Nonfiction, Vol. 1.1, June 2007
White flakes spiral in small tornadoes –dancing– a dance that has been danced every winter since winter was born. Winds whisper on blizzard breezes that bite at exposed skin. Then, silence. Snow has fallen. Mounds of ivory powder dazzle in the sunlight that liquefies the remnants of the storm. I crawl from my tent and feel the warmth fighting against the cold that laps at my nose and eyes. Shivering, I look at the mountain. It’s sharp snow-covered peak calls my name, taunting me, daring me to test the strength of its face. Jagged rocks, its teeth, smile a wicked smile; I know that they can bite. They have bitten before.
Returning to the tent, I shed the avoirdupois of the down coat in exchange for NorthFace’s lightweight layers that will pull the beads of sweat from my skin while I challenge the mountain. Dressed, I wake the others.
Base camp’s congeries of tents – cherry, tangerine, lemon, lime – form a circular rainbow: like the advanced base camp of Mount Everest where expeditions await blue-bird days for a summit push, an attempt like ours. Scruffy bearded men file out and stretch, relieve themselves on rocks –makeshift outhouses– and then pull out camp stoves to begin the daily ritual of melting water, making coffee, and eating oatmeal like trenchermen.
Skis and snowboards fence in the tents like an ill-made perimeter that comes down each morning as preparations are made. Bindings are tightened. P-tex waxed. Base camp transforms into a conglomeration of sounds and smells: metal grinding against metal to file sharp edges, burnt coffee hovering on people’s breath, and the not-so-fresh smell of an expedition without a shower.
As always, I’m the first one ready. I stand near the heli-pad awaiting the others. The pilot comes and takes my board, throws it into the bin, and lets me emplane. It’s warm in the helicopter. My hands start to sweat while wrapped in Gore-tex gloves and wrist braces. I debate pulling them off, but then the others arrive.
The turning of the helicopter blades disrupts the silent land of snow and tent. My ears are covered by large head phones to block out the noise as I escape into the mollified depths of my mind and watch as we ascend the mountain. Peaceful feelings battle my nerves as I count the minutes, seconds, until arrival and scope my line through the window.
Landing transforms the summit into a blur of white swirling with the thump of the helicopter’s blades. We jump out, ducking our heads to avoid decapitation and wait for our equipment to be unloaded. Then, the chopper pulls away, escaping the high altitude, and leaving us alone on the peak.
Blue sky stretches across the horizon in every direction. Wind, more frigid than below, blows wisps of sugary powder up across the mountain’s face and into ours. It stings and then burns before melting, leaving droplets of moisture evaporated by the close rays of the sun.
We check avalanche equipment and make bids on lines. Being the only woman here has its advantages: I get to choose my line first. Strapping into my bindings, I hear the words of my mother bellowing in my ears, “It’s dangerous. You could die.” She tells me this every time she finds out about my next adventure, as if I don’t already know the risks.
Launching onto the face, I’m covered by the thick spray of fresh powder. In a cloud, I disappear into the mountain, participating in some sort of dance like the snowflakes that fell earlier. A tingling sensation fills my body telling me what it feels like to live as Thoreau said, “the life you’ve imagined.”
Legs pushing back and forth, I weave an “s” pattern down the steep slope, more like a wall that transgresses to a sixty-degree pitch. I have to jump, back and forth, digging in edges to hold onto the mountain until I hit the cliff and spring off it to land on a slope less precipitous than the previous pitch. Round balls of snow slough and rush past my board, creating baby avalanches that fall into oblivion. I hug a spine that meanders a delicate line across the crest before dropping into a narrow chute. The chute is as wide as my board. The intensity of my speed increases and then I launch, grabbing method, over another jagged tooth. Being in the air always seems like a slow, suspended moment – a calm before the rushing surge of landing. Hitting the snow, my board is thrust into top speed and I have to carve hard, holding my heel edge against the fine snow to slow down. I’m blinded for a split second by the swooshing rooster tail – the result of my board cutting into the mountain, causing it to spurt snow as if it were gushing blood from its thick, white, layer of skin.
Carving powder like gliding, I traverse places where humans shouldn’t be, and hear the echo of my own voice shrieking with delight, reverberating off of splendid untouched peaks. I slide to a stop, turn around, and look at my track, which will exist only until the next snowfall.
I pause and catch my breath while waiting for everything, including the boys, to catch up. Heat rises like smoke stacks from my helmeted head. The beat of my heart returns to normal and my lungs – which I hadn’t noticed – no longer gasp for frigid oxygen. The helicopter sits only a hundred yards in front of me. Base camp rests behind it, waiting for our return. But, not yet. We have more mountains to ride.
Loading back into the helicopter, we exchange high-fives and squeals about our lines. No one’s hurt. No avalanches. The snow is stable; it’s going to be a good day. We decide that we can probably hit another six or seven runs. That is, if our legs hold up. Yelling over the sounds of rotation, we scope the next descent. We’re going after the same mountain but further on the right rim near the cornice. The descent will be a little hairier this time. Mom would have a heart attack. I giggle. Then, we’re silent.
The chopper lands and we disembark. I’ll be nice, let someone else go first. Andy, the other boarder, disappears first over the unstable edge riding down toward the forty-foot cliffs. His line is perfect. He’s a master of his board. I watch until he vanishes over the cliffs and then huck myself over the cornice to run a line paralleling his, forming figure eights in the snow until I arrive at the fangs.
Forty feet – a brief flight – takes mere seconds to drop and soon I’m back on the snow. But, I’ve missed the landing. My weight was too far forward. It’s going to hurt as the world turns into a flurried blur. It feels like I’m stuck in a snow globe that someone is shaking. Tumbling, cartwheeling, leaving indents the size of a person, I plummet fifty feet before coming to a rest. Like a contortionist, my legs and board coil next to my head, my arms wrap behind my back. Nothing’s broken, but I’ll feel it tomorrow.
Andy’s stopped in front of me. He’s waving his arms to the guys above. Driving my hands into the deep powder, I push myself back up and dust off the clinging, caked-on snow. I give Andy the thumbs up and resume the ride. He waits for me, asks if I’m alright, and then laughs at my elegant digger. When he catches his breath he resumes his line and I chase after him until we arrive back at the helicopter.
The sun is setting, filling the sky with streaks of lavender, magenta, deep violet, and mandarin. We watch from the summit as the colors mix, mingle, transcend. Temperature is dropping. Our breaths seem to freeze with each exhale. It’s time for us to return to base camp.
The four of us enter base camp exhausted, but unscathed. Our aching muscles crave the warmth of our puffy-down snowsuits and hot food. Rebuilding the perimeter, we laugh and congratulate one another on our dirty poundings, our secret code word for fresh powder runs. Then, we pile into tents, change, and come back out dressed like the Michelin tire guy except in colors that match multiple hues of camp. Andy builds a fire that we huddle around to cook a gourmet dinner of dehydrated food pouches. Then, we’re tranquil, looking at the mountain, giving thanks. A solitary snowflake flutters and berths on my nose. I look up: bright white clouds envelop the sky, releasing a present for us, for tomorrow.