them out, one pair at a time, and not put them back. By mid-winter, they’ll be stacked on the porch, strewn in the woodshed, stuck in the shed-side berm, the full selection in full view, in case you have to decide fast before dark to head out in blue jeans with no cap into the dusk, onto the snow, because what the hell else is there to do? Just slide.
Ana Maria Spagna is the author of “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus,” “Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw” and, most recently, “ “Potluck: Community on the Edge of wilderness.” You can eyeball her blog, “Wet Wool,” at mountaingazette.com. Spagna lives in Stehekin, Wash.
A ski boot sits on the floor of my bedroom, next to the box where its mate resides. It’s new — a Tecnica. The “foot” part is black, the sides white. Orange swirls splash across its surface. I was told the names of these boot parts (and a lot of other technical information) when I bought them at Flat Iron Sports. But I was too distracted by the feel of the boots on my feet to remember the details: last year’s women’s model — ladies,’ as Larry called it — strangling my right foot and calf, and this year’s men’s model cradling my left. Snug. Warm. Full of promise.
“What do you think?” Larry asked me.
I leaned my back against the carpeted riser where I sat and stalled. I’d already promised Larry that buying a men’s model didn’t bother me. Two years ago, I bought a men’s road bike because I have long legs, but mostly because all the women’s bikes were pink or pale blue. But a brand-new ski boot wasn’t a purchase I expected to make.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl,” I said, “or because I’m from Minnesota. But I worry about having too much boot for my skill level.”
Larry and his coworker Peter laughed. I’ve only known them for an hour, but Larry feels like my own personal buyer, and Peter reminds me of Santa Claus. Together, their laughter makes me relax.
“That’s human nature,” Peter said, shaking his head.
The last time I skied, I was at Grand Targhee, over the pass from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The first day, the clouds were so thick I couldn’t see more than a few feet past the tips of my skis. My then-boyfriend disappeared ahead of me while I snowplowed through the fog and talked to myself: “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.” I longed for clear blue skies so I could see where I was going, until the second day, when the winter sun illuminated the mountain. I looked down from the chairlift and swore. The mountain dropped away from under me, more of a snow-covered cliff than a hill. That’s what I’ve been skiing? I thought. But by the end of the trip, I followed my then-boyfriend down most slopes without checking the color of the run; I was loosening up on my feet, bending forward instead of leaning back. Wishing I lived out West so I could do this some more.
I told Larry and Peter that was eight years ago; they said no problem.
“You look pretty athletic, and you’ll be out with your friends,” Larry said, gesturing at the empty space where my roommate stood before she left the fitting to head to work. “They’ll push you. It’ll be a quick learning curve.”
I smiled at being called athletic. But it was probably more like nine or 10 years ago, enough time for the then-boyfriend to become the husband and then the ex-husband. Enough time to live out — and unravel — what felt like a lifetime of dreams, until I felt out of place sitting in the bar in a ski town. Prior to Targhee, my downhill experience was limited to Afton Alps in Minnesota, an ice bomb smaller than Targhee’s bunny hill. I have two vivid memories from Afton, both from junior high. In the first, I am sliding down a black diamond on my back, head first, resisting the urge to wave at the skiers on the chairlift as they stare down at me with mouths agape. In the second, I am unable to stop. At the bottom of the run, I take out an entire rack of skis with the tips of mine and then slide over a snow bank, once again on my back, skidding to a stop in the parking lot. I rarely tell that story; I can’t get the words out around my laughter. And I’m not sure how I can tell a story like that and then say, “I just moved to Crested Butte. It’s a backcountry-skiing mecca, and the birthplace of mountain biking. I don’t do either.”
Before my roommate and I went to Flat Iron Sports, we walked up the rec path toward Mt. Crested Butte, killing time during the off-season. We walked quietly while my small black herding dog ran to the end of her leash and barked at the empty horse corrals. Then Laura asked: “Do you know if you want to shop for skis or a snowboard yet?”
I smiled down at the brown grasses on the edge of the path, the way the sun lit them up from behind. Snow is late this year.
“No,” I said. “I always assumed I’d learn to ski, but the idea of snowboarding makes me smile.”
I looked up at the mountains around me, stoic and removed and covered in snow. I tried to imagine winter — snow banks taller than my car, ski tracks down Red Lady’s bowl. But I couldn’t quite picture it. Couldn’t conjure the feel of getting onto a ski lift, winter wind pinching my cheeks as I flexed my fingers to keep them warm.
“I don’t really know how to decide,” I said instead. “I think I need to go learn about both so I can get smart about buying gear. I doubt I’ll buy anything today.”
“So, where does this pair fall in the general price range for boots?” I asked Larry.
He wandered over to the wall of boots in front of me, picking them up one at a time. High-end boots two and three hundred dollars more than mine.
“We don’t really carry anything less than five,” he said, which is less than the pair on my feet. I know what he is really telling me: they only sell quality boots. “I could take 15 percent off for you.”
I debated putting the purchase off for a week — going home and having Laura tell me once more it’s okay. That I can go from not knowing if I wanted to ski or snowboard to buying ski boots. Expensive ski boots. But the shop keys were hanging in the door, the florescent lights overhead bouncing off the darkening windows. Somewhere, the sun was setting, and Larry and Peter had stayed past closing time for me. Had looked at my feet and measured them, addressed the way they are long and narrow and prone to falling asleep in ski boots. Had carefully fitted each boot until I settled on the Tecnica. Had treated me like I was for real, not some kid falling down a slope. And before Laura left, she had coached me: “If you find something you like, go for it. You’ve been saving for this, and you’re ready. Go for it.”
So I did.
For a week now, the ski boot has sat on my floor. I glance at it periodically and then out the window, wondering when snow will arrive for good. Marveling at the way snow means everything here: the start of my job, the return of people to town, the beginning of learning to ski. I wonder how long I will have to wait until my new life truly begins, and that is when I understand why I bought those boots. When Larry told me to stand on the riser and slip my foot into the boot, he told me to push against the front of my calf — to really crank it down.
“I don’t worry about selling you a man’s boot, even though they’re stiffer,” he said, kneeling in front of me. “You have long legs so they won’t pinch your calves and you’ve got some strength there.”
And standing there, I could feel it, too. I could see me, strong legged and upright, skiing down a mountain. Sometimes that is the power of a material thing — a simple piece of gear. It gives us the vision of where we are going, something to believe in before we have fully arrived.
It’s exciting to see the Western Slope of Colorado hosting its second regional poetry festival of 2011. After this spring’s greatly successful Karen Chamberlain Poetry Festival in Carbondale (honoring a former poetry editor here at MG and presented by the Thunder River Theatre Company), Sandra Dorr and the Western Colorado Writers Forum is featuring The Language of This Land in Grand Junction, Oct. 7-9. Colorado Poet Laureate David Mason will be one of the lead performers.
