Categories
Skiing

Headwall

I am an anxious person who loves adventure sports. This paradox makes for some thrilling days, days that can ricochet between panic and transcendence.

It’s been over a year since I skied Headwall, off the High Lift at Crested Butte. This year has been defined by the things I fear most, by suffering and by death on a global scale. Every conversation these days starts with It’s been a year since… A year since the first deaths in Colorado, a year since every decision became framed by the pandemic. But that February morning at Crested Butte, looking at heaps of soft, fresh snow, Covid 19 was not in my head at all.

I was with my friend Carl, an expert skier with an unflappable temperament and generous spirit. At the entry to High Lift, signs adorned with double black diamonds warn “expert terrain only”; photos of the steep and rocky terrain that is the only way down from this very high place are meant to discourage beginners. An advanced intermediate skier, I can get down anything if I go slowly and don’t give in to fear. Still, I try not to look too closely at the warnings. 

The High Lift at Crested Butte is, in fact, a tow line, an inverted metal “t” hanging from a long cable strung above the hill. Each side of the “t” snugs under the hips of a standing skier or snowboarder, who is then tugged upward, feet gliding over snow toward the azure sky.

I am not chasing adrenalin. I just want to see the beautiful, remote places. At the top of High Line, a panorama greets me: the peaks of the continental divide are mile upon mile of white cathedral spires outlined in heavenly blue. I am awash in the feeling I used get to singing in church. A stillness, a time-stopping majesty, tells me I am so small, yet I am part of something enormous. Looking around, I feel like I could drop upward into the bright foreverness of sky. Instead, I just have to figure out a way just to get down.

I follow Carl as he glides left around an escarpment to the top of a steep hillside covered in thick trees. At first, I only see their tops, a pokey carpet of snow dusted evergreens. But then I glance down into the forested abyss. Immediately, vertigo starts my legs shaking. I don’t need to descend through that steep forest, simply traverse above it on clear tracks. But my legs will not budge. No matter what I tell them, they refuse to make the sharp right turn onto the trail. Anxiety says to sit down, and I obey. Then, to turn my skis in the right direction, I swing them up over my my head. One ski lands where I need it to, but the other makes it only half way before planting its tail into deep snow. I breathe and try to calm myself, try to not care that “real” skiers may see me floundering here on Headwall.

You can’t force fright away, can’t make the wise body do something that seems to threaten it with extinction. It takes years to trick the mind into accepting risk. It takes hundreds of repetitions without mishap to convince the fatty brain that what it sees in a place like Headwall will not lead to disaster. I twist and I tug, and finally I yank my ski tail up out the snow. One more breath, and I am standing on both skis. I navigate slowly toward the rectangle of reassuring brown that is Carl’s jacket, and we are ready to go.

A narrow chute opens on the left, holding two or three VW beetle-sized moguls. The steepest pitch I’ve ever stood on, I can reach my arm without leaning and touch the sloped wall of snow next to me. Carl waits below, looking across the beautiful snowy expanse. As I scootch inelegantly downward, he calls to me, Good job! I make one real turn, then stop for a breath, and make one more. Carl skis, and I slog, until we are off the steep pitch and on a single black diamond that is beautifully spacious, joyfully ski-able.

Later that day and the next, I start connecting turns on big moguls. “Easier than Headwall” becomes a mantra. Everything is easier after Headwall.

A year later, our minds and the world have been irrevocably changed by the horrors of Covid 19. This year, Carl and I ride the lift in masks, unloading at the top of Kachina Peak, above Taos, New Mexico. A light wind riffles prayer flags, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains glow in the morning light. Trees don’t grow here, over 12,000 feet above sea level, but fear does. If I didn’t have three layers of pants on to protect from wind chill, my knee caps would be clacking like castanets. I stand at the top of a wall and look down once again at my implacable friend, gazing contentedly around while he waits for me. But looking down sends a ripple of anxiety shooting through my belly and up to my heart, which is beating less like a waltz and more like 80’s disco. Breathe, I tell myself, out loud. Look where you want to go, which, unfortunately for my fright, is down. Just make one turn. I look uphill to make sure a real skier isn’t swoosh-dancing between the moguls and straight into my frightened self. But a moment later, I make a turn. I breathe all the way to the bottom. Still a little rattled, I smile and say to Carl, Wow, fun!

