Skipping Down A Mountain

It was not the run I paid for. It was the run I will remember the most, and it is the run I think of when I look at my life right now. The helicopter landed on a high, snow covered mountain ridge near Valdez, Alaska. We hiked along the ridge to a set of long, steep snow couloirs, twenty to thirty feet wide and lined with exposed rock and cliffs. We hiked to the top of one couloir. After a short talk the guide turned into the chute, making big sweeping turns. The sound of the guide’s skis made a loud, scraping sound as he descended. The snow was not the fresh powder we hoped for. Instead the whole thing was a long, wind-blasted slide of solid snow pack. Something between packed snow and ice.

Another guest, a skier, dropped in and made quick short turns down. About fifty feet down, the edge of his ski slid out from under him, causing him to lose balance, he quickly caught his balance and skidded to a stop by a large boulder. The remaining guide on the ridge-top signaled for me to drop in.

I stood on my board and allowed gravity to guide me slowly towards the rim of the chute. I dropped in, riding my toe edge across to one side. I made a long cut, feeling the packed wind swept crust under the edge of my snowboard. I cautiously slowed my glide and jumped, turning my body and the board to the heel edge, feeling the edge contact the snow pack ensuring a solid hold. I began to gain confidence and opened up my riding with more speed and large carve turns. I was able to hold an edge through several large-radius turns, and I thought “this isn’t so bad”. Sure this couloir didn’t have the powder we had been riding all day, but the exhilaration of shredding giant carve turns down this steep mountain chute was awesome.

I was approaching the skier that had stopped, and on a heal side turn my edge popped off the snow crust and I dropped straight down. I must have dropped around eight feet before I dug my edge in, slowing me down only for a fraction of a second before the momentum kicked me off the snow, and I dropped again. This repeated several times. I faintly remember passing the skier this way, digging my edge, snowpack exploding in a cloud of snow and a loud scraping thunk! then dropping by increasing amounts down the slope.

Everything was happening so fast, I could not react and take control. With each violent landing, it was all I could do to stay on my feet, and not just explode and snowball down the mountain.

I remember the thought flashing through my mind, that I could drop down the whole chute this way, hit a rock, or drop off a cliff, either way accelerating the whole way down. Or I could take control. So after the next impact I pulled my legs to my body and turned to the toe edge, my hand out for balance, gliding across the snow pack. I regained control and used my edge to slow down, making sure to maintain control and take reasonable turns on the steep, solid pack. I locked my eyes on the guide as I slid out of the couloir and down the wide open slope. We shared a good laugh about the run, me shaking from head to toe with adrenaline.

That was not the best run by any standards. However on the list of events in my life where I didn’t die, this tops the list. Besides, all the other stories from that trip are basically about how amazing the powder snow was.

This event took place almost twenty years ago. I was thinking about it recently and I realized this experience oddly parallels my life right now. My life is not the sweet powder run I thought it would be. Its not that I don’t take that many powder runs any more, but my actual life is like I’m skipping down an icy, crusty chute, out of control. Honestly sometimes it feels easier to float along, even at break-neck speeds. Floating along because that is what I’ve been doing for so long. Is there a point when you say, enough is enough, I can do this, I’m worth it, I’m tired of being slapped in the face with metaphorical ice shrapnel? For me that time is now. I will take a risk and share something of mine. I hope you enjoy.