Robert King has been an important voice for poetry throughout Colorado. His on-line directory of state poets — the Colorado Poets Center — is an essential listing of over 140 poets, bios, photos, contact info, poem samples and more recently a quarterly newsletter that keeps poets in touch with publications and poetry happenings around the state www.coloradopoetscenter.org
King is also a very fine poet, and his latest work was this year’s winner of the Grayson Books Chapbook Competition. “Rodin & Co.” is an outgrowth of King’s fascination with the famous sculptor after a visit to the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. Included herein is a poem from the new book. For more info, visit King’s personal website: http://robertkingpoet.com — Art Goodtimes Cloud Acre
Western Slope Poet Laureate Art Goodtimes is a 4th-term San Miguel County Commissioner, co-chair of the Colorado Green Party, fungophile, basketweaver and spud farmer. http://goodtimespoetlaureate.blogspot.com/
Deep in my heart there is a party barn.
The band has run a cable from the dorm
And now everyone is dancing, drinking,
Laughing, flirting, yelling, not really thinking
About Monday’s classes or graduation.
And why not? Most real sadness is yet to come.
Which is why cocky boys pour beer down the stairs
Then surf the suds on their bare chests in February,
For this is Carnival, and there are girls to impress…
And what did you expect? A city on a hill?
— David Rothman Poetry Director, Western State College MFA in Creative Writing Boulder/Crested Butte
Surfaces Only innumerable surfaces, undulations without end. — Rilke
He’d execute a contour of the body
sometimes by candlelight, each muscle’s edge
found as light flamed up around the flesh
rolling through dark, a series of horizons,
a single planet always arriving,
the human form with its “infinite
number of outlines” he loved, who watched these men,
these women, move in the light, their darkness
slowly lost, one shadow at a time.
— Robert King Greeley, Colorado
Light seeps in
one red leaf
in the road
omen of fall
in the garden
belie season’s finale
I give you this:
and go on
— Linda Keller Denver
it steps armored out of the head
and commits itself
itself and teaches us to prize
the self-made wound
by displaying its purple bruise
— Dan Beachy-Quick Fort Collins
In my red bowl, last fall’s
Hawkswing mushrooms (Hydnum imbricatum)
Gathered with whistling kids
Nudge beet greens I plucked yesterday
From my garden in the hailstorm
Which explains the store-bought yellow squash
And miso for stock; nothing ever
Tasted so good.
— Ellen Metrick San Miguel County Poet Laureate Norwood, Colorado
If you live in the Mountain West, chances are you are a transplant, and if you’re not, your parents are/were. While the occasional mountain dweller arrived here to work a legitimate 9 to 5, there is overwhelming evidence that skiing initially lured a high percentage of us here (and, cliché time here — summer seduced us into staying). And even if your knees, lungs and bank account have given out, plenty of people have stepped in to take your place. The National Ski Areas Association announced a record 60.4 million skiers and riders nationwide for the 2010-2011 season.
1) Cheap turns
If you’re paying more than a hundred bucks for a lift ticket or haven’t made your arrangements until you get to the ticket window, you haven’t done your homework and probably don’t have it together enough to ski or ride safely anyway. If you ski more than five days a year at any given area, look at a season pass. The Tahoe Value Pass (as of August) was a scant $379 for both Heavenly and Northstar. Plus, many of the pass programs include huge deals at related ski areas and discount companion tickets (so if you don’t ski enough to buy a pass, suck up to someone who does). If you’re scouting out smaller resorts that hearken to days of yore, check out Badger Pass in Yosemite, where a mid-week ticket will put you back a mere $35. In Montana, there’s Lost Trail Powder Mountain, where 2010-11 rates were a scant $36. And in Colorado, there is always Ski Cooper. An adult ticket is just 44 bucks this year, and there are abundant cheap eats and real bars in nearby Leadville. Meanwhile, the steep and deep is available at Wolf Creek for $54. And if you’re still looking for cheap skiing, simply join the U.S. military, which will usually get you the best daily rate on the mountain — and get you fit enough to ski or ride the whole day — thereby increasing the value.
2) Got GNAR?
Inspired by Robb Gaffney and the very-missed Shane McConkey, GNAR is Gaffney’s Numerical Assessment of Raddness, which assigns points to your actions based on the level of discomfort and your attitude toward conquering it. For 500 points, you can do the entry-level PC, or Pro Call out: “Hey (name of pro)! I can’t believe you’re a pro. I’m totally better than you!” Then there’s the EH, or Employee Housing. This is when a non-employee spends the night in employee housing for 5,000 points, PLUS a bonus 15,000 points if you successfully score with one of the occupants. Vomiting (YP, or Young Gun Puke) sets you back a whopping 5,000. Similarly, a gaper gap (GG) will cost you 1,000, and the TT is a devastating minus 20,000 if you wear a tall T-shirt on the mountain or around town. A $25,000 GNAR contest was underway at Squaw Valley in March 2010, but not surprisingly, company officials put the kibosh on it after the general manager personally caught one of the participants buck naked (BN). The pulled pass was a 5,000-point deduction.
3) Nix on Global Warming?
Gasbags who still don’t believe in climate change used last season’s record snows on the East Coast and much of the West’s ski country to inflate their arguments against global warming. While Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) built an igloo on Capitol Hill and invited Al Gore to live there, some more intelligent discourse linked a warmer planet to bigger, more frequent weather events. That said, skiers and riders had some of the best snow anyone can remember. Vail, for example, had its snowiest season in its 48-year history, marking 511 inches (nearly 43 feet) mid-mountain between the opening and closing dates. Interstate 70 between Denver and Vail was closed 31 times due to bad weather for a total of 84 hours — compared to 12 closures the previous season. There were 159 weather-related accidents on that much-used section of Interstate, compared to 63 in 2009-2010. And, this year, 12 ski areas in the West had enough snow to still be open for the Fourth of July.
4) The National Brotherhood of Skiers
celebrates 39 years this season with its annual Summit at Sun Valley. Boasting about 3,000 members, the group’s aim is to promote athletes of color with the goal of having them on the podium in the Olympics and other major competitions. The group started in Aspen as the Black Ski Summit with 350 participants. While the numbers of black skiers and riders has grown, people of color still comprise a seriously small percentage of those who ski. Blacks are roughly 2 percent of the downhill skiing population, with Latinos at 3 percent, Asians at 4 percent and Native Americans at a scant 1 percent.
5) Get scared. Really scared
Corbet’s Couloir (named after one-time frequent Mountain Gazette correspondent, the late-Barry Corbet) at Jackson Hole consistently ranks among the scariest ski runs in the world, and tops many a domestic list for white-knuckle experiences in which you’re best to check your insurance policy and don a Depends beforehand. The entrance is a 10-to-30-foot free fall off a cornice, followed by a 60-degree slope. If you fall, that’s it. You’re pretty much committed to falling the remainder of the run. Crested Butte’s Body Bag gets considerable bragging rights, boasting a 275-foot vertical drop at 55 degrees. If you survive these, head over to the Silver King Runs at Crystal Mountain Ski Resort in Washington, where you can experience why Pin Ball, Brain Damage and Lobotomy are so named. Indeed, a good day is any day you finish with the same number of bones you started with, and all the ligaments attached.
Tara Flanagan splits here time between Boulder and Breckenridge, where she works as an equine massage therapist. Her blog, “Out There,” can be found on mountaingazette.com.
It’s hard to get anyone to ski with you when you first start carrying a camera, because they think it slows them down, and makes them do things right, which it does.
Deiter was the only one in the ski school willing to give up his morning coffee break with the other instructors in order to ski the last of the powder on Bell Mountain with me, and have his picture taken doing so, as well.