But I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want ever again to be on Kachina Peak with my knees knocking.

Do I?

What if I’m less scared doing it again? I ask the patient hubby as we catch up in our hotel room that afternoon. I don’t want to only do the hard part and miss out on the fun part!

So the next day, Carl and I ride up to Kachina Peak again. When we ski it this time and the next, my breath is taken by beauty instead of by fright. The rest of the day rolls out with a sense of wonder and reprieve. I will remember this lesson in fear as one of the biggest of the pandemic year, the year that never seemed to end but now seems to offer hope.

Categories
Memoir

Rule Number One

Great heaps of snow press into the mountainside, and ski tracks thread down a high chute like parallel scratches of a needle. Torreys Peak pulls blue sky earthward with sharp granite hooks. I sit on a sun warmed lift chair at Arapahoe Basin, my ski pants pressing human form into the plastic cushion.

Rule Number One: Don’t take spontaneous detours onto black diamonds.

Getting off the Pallavacini lift, I take a right, then a hard left onto a trail named East Woods, entering the new Beavers terrain. I hug my skis into the side of the slope, expecting a short traverse that will connect me to the blue-diamond Davis trail. Instead, I glide my way straight into Face Shot Gully, then Thick and Thin, which is much more thick than thin. I traverse until I get stuck. Then I have to find a way down.

Rule Number One: Never ski trees alone.

The slope is dense with evergreen and filled with fresh powder. I’ve checked my speed by turning into the slope, and now I am looking at the rock face, my back open to the steep drop behind me. My ski tips are wedged against a tree trunk. The backs of my skis hover over a powder well that I can’t risk stepping into. And my right ski has been stopped by a sapling that rises only a couple of feet above the snow. Its sharp needles reach into the cold air like the beaks of a hundred tiny birds. As I shift my weight, my skis strip off a ribbon of its tender bark.

There is only one navigable track in sight, and I am perpendicular to it, back to the hill, skis pinned. I could only be in a worse position to get out of here if I were upside down.

Rule Number One:  Don’t panic

I catch my breath and regret the impulsiveness that got me here—enthusiasm over-riding logic, again. A thin membrane of sweat forms under my jacket. I have to find a way to shift right and keep traversing until I get to Davis.

There’s not another soul in sight or within shouting distance. How long would it take ski patrol to find me if I hurt myself? How would they even know I was here?

I pray by thanking the trees all around me for their strength. I ask the fairies to keep me safe. I say, please. I tell the sapling, as my skis gash it once more, I am so sorry.

I look up at the blue sky and pull mountain air into my lungs. I have never been in a more beautiful glade. The hill falls steeply into pristine forest. Patches of light break through the shadows and land on snow like freshly cut jewels.

I put both hands under my right knee and lift it over the mortally wounded sapling. As I push over it, the supple tree bends between my legs then snaps up again behind me. I am back on the barely-there track.

I traverse again, looking for an opening, for any line to follow. Tree after tree, thicker and thicker. Traverse, traverse, TURN!

But my legs won’t do it. My torso won’t shift to face downhill. Instructions to my body have been over-ridden by the muscle of fear. So be it. I sit down on a stamp of snow and flip my skis over my head, then stand again. This fake turn buys me a few more feet of descent. I skootch sideways, sidling down a steep spot. A rock etches a deep groove into the base of my skis as I grind over it, and a tuft of virgin powder is revealed to be a small log. As I scuttle down the hill, I say to my scared mind, It’s all right, just get down bit by bit. Take your time.

Finally, an open slope appears, and I can see the cables of the ski lift not far off.  I make slow, messy turns to the bottom, then load my shaky legs onto the Beavers chair lift. As I ascend, I see how badly I misjudged the distance between Pali and Davis. From here, the notch I came down looks impenetrable.

A half hour after breaking all the rules at once, I stop for tea at Black Mountain Lodge. I set my jacket and helmet down on the bench beside me. When I pick them up to go, a small shower of pine needles floats down, fragrant pixie sticks I sweep into my pocket for safekeeping.

east wall