My brother-in-law is in the ICU after having his chest cracked, getting hooked up to a heart/lung machine, and having some valves replaced. Blue Eyes has been with her brother since before sunrise. I just talked to her and heard both relief and caution in her voice. The caution in her voice scares me.
This is a meditation on getting older; an acknowledgement that some of us, who travel these mountains, are not exactly 35 anymore.
Chronology really doesn’t matter. Depending on your genetics and how hard you have pushed yourself, these issues can start in your late 30s, but more likely in your late 50s. When you reach that certain age, many parts don’t work as well as they used to, reaction time is sometimes measured in minutes, and balance is an ongoing tumbling joke.
We get out of the Highlander at Peaceful Valley and the wind just about rips the doors off. I look at Michael and he has that pissed-off/perplexed look of his. We have come to ski up Middle Saint Vrain Road to the Coney Flats cut-off and then loop back by Beaver Reservoir. He is of strong mind and sound heart. His head is telling him to abort this route and his heart is telling him to give it a try. I am of average intelligence and stupendous stubbornness. I want to give it a go, but the mountain rules say: if your partner wants to turn around, you turn around too.
This fixation with personal health issues has gotten so bad with my peers that dinner party conversation can be dominated by discussions of meds, doctors, or operations. When the hell did we stop talking about sex, drugs, and rock & roll? When did we stop arguing about social justice, or the right to work, and any left-leaning or right-sided idea that was worth yelling at each other about until we broke-out in laughter? This is all simply about Boomers Fearing Disease.
I’d like to propose a Five Minute BFD Rule. We will listen to anyone talk about meds, doctors, and operations for a total of five minutes and then we all get to simultaneously yell,
Michael gears-up including putting on a knee brace. I pull on AT boots and pull out big boards. The wind nearly knocks us down at the gate. Michael shakes his head back and forth and frowns. I fiddle with my gear.
“This is really dumb,” he says.
“Yup, I’m fine with whatever you decide.”
“Let’s try it and see.”
He moves out ahead of me. The air temperature is a balmy 30 degrees, but a front is sitting out west of the Divide and the wind is bashing us with gusts up to 60mph. The wind catches my hood and bangs it against my wool hat. I feel like I’m in a tent purchased on sale from a big box store.
That our parts are not working quite as well as they did is a problem. What used to become moist with minor fooling around is now a tad parched and what used to spring into action, like a bunny on speed, is fairly floppy. And that’s just the sporting parts. All the other parts—shoulders, backs, hips, and knees are all a little creaky, sore, uncooperative, or wobbly, not necessarily in that order.
And your reaction time has just gone to hell.
So you are standing at the top of Mach 1 at Breck.
Full concentration as the tips swing out into air,
DROP IN !
Knees in your chest, bounce right,
Extend a bit, knees back in your chest, bounce left,
Oh shit !
Mach 1 wasn’t easy ten years ago but you could put it up without being entirely embarrassed. The moves are still there but the brain isn’t working as fast as it did. You now have the reaction time of a tortoise…
…And the balance of a bag of potatoes on the tailgate. You just know that once or twice a month you are going to trip over something or lose your balance, flail about, and possibly do a grounder, usually to a certain amount of laughter.
The snow swirls in arabesques of crystals spiraling across the trail. Only mountain people know about this phenomenon, it is the magic we get to see because we are out in it and part of it. The trees explode in puffs of snow as the wind shakes the branches. We are surrounded by swirling, spiraling snow below a cold blue sky. To the west a grey cloudbank foreshadows the front and the storm to follow.
I stop and lean on my poles to absorb as much of it as I can to put the images into long-term memory for review anytime the mood for beauty calls for a glimpse of mountains in winter before the storm. But for all the beauty of the snow, wind, trees, and impending storm I’m not enjoying this route much.
I know we can keep going right up to the edge of the storm and come back again with the wind and weather to our backs as we silently kick and glide downhill through the blizzard. We have done it before. But there is risk in that. And while our minds remain quite young our bodies are not. At a mile out Michael turns and shakes his head again but this time with a smile.
“Let’s head back,” he says.
“Yup, given half-decent Mountain Gods, there will be many other days up here.”
“And if the Mountain Gods are assholes and strike us down?”
“Hey, we’ve been up here doing this for 30 years. More than that is just gravy.”
Blue Eyes is relieved about her brother. But the caution in her voice comes because her doc warned her that she has the same condition. And that frightens me beyond my words to express.
Alan Stark is a member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and lives in Boulder and Breckenridge with a saintly (editor’s comment) blue-eyed woman and her dog.