Anyone who aspires to be a ski instructor needs to know how to do this, and what it looks like, in order to understand what he or she is trying to teach, and how to realize it on film. Otherwise, he is left in the realm of the “New School,” with nothing to teach, and nothing to learn. Too easy.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
I caught a news story on 774 ABC Melbourne’s website: “A Queensland man who is believed to be the first Australian to conquer Afghanistan’s highest mountain says parts of the war-torn country are ready for a tourism revival.” I read this and realized that the United States is going about this whole Afghanistan problem all ass-backwards. Afghanistan needs less explosive, lead-projectile-type power and more pretty-picture, flowery-language persuasion. You know, promotional brochures racked up in local visitors’ centers, where friendly, knowledgeable staff keeps the coffee fresh and the restrooms clean.
For 10 years, the Pentagon has managed to maintain a low-intensity conflict that seems to kill just enough soldiers so that the people back home feel obligated to continue supplying replacements but not so many soldiers that people become fed up with the whole shootin’ match and pull their support. It’s a tricky balance, and you have to hand it to our military leaders, forced into ending one conflict, yet still able to maintain their operational tempo by having an Afghanistan up their sleeve.
While the generals and those who sell them giant mine-resistant trucks with bullet-proof windows and curtains designed to emasculate the shaped-charge energy of a rocket propelled grenade embrace no-win military quagmires, one must accept the possibility that mine-resistant trucks with their jingling drapery and bullet-sprayers have proven ineffective at winning the heart and mind of the average Afghani. In fact, the United States Army just doesn’t have the people skills to lead illiterate subsistence farmers onto the path good, Christian military men expect them to tread.
Many young military men, and many old ones, hold Afghanis in contempt, calling them “hajji” with disdain and disrespect. Military men are xenophobic and possess undeserved superiority complexes. I can hear them singing “America! Fuck yeah!” They possess simple and narrow minds. I have no confidence that any soldier can win a heart or mind of any Afghani.
The Army kills people and destroys buildings. If it’s not killing people and exploding stuff, the Army becomes a big shoulder-shrugging, head-scratching lummox. Friendly persuasion is not its cup of black Afghan tea. The Army is all tactics and no tact. My unit has been in the Stan for a month, and other than displaying our strength in numbers, our main contribution has been to add a considerable amount of money to the national debt. The Army does not quite know what to do with us. We sit in a stack of converted shipping containers, staying out of the heat and killing time. I imagine myself an insider-trading convict serving a minimum-security prison sentence.
I’ll take my air-conditioned shipping container over supplying some ax-grinding Afghani with an American infidel to kill any day. The order “draw fire” is one I hope never to hear. But shouldn’t we have something to do? Are we going to get out here and do our part to win this bitch so we can get home? The sedentary nature of our deployment causes me to doubt the Army’s stated goals and to wonder whether there may be a more-effective corps for winning the war and promoting a warm, fuzzy feeling toward American citizens. This is, after all, what we want.
The United States Army, the most bad-ass killing organization on the face of the Earth, cannot win this war. The Army lacks the deft touch required to win hearts and minds. The United States needs to put the Army away and make Afghan service compulsory for every cheerful soul — be they volunteer or paid — behind the counter at every visitor bureau and chamber of commerce within 50 miles of the Continental Divide. United States policy should be aimed at undermining Afghani resistance by fomenting a tourism revival.
Afghanistan needs less armed, armored Americans and more rich, rugged Americans wearing stuff from REI and The North Face. Afghanistan needs to position its mountains as alternatives to the over-crowded and over-priced peaks in the Himalaya farther to the east, and it is going to need help. Who better than some eager booster with years of experience flogging some desolate, economically desperate county in Wyoming? On their tours of duty, these boosters will not only promote American tourism in Afghanistan, they will promote American tourists to Afghanis.
Ten years of shooting and killing and surging has failed to transform Afghanistan into an American-friendly democracy. What a surprise! What human would befriend another human carrying a loaded weapon and dressed in a crab suit of bullet-proof armor? But put a guy in a Patagonia pullover and a pair of Merrells with a wad of cash in a village at the base of some 7,500-meter peak, and the Afghanis just might change their tune.
Once a journalist, Sgt. Mike serves in the Army and has a hard time thinking of himself as a legitimate military target. Dateline: Afghanistan appears monthly in the MG.
October is one of the most celebrated months of the year throughout Europe. Aside from national and religious holidays, there are more festive tributes to the harvest season than to any other annual happening. The cause for expressing thanks once a year for a harvest that would sustain life through winter has long since been forgotten. But vestiges of it remain in celebrations so old that even historians fail to agree on exactly when and where they started. Most notable today are the October festivals for beer and for wine.
By far, the biggest beer blast is the Oktoberfest, a two-week plus festival held in Munich from late September through the first weekend in October. It has grown to be one of the most-famed events in Germany and to be the world’s largest festival, drawing more than five million people each year. Many other beer festivals are held each year in Germany, but none match Munich’s Oktoberfest for size and attendance.
In comparison with the beer festivals, the celebrations of wine harvests are more subdued. But they make up for what they lack in glitter and draw by venerability and number. The oldest known wine festivals were the ancient Greek celebrations in honor of Dionysus, the god of the wine harvest. Nobody knows how many wine festivals are held each year, but all wine-growing countries hold them, ranging in size from small local gatherings to modest regional events, in the tradition of harvest festivals.
Though Italy now is the world’s leading wine-producing country in tons of wine produced per year (yes, the statistics are compiled by weight, not volume), second-place France retains a viable claim to being the country most associated with wine. The reasons are entwined in history, as reflected in an etymological stroll through the vocabulary of the wine harvest. The word for the season of harvest, “autumn,” comes from the Latin autumnus via the French automne. The word for the location and year of production of a wine, “vintage,” comes from the French vendange, the word for “grape harvest.”
The French affection for the vendange is long standing. After the Revolution that started on July 14, 1789, and swept away the monarchy, the new republican government sought many reforms, including a new calendar. The first month of it started on the autumn equinox and was named Vendémiaire after the vendange. Clearly, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, the grape harvest was the right time to start a new year. Some of the republican reforms, such as the system of weights and measures that became the metric system, were lastingly successful. Others, including the republican calendar, were not; it was used for just 12 years, from 1793 to 1805.
There now are many vendanges in France, each of distinctive character, in part reflecting the variations of terroir (soil character) much discussed by wine experts. But, as readers of this magazine know, geography and topography shape the character of terrain. Geography enters because the most-southerly vineyards in France are five degrees of latitude farther north than their most-northerly equivalents in the USA. That difference is partly offset by an advantage of European topography for vineyards. Most mountain chains in North America run north-south. Between the Gulf of Mexico and the North Pole, there are few significant terrain barriers, a feature that contributes to the ferocious weather that astonished the early settlers. But in Europe, most mountain chains run east-west, blocking awful weather and providing many southern slopes for cultivating grapes in mountainous regions.
In turn, vineyards on slopes have preserved traditions. In them, grapes are still hand picked, as they have been for centuries. The mechanical harvesters now so efficient in flatland vineyards cannot cope with slopes laboriously terraced through the centuries. Yet there are concessions to modernity, insofar as trucks have replaced donkeys for transporting picked grapes to a winery or to a communal cooperative cave (wine cellar).
Yet the gist of harvesting lingers in some languages. The word “harvest,” from the Old English “hærfest,” was, until the 16th century, the name of the season now known as “autumn.” That denotation disappeared in English, and “harvest” now is an event that takes place in autumn. But it remained in the words for autumn in other languages, as Herbst in German and höst in the Scandinavian languages.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. He takes his vacations in France. By education, Brady is a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.
It was cold in those days. Bitterly cold. Long before global warming had even dawned as a concept. Your breath escaped in small white puffballs and instantly froze in a snow-white haze onto your neck gaiter, moustache, the top edge of your parka, and anything else it came in contact with before vanishing into the thin alpine air. One thing to be thankful for was that the wind hadn’t kicked up, at least not yet. Frostbite was a constant unwanted companion, and you had to be continually vigilant for it on yourself, and on your compadres as well.
Last night’s storm had left us with one to two feet of Colorado’s finest dry champagne powder. As professional ski patrollers, we were up on the mountain early making it safe for everyone to enjoy. We were eager to get our work done, as it was going to be one of those Colorado “blue bird” days that grace the covers of many ski magazines. The 12,000-to-14,000-foot craggy Rocky Mountain peaks that formed the perimeter of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area stood solemnly like silent sentinels. They appeared even more majestic this morning, adorned in their new white cloaks projecting up into a cerulean blue sky. Though it’s cliché to say the words, the beauty of the surroundings was breathtaking. We didn’t speak of it though, as we had more-pressing matters at hand.
The sun had just barely poked above Grizzly Peak, albeit still low, as it began its slow, inexorable arc over the East Wall. When the first glints of sunlight found us, we were evenly spaced in a line, one behind the other, preparing to kick off the snow cornice extending over the edge of the West Wall. As we approached the cornice, it became obvious that the storm had whipped it into a thick, creamy texture, like icing dripping off the top of a layer cake. Our entire pro patrol was present. All five of us marching in line like frozen stick-figure marionettes that seemed to be transported from some ancient Himalayan trek in search of the Yeti. The rising sun offered no real warmth, but somehow it provided a psychological comfort just knowing it was there. As my mind shifted gears, it struck me that, with our backpacks on, we were casting long, eerie shadows against the top of the cornice, making us appear like five Kokopellis inching our way across a great white desert. I kept those thoughts to myself.
Conversation was minimal this morning, as cold as it was. Occasionally T.R., the patrol director, would caution someone not to get too close to the edge of the cornice.
We were all aware of that, though. “Kicking cornice” was an acquired technique. The trick was to cautiously work your way out toward the overhang, taking considerable care not to commit your full body weight as you approached the edge. It was a delicate dance, but, to survive, you had to learn it quickly. You would begin by extending your ski poles out toward the edge of the cornice like remote antennae, and then start poking around and feeling for instability. When your senses told you that you were in a good position, you would firmly set your uphill ski toward the body of the cornice and then lift your other ski up as high as you could and slam it down just back from the protruding edge of the cornice. If you hit it just right, a big chunk of cornice would break loose and go cascading down the mountain. With the snow being cold and tender as it was that day, it was not uncommon to kick off a Volkswagen-sized chunk of snow from the cornice and see it crash like a tsunami into the snowfield below, immediately triggering an avalanche. Then, with kegs of adrenalin coursing through our veins, and to delirious hoots and hollers, we would all watch excitedly and with unrestrained pleasure as the avalanche went smoking, boiling and thundering its way 1,000 feet down the slope, finally coming to rest in a dusty white pile of debris at the base of Dercum’s Gulch. It was pure exhilaration doing this work … but somebody had to do it!
It required both luck and experience, however, to hit the cornice in the sweet spot, and the danger was real. If you were too far back when you slammed your ski down on the cornice, it was like landing on a slab of concrete, and painful vibrations would reverberate up through your entire body and shake your fillings loose. On the other hand, if you were too close to the edge, you risked the chance of dislodging the chunk of snow you were standing on and you could end up going ass over teakettle over the edge of the cornice yourself. If that happened and you were lucky … you might end up somewhere near the bottom of the cornice and somehow manage to stop yourself. However, your avalanche route was over at that point. There was no way to get back up onto the sheer cornice wall 10 to 15 feet above you. What was worse … you had to buy beer for the whole patrol that night after work. You also had to suffer the additional ignominy of having the rest of the patrol still standing atop the cornice eyeball you as you picked your way down the Rocky Knolls until you made it safely down to Dercum’s Gulch. Being unlucky wasn’t much better. Landing in the snowfield below the cornice, you might easily become the catalyst/trigger for an avalanche yourself and end up at the bottom of West Wall buried under 20 feet of snow. Well, the good news was … in that case, you didn’t have to buy beer!
We were leapfrogging one another every 10 to 20 feet in order to efficiently dispatch the task at hand. When it was finally completed, I turned to look behind us as we began to move off. The cornice now had a neat, manicured and defined edge to it. It was odd seeing such a neatly trimmed section of the cornice juxtaposed against the wild, unfettered mountain backdrop. At the same time, there was a sense of accomplishment and the unspoken feeling of a job well done.
We worked our way down to the top of Slalom Slope and reconvened. After kicking off some more cornice on top of Slalom Slope, it was time again to move on. The team subsequently skied down one at a time to the next avalanche path on the route.
I watched intently as my fellow patrollers descended through the picture-postcard landscape, leaving a signature of distinctive powder tracks in their wake. Skiing through virgin powder was one of the perks of the job. After all, the snow had to be tested. We sacrificed ourselves!
The magnetic allure of standing atop Slalom Slope was overpowering. This was my favorite ski run and there it was before me a clean palette of fresh powder. Being a powder skier was like an addiction. At that time, and having little to no knowledge of the principles and dynamics of snow physics, I would dive into anything that was steep and deep, regardless of any inherent danger. Ignorance has its ownrewards! This was a lesson I would be learning all too soon.
In the distance, Iheard T.R.’s voice break the silence. “Hey, Josh, are you going to join us?” My reverie broken, I resignedly poled myself over the edge of the upper shoulder of the cornice and into the wide-open, expansive snowfield below it. In an instant, I was immersed in the deep and luxurious powder where I felt most at home. By the third turn, my rhythm was synched in and the white fluffy champagne powder was now smoking and billowing all around me. Beneath me, I could feel the soft yet forgiving resistance of the snow as my skis sank deep down into its womb. Ultimately, my skis platformed out at an immeasurable depth and then immediately began making their ascent back up toward the surface. A face shot of snow cleared from my goggles and I caught a brief glimpse of my ski tips finally breaching the upper surface of the snow. A split-second later, my skis and entire body erupted forcefully from the snow pack bursting out into the pristine alpine air in a poised carved arc before plunging back down into the soft depths. After paying your dues, it’s no longer necessary to think about planting your poles, weighting your skis, completing your turns under the snow, etc. As your body gracefully glides through the snowy milieu, everything happens seamlessly, rhythmically and without thought. Once you get it down, it’s one of the most sensual and orgasmic experiences on the planet. Moreover, when conditions are just right, you can find yourself imperceptibly transported into that quiet, timeless, spiritual Zen space. It was what I lived for!
Approaching the other patrollers, I sank down into a controlled stop. As I stopped, my mind raced back to a time not long ago when I was learning the subtle art of powder skiing. I remembered seeing more inexperienced powder tyros who would tend to overweight their downhill ski when attempting to stop in deep powder. They would immediately go into a downward, spiraling tumble, typically blowing a knee out in the process if their skis didn’t release. If they were fortunate enough to have their skis release, they would then have to search for them in the snow and, if found, subsequently attempt to put them back on again, not an easy task in deep powder. We didn’t worry about those concerns, though, as we were all experienced powder skiers and we all had our bindings cranked down to the “workmen’s comp” setting.
Looking back up, it was a pleasure to see the fresh sets of tracks emblazoned in the powder. A discerning eye would even be able to distinguish who had laid down each set of tracks. Jeff’s were a series of lazy arcs casually meandering across the fall line. Kirk’s were strong, deep set and straight down. T.R.’s were wide, round and balanced. Mine were immediately distinguishable as a tight-carved ribbon straight down the fall line in perfect symmetry. You could learn a lot about skiing by evaluating your tracks.
We regrouped in the relative protection of a flattened-out tree-lined bench just above Lover’s Leap. The procedure on an avalanche route was straightforward. Each patroller skied down one at a time across any potential slide path and everyone else kept eyes on until you reached your predetermined safe destination.
It struck me as almost comical as I watched each patrolman ski down dragging about 20 feet of red avalanche cord behind him. Those were the days just prior to avalanche beacons and, at that time, avy cord was considered state-of-the-art protection. It was made of quarter-inch-wide red nylon cord that you tied off to your patrol belt. Remarkably, it also had an uncanny propensity for knotting itself up around any bush, root, stick, rock, snow snake or whatever you happened to be traveling through. Then this stuff that was supposed to be protecting you would invariably lodge itself around the object and stop you dead in your tracks. The theory was: if you got caught in a slide, the cord would float on the surface of the snow and quickly lead the rescuers to the buried, frozen, patrolman below. It wasn’t much in the way of safety, but it was all we had.
Lover’s Leap was a ski run that had a real pucker factor to it. Narrow and steep, it definitely wasn’t for the uninitiated. Later in the season, thigh-high moguls would replace the smooth white blanket of snow that now lay before us and it would no longer be a danger, but now it needed to be controlled. As T.R. moved closer to the edge, I sensed what he was going to do. The same recurring thought visited me again as it had been all morning. Why weren’t we using explosives? We had them with us in our packs. Were we just carrying them for ballast?
As a first-year patroller, it was my “quiet year.” Innately, I knew that it was best to remain relatively quiet and just absorb as much information as possible. As I was blessed and/or cursed with a keen wit, this was proving to be a challenge for me. I desperately wanted to ask “why don’t we throw a charge in here?” But, somehow, I knew it would be out of place for me to suggest it. As T.R. took another step closer to the edge, the answer began to form in my mind. Patrollers, I think it’s fair to say, are endowed with a full tank of testosterone. These guys, however, seemed to be topped off with an Imperial gallon of machismo. Taken individually, these qualities could be dealt with. Mixed together, however, and laced with a generous dose of hubris, this olio becomes a highly volatile substance and it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way to explode. It was becoming evident that this dangerous dynamic was playing itself out now right before my eyes.
Huddled together now, the rest of us looked on with heightened anticipation as T.R. sliced his ski into the upper edge of Lover’s Leap. Instantaneously, the entire slope began moving as an ephemeral, undulating wave, until its entire contents were deposited in a billowy white berm in the transition at the bottom. Once again, riotous cheers and gleeful shouts ripped through the frozen air. Collectively, we moved forward and were all poised on the edge, peering down at the rocks and frozen ground left exposed from the avalanche as T.R. scooped up a gloveful of snow from the fracture line. “Depth hoar,” he announced decisively! “Depth hoar,” I said to myself. It was a relatively new term to me and I knew it to be the bane of powder skiers and avalanche forecasters worldwide. It presented as the sugary, unconsolidated, ball-bearing-looking snow layer that could readily be found in cold climates just above the ground at the bottom of the snow pack. It served as an unseen lubricating layer for the more consolidated snow pack above to slide on. I thought to myself it should be called “death hoar,” as it would silently lay in wait for the unsuspecting skier to ski upon, triggering avalanche, and, in the process, very likely chalking up another avalanche statistic. It could be controlled, however, with explosives and continual avalanche control techniques.
As exciting as this all was, there was also something disquieting about it for me. I feared that something was inherently wrong. As I looked into the faces of my companions, they almost looked deranged in their excitement. The group dynamic had taken another dramatic turn. Without any discussion, it seems we had opted for kicking off avalanches rather than using the explosives that we had readily at hand. Machismo had replaced reason!
Still feeding on the excitement of the last avalanche, the group was in an ebullient mood as we skied up to The Finger, the final avalanche path on the route. All eyes fell on me and, without a word, I knew it was my turn to do the honors. If you were to rate Lover’s Leap as a “10” relative to the pucker-factor scale, The Finger would be completely off the chart. To be fair, it would be an injustice to call it a ski run at all. It was simply a super-steep, super-narrow avalanche chute that funneled straight down about 80-100 yards, culminating in a thick spruce forest configured with trees at the bottom arranged like pins at the end of a bowling alley. Unlike Lover’s Leap, however, you could not stand at the top and attempt to kick off an avalanche. The upper part of the path was a concave dish, so you would have to jump into it to gain access to the starting zone. If there was ever a place to use an explosive, this was it.
The peer pressure was thick and pervasive. For some reason, I didn’t want my comrades to know that I had missed out on my gallon of machismo. Even though I was a first-year patroller, every fiber in my being was telling me that this was an unsafe situation. The time was at hand and I comforted myself … “surely the patrol director and the other experienced patrollers wouldn’t willfully put one of their own in mortal danger … ”
I took a deep breath, then dutifully, and with some trepidation, leapt out and into the top of The Finger. There was no turning back now. For a brief moment, I was suspended in mid-air before finally landing with my full weight in the starting zone of The Finger with my skis perpendicular to the fall line. Initially, all was well, as I felt the snow settle and crush under my weight. I looked up quickly to bask in the approval of my comrades. Suddenly a loud crack broke the silence, and, as I was looking up, I saw that a large fracture line had propagated up and around me in the shape of an arc. Oddly, my friends appeared to be moving uphill away from me, and, as they were receding in the distance, I perceived the looks on their faces change dramatically from excitement and machismo to shock, horror and even a hint of guilt.
In an instant, I realized that it was me that was moving downhill. Instinctively, I turned to face the direction I was going, leaving all my earthly thoughts behind me. To my shock and horror, I’d been sucked into the vortex of a white tornado traveling at warp speed heading straight down the mountain into the bowels of the earth. The sound was overpowering … crunching … breaking … rumbling … howling. Time seemed to be compressed and irrelevant. Initially, my arms were outstretched in a feeble attempt to ride the storm. In a nanosecond, I felt a wrenching, breaking sensation and, without thinking, I somehow knew that my skis were gone as I involuntarily rolled forward into my first summersault into oblivion. I was spinning out of control now in the white swirling tumble dryer of snow. Out of the corner of my eye, part of a ski flew past me on a tangent traveling at an even higher speed … it seemed to be heading out to another planet. No thinking now … just a pure sense of being. Abruptly … all stop! The rumbling faded in the distance.
Death was quiet … reflective … upside-down … the other side of the mirror … a left-handed world … drifting … drifting … drifting … soft white light … deep silence … drifting.
After an interminable amount of time, and from an unimaginable distance, something began pulling at me, pulling me back from my quiet peaceful retreat. “What is it?” I asked myself from some unknown place. “Leave me alone!” my mind screamed without speaking. Imperceptibly at first, I felt my eyelids begin to move … trying to open. Then I felt an odd sensation on my cheek. My eyelids finally became unstuck. Incredibly, as my eyes began to find their focus, there appeared to be some giant guy positioned there in front of me … standing upside-down. It was patrolman Jeff. Big macho Jeff! He was upside-down and he had just kissed my cheek??? “This must be hell,” I said to myself. “Yuck!” “I can’t believe you’re alive!” Jeff exclaimed, beside himself now. “Nobody could survive that,” he spurted out loudly and excitedly.
My thoughts began streaming now in staccato bursts like a slide carousel in fast-forward, out of control. “Where am I?” ”What’s happened?” ”Am I dead or alive?” Questions seemed to pour out simultaneously. Slowly, my senses began drifting back and I started to feel pine needles, snowflake dust and bark particles raining down on me. Suddenly I realized that it was me who was upside-down. The avalanche had apparently spit me out halfway up a tree, and I was now suspended from a large branch that managed to get hooked around the backside of one of my knees. Dangling down from the branch by one leg, I must have looked like a broken, twisted Christmas tree ornament.
And Jeff was right. This had to be a miracle. Nobody could survive that. As I looked up into the branches above me, I thought to myself, “This must be the Tree of Life.” I said a quick prayer of thankfulness with a promise for more prayers later. As Jeff was anxious to get me down, I quickly did a self-assessment and I was amazed to discover that everything appeared to be working. It didn’t seem possible. Jeff was almost twice my size and he had no trouble reaching up over his head to lift me out of my precarious perch. By now, the other patrollers had worked their way down the now-barren slide path and they were showering me with hugs and expressing their disbelief that I was alive. Temporarily, the cold was no longer a factor for me, as adrenalin was churning inside me like a dynamo.
The avalanche had literally devoured all of my equipment. My equipment assessment went as follows: skis: broken in half; poles: broken in half; goggles: destroyed; company radio: destroyed; bottom of one ski boot: completely torn off with my bare-socked foot protruding from the end.
As bewilderment and shock had set in, it is still unclear to me how they managed to get me out of there. When we finally made our way back to the base area, the adrenalin was wearing off and I began to feel a throbbing pain in my left arm. Upon further inspection, I discovered some significant deformity in my lower left arm and realized that I had broken my wrist. I shrugged it off. It was a small price to pay for surviving such a traumatic ordeal.
Jeff volunteered to drive me to the medical clinic in the company vehicle. He talked excitedly the whole way down there, but I didn’t hear a thing.
It was late afternoon and the resort had already closed when we returned from the medical clinic to A-Basin. Darkness had descended and the cold had settled in completely, now unchallenged by even a hint of sunlight. When it was this cold, the snow was unforgiving underfoot and it made loud creaking sounds as you walked across it. Kweek … kweek … kweek. Jeff and I fell into a rhythm as we made our way to The Pub, the local watering hole at A-Basin, where virtually all of the employees congregated after work.
A question lit up in my mind: “Shouldn’t I be going to church?” My legs kept moving forward toward The Pub, providing my unspoken answer. There would be time for church later. At that point, I felt obligated to buy some beer.
Several lessons from the day began sifting down like new-fallen snow as we made our way over to The Pub. First of all, I was determined to enroll in the next available avalanche school. Apparently, there was a lot more I could learn about snow physics. A-Basin had also taught me a profound lesson: RESPECT! A half-drunk, late-night conversation scudded back to me as I recalled something that Remle (Elmer spelled backward), an itinerant old patroller, used to say. “Ya gotta know mountains, man.” I also had a strong suspicion that there was going to be a dramatic shift in patrol protocol. Patrollers would no longer be using themselves as human explosives.
When we got to The Pub, Jeff opened the door for me, and I must admit that I felt a bit awkward and somewhat self-conscious walking in, sporting a sling and cast.
When the door opened, a welcome blast of warm air immediately embraced me, and a collective cheer erupted from the crowd inside. This was something I always loved about A-Basin in those days. No matter what you did on the mountain — ski patrol, ski instructor, lifts, maintenance, restaurant workers, etc. — when you stepped into The Pub after work, everyone was an equal, and we were all friends. It was family!
That first beer was going to taste good, and I looked forward to buying. Everyone started to gather round, and there were plenty of hugs, kisses, handshakes, high fives and embraces to go around as the A-Basin family welcomed one of their own back to life. News travels fast on the mountain, and everyone was eager to hear about the ordeal first hand. It felt good to finally be able to shake off the cold and revel in the warmth of the family. And, apparently, there was another unwritten rule that I was unaware of. When you returned from the dead, you weren’t allowed to buy beer! It was going to be a long night. Life was good. Very good!
Josh Galvin is a professional ski patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and a singer/songwriter/performing artist who has released an all-original CD, “Ten Mile Ranger.” He is also a past winner of the Colorado Powder 8 Skiing Championships. This is his first story for the Gazette.
In Denmark, scientists used carbon dating on a ski discovered in Greenland in 1997 to reveal that the single board was at least 1,000 years old. They said the 85-centimeter plank, made from larch, was a common tool for winter travel used by the Norsemen who, in 980 A.D., somehow first crossed the cold open ocean. Older skis have been found in Mongolia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are Chinese cave paintings of hunters on skis thought to be more than 2,000 years old. The ski predates Christ, and in some regions, even the wheel.
But the modern birthplace of the sport of skiing is in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where the Hahnenkamm, alpine skiing’s most-famous roller coaster, is run every year. Begun in 1931, the race down the steep white throat of the Strief has only ever been interrupted by drought or war. The entire World Cup was built around the drama of the Mausfalle, and the shudder when you first drop down that face like a man falling by the window.
When Jean-Marc, the Frenchman, asked me to watch “The Race” with him, I felt as if there were offerings I should bring or old precious clothes I should wear. As if he were inviting me to Mecca, or telling me that we would be drinking lager from the Holy Grail. The two of us had met on a press trip and had talked about starting a magazine together, and had become friends in the little pleasures we took in the particulars of travel — a glass of wine with lunch in Italy, or the quality of German beer. I remember how his face lit up when they gave us a Mercedes Kompressor at the rental desk in Munich because they didn’t have the car we had reserved. On the Autobahn, he kept pushing it faster whenever the speed limit lights above the road were clear.
“Ahh,” he smiled. “I have a mee-stress now.”
He had the face of a sunburned badger, like one of those retired athletes on the sideline watching the score. He had the big strong Gallic nose, a shaggy head of pepper hair and sleepy blue eyes that lit up when it was his turn to lead the conversation, which he adored.
He said, “T-e long-eng is too Ameri-can,” when I told him about the book I wanted to write, and the story I wanted to tell. “You pee-pull all-ways talk about what ees-ent t’ere.”
The adrenaline of gravity was still on our faces like coffee with Schnapps from skiing all afternoon. We drank yellow glasses of cold Pilsener at the hotel outside of Orderndorf, outside of Kitzbuehel, and decided we would make a movie about the World Cup season. When the waitress came by, we ordered a bottle of wine and asked for menus too.
“We weel call it t-e Alpine Cir-cus,” Jean-Marc said with boozy authority. “It wheel show what we fee-yul.”
The highlight would be of the Hahnenkamm: behind the scenes with the coaches pacing in long parkas and foreshadowing shots of the slope like an icy slide straight to oblivion; the Austrian soldiers grooming the course with crampons on so they don’t fall off the edge of the earth. And the orange fencing down the Streif like a luge to the first gate covered with the “yellow line” from the piss of fear.
By the time the racers reach the first gate, they are going 70 miles per hour. The name of each winner, the flag of his country and the year he won is painted on the gondolas that you ride up the mountain. Buddy Werner, 1959, was the only American for more than 40 years, until Daron Rahlves won on a shortened course in 2003. And when we thought about who we would follow for our movie, I insisted one be an American, such as Rahlves or Bode Miller. Jean-Marc wanted one to be French, and of course, an Austrian, like Maier.
“But the French are no good.”
His thick face flushed. He looked around the room.
“They’re fading. It would be better if we could find an Italian.”
“Italian?!” Jean-Marc exclaimed, and looked at his big dark hands as if he had given up smoking only weeks before. “Merde.”
The crowds filled the streets. The bars were open all night, and more than 100,000 people took the bright red trains up from the cities, from the farms with their gray, tall uber-Abner bumpkin hats, red and white painted faces and cases of Zipfer biere. Most of them didn’t even bother to get a room, staying warm on the beer and the gluehwine as whole families — mom, dad and the kids — all got drunk together.
But they were good drunks. So we hardly saw any fighting. We would film that too, how skiing was their national pastime and their birthright in the cold speed, the crosses on the peaks and the endless road of snow. We would film the finish lines and high-speed crashes where the racers are into the nets like tossed dolls, like splaying, unfortunate fish. And in the starting house where it’s the cold and the nerves at the same time and there is always the idea of an ocean somewhere far below.
We would film their eyes as wide as headlights as they watched the mountain unfold. The size of the legs they ran on. Their feet skimming the slope. We would make gods out of wind and wine and the history of candy-coated towns with blue walls and warm windows; a beautiful eternity forever lost in the perfect faces of passing women, and that sound of our heels clicking on the cobblestone.
“Austria is t-e heart t-at’s all-ways beat-ing!” Jean-Marc said, and pounded his fist against his chest. “Eet is a love song now.”
It was a beautiful meal, the pumpkin soup in a thick orange broth and the buttery tenderloin of Chateaubriand. Headlights were curving by on the narrow road as it started to snow. I looked at the waitress in the long green Austrian dress and black vest with the straight black hair as we waited for the Williams and thought, “And my room is so close.”
I thought about how a split second can last a lifetime and how for ski racers it’s more important to win the Hahnenkamm than gold. “Because all t-e other race-airs know.”
“Kaiser Franz,” Franz Klammer, waited seven seasons between his third and fourth victories, an entire career. It was only for The Race that he even kept at it. He was still handsome and strong in the easy way he admitted it the night we had dinner with him as the guests of Head Skis, talking about how simply his victories could have been failures, “Maybe that is what I miss the most,” he said. “The nerves.”
The next day, we stopped at the top of the gondola where there is a small museum with posters and photos and a restaurant with big glass windows that looked toward the valley where the racers were all sitting by the fire. It was the first day of training and there were half-eaten plates of sausage and bread, half-empty bowls of cereal, little espressos that went untouched and songs that kept starting and stopping. From a few tables away, we could smell their fear.
“I would say ‘good luck,’” the Frenchman said. “But dey would not hear-ear.”
“The training’s even harder,” Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe told us when we went looking for former racers to interview. “Because you still have to ski the course and there’s nothing to win, or lose.”
Von Hohenlohe was a Mexican-Austrian prince and part-time rock star, who performed as Andy Himalaya or Royal Disaster. His black hair was down to his shoulders and he had thick black sunglasses and a Mexican flag on the back of the black parka that he wore. His beautiful blonde girlfriend was as fine as fresh snow. Each turn of her head revealed another discovery of her white smooth-skin, and she held a cigarette as if it were breathing on its own.
“Can I light that for you?”
Von Hohenlohe said the organizers might as well canvas the mental hospitals to try and find skiers to forerun the course — to “set the line” down the frozen groomed face for the racers to follow. He told us about being on the World Cup, and the last time he raced at Kitzbuehel. The two skiers he was traveling with were a Swiss who had skied for eight campaigns and was thinking of retiring, and an African from Senegal.
“What do you think is cheaper,” the Swiss racer asked Hubertus before the event, wondering if he shouldn’t just go and wait at the next race after the Hahnenkamm. “The hotel in Wengen, or the hospital in Kitzbuehel?”
The Swiss skier chose the hotel. “But the downhiller from Senegal did come,” Hubertus smiled. It was a flashbulb smile. “He didn’t know enough to be scared.”
He said they were like pirates off the train, with their bags, their bright coats and the bottle of wine that they shared. They stopped at every bar. It took them seven hours to make it to the hotel. But they couldn’t stop the morning, and on the gondola, they hardly spoke a word. They dressed like deep-sea divers beneath the deck, pulling their race suits on where it was cold as a morgue. Hubertus said he was curious to notice how his Senegalese friend was getting so pale. “It was a transformation, really,” he said. “He did not look well.”
They stood against the fence to watch the training runs, catching their breath as the first racers came by, and dropped away like marbles. So the Senegalese kept getting paler as he suddenly turned to von Hohenlohe and demanded, “Do you believe in god?”
“Of course,” von Hohenlohe replied. “I am a Christian.”
Then the next racer came, with the battered fabric and desperate scratch of skis as he disappeared down the Streif, on his way to the stark sudden drop of the Mausfalle, where he would have to fight with all his body to resist the forces of gravity and velocity trying to pull him sideways off the hill.
He flew like they all do, like an awkward reluctant bird toward the steep face of the Steilhang. Into some certain disaster or glory waiting far below.
The Senegalese was white as a ghost. He asked von Hohenlohe, “But does god believe in you?”
Peter Kray is the editor-at-large for Mountain Gazette, and according to Fayhee, a hopeless romantic in every sense of the term. His new book, “American Snow: The Snowsports Instruction Revolution,” will be published by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors on Nov. 21, 2011.
Twenty years ago, I fell in love. A suburban girl, I spent four years at college in rural Vermont, where the winter entertainment, besides copious drinking and complaining about the cold, was skiing. I got a student season pass to Mad River Glen and discovered the joys of going downhill in a rush. I enjoyed the camaraderie of skiers and being part of a crazy social club for which only requirement is the senseless desire to get up at O-dark-thirty to spend a day sliding downhill in the freezing cold. But most of all, I experienced something I hadn’t yet in my almost 20 years: a sense of solitary contentment, a sudden consciousness that I could experience joy alone while doing something that I loved. When I was schussing downhill, there were a few moments in a day that transcended mere pleasure, the ones when I was aware of a rare and fleeting sensation as gravity, my body and my skis worked together on just this side of control. In these brief moments, I would laugh out loud for sheer pleasure, heedless of anyone else.
I was not particularly good, but I possessed a recklessness that brought inclusion with a group of skiers far better than I was and caught the eye of a cute instructor at the college’s small ski bowl. We piled into barely functioning cars, careening up and back the slippery roads leading to the mountain, spending the drive time recounting spills, comparing runs, telling fish stories of snowy exploits. We ratcheted up our bindings with the screwdrivers chained to the lift line posts, then took to the slopes, our skis all but welded to our boots. With my buddies, I embraced all types of terrain: the trees, the steeps, the downright stupid, heedless of injury potential. My skis were 185cms, two narrow slices of arrogance that towered over my 5’1” frame, but went downhill in a hurry. I loved the group experience, the nod of acknowledgement to another raccoon-eyed student in the library or chatting at night with someone in the dorm I’d shared a lift with earlier in the day.
But as much as I loved the group experience, it was the solitary moments that helped define my developing identity. I nodded knowingly through my philosophy classes during the morning as we discussed philosophy and the self, but it was during the afternoons on the slopes that I had anything approaching understanding of it. In my poetry classes, we parsed the words of Yeats, and when we got to “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” I thought not of ballerinas, but of myself carving turns, my body and skis moving together more gracefully than my awkward legs could ever do alone.
As for the cute ski instructor guy, well, Reader, I married him. We moved out to Seattle and began that real life with jobs and health insurance and mortgages. We didn’t get out skiing as much as we liked. When we did, we were out of shape and out of practice, our gear out of date. One day in 1998, on a rare ski day, I took a tumble. My bindings were still set to “idiocy” from my screwdriver-antics years before, and would not release without a sledgehammer. The sound of my anterior cruciate ligament snapping was like a gunshot. That was the end of skiing for a few more years. When knee surgery and physical therapy were finished and I was pronounced slope-worthy, I became pregnant. A kid. Then another. Then several years of the juggling of infants and toddlers, wonderful years, but a time when a good night’s sleep and children who can use the toilet take far more headspace than skiing. These are also the years of true selflessness, a loss of self, where it is easiest to forget you were ever anything but a parent, that you ever had an identity separate from the family sphere.
Finally, my husband and I decided to brave the mountains again with the kids, three and five years old, in tow. After an almost six-year hiatus, we emerged Rip Van Winkle-like into a brave new world of skiing. We rented equipment, my 185s long since gone, probably still in the storage unit of our first apartment. Acquiring new equipment was humbling and confusing. Stumpy curved skis! Helmets for adults! We mocked the skis at first, then made a few turns on them, so effortless it felt like cheating. We scoffed at the helmets, then changed our minds after nearly being taken out by some crazy college kids on snowboards. There was something vaguely familiar about them, but, regardless, skiing without helmets now seemed as prudent as driving blindfolded, a quaint throwback to the days our parents piled six kids into back of a station wagon, sans car seats, cigarettes glowing out the window on the way to the ski area.
We didn’t bother with poles, as they would only be a hindrance as we slowly followed our skiing progeny, scooping them off the slope and setting them back on their skis over and over. Poles only made it more difficult to lift bundled children onto lifts that hit them square in the center of their back. On lifts and in lines, we doled out candy, dropping gummy bears into their mouths, open and expectant like baby birds. We struggled through lost gloves, pinchy goggles, outgrown ski pants. In those days, we’d finally make it to the top of the mountain with our many-layered children only to hear the dreaded words: “I have to go potty.” We paid the usurious prices for full-day lift tickets, never to even get off the beginner lift, never to move at more than a glacial pace. In short, we muddled through two seasons of a very expensive and cumbersome sport known as “nearly skiing.” Like skiing, but twice as expensive and with half the fun. I was as far from my skiing self as I had been in the slopeless years.
Nevertheless, we soldiered on. One day toward the end of the season, the weather brought an unexpected gift of snow. After checking the ski report, we began to prepare for another family ski day. Somehow, the kids managed to gather their own clothing and gear and lay them out the night before, chattering excitedly about the upcoming day. In the morning, everyone remembered to use the bathroom before piling into the car in the still-dark morning. The two-hour ride to the mountain went by in a blink. We’ve fallen into a routine of reading stories and playing car games that make the time fly. Once at the mountain, we stowed our sack lunch in our usual spot and joined the line for the high-speed chair, bypassing the line at the bunny lift. My daughter raised her arms at the precise moment, and I lifted her up onto the chairlift, a practiced duet. My son sat next to my husband, adjusting his goggles, lobbying for a harder run, rather than the long green warm-up run I insist we start with every week. Candy was delivered to small mouths, a habit I’ve maintained, mostly because I like candy. As we approached the top, we swung up the safety bar and unloaded swiftly, without the tears or spills on the part of parents or children. Even a year ago, all four of us would have been ready for a break.
We stood at the top for a minute, then wordlessly slipped into our follow-the-leader routine. My husband went first, skiing with the same distinctive form that I can pick out from any lift, the same form that drew my eye 20 years ago. Soon he was far below me, carefully carving out exaggerated turns, laboring under the illusion that the kids were watching him and attempting to emulate his actions. I could see him about to be overtaken by my son who was in a full tuck, poles under his arms, his skis chattering straight down the hill, as he experimented with the limits of physics as only an eight-year-old boy can. Trailing them at a distance, my daughter was cruising, searching the trees on the trail’s edge, looking for a path into the woods that she loves. I watched her unconsciously shift her weight as she turned, her small form moving gracefully. She has a natural affinity that I never possessed, and I know that she will be a far better skier than I ever was.
Watching them, I realized we’d reached a new point in our family dynamics. My days of enjoying the shared experience of skiing were back. I could see the whole day ahead of me. At lunch, we’d be replaying the inevitable crash of my son, soon after he passed his surprised father. My daughter would gush about the waist-deep powder, and we’d respond that it was only knee-deep to us. We’d eat the traditional Fig Newtons on the drive home, and the kids would fall asleep and then my husband and I would have time to talk, the dashboard-lit car a setting more intimate and familiar to us than a candlelit restaurant. Standing at the top of that mountain, watching them, was one of those rare moments when I realized that I was currently living a day that I’d be revisiting again and again throughout my life, a lifetime memory freshly minted.
But first I had to get down.My family was far ahead, so I had to pick up speed to catch them. I took my usual spot at the rear. No one needed scraping off the snow right now, so I concentrated on myself. I made a mental note to buy some poles in the near future, then pushed off and picked my own line down the slope. The only sound I could hear was my skis carving through snow. I made a few good turns, then fell into a rhythm, turn, turn, turn. Muscle has a long memory, I thought. Then I stopped thinking and focused on the skiing. Suddenly, I was a college student again, and in love, and in that moment, there was only me, just a deep satisfying sense of self as everything else fell away. Picking up speed, I felt the old thrill. I laughed out loud, the sound echoing off the snow.
Hilary Meyerson is a freelance writer living in Seattle. This story, which was first published in the June issue of This Great Society, is her first for the Gazette.