North By Northwest

“In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”
— Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), “North By Northwest”

We ALL know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001, when the physical and psychic walls came tumbling down. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached, and people began reliving and rehashing the events in bars and restaurants, at work and at the gym, on the trail and on the ski lifts, I noticed that everyone seemed to have a well-honed tale relating to that day and how their lives fit into that day. This was more than just, “I was at school when I heard Kennedy was shot.” The scale of 9/11 was so massive that almost all of us are able to make some sort of six-degrees-of-separation-type connection with the events that unfolded that tragic day. We knew someone who once worked in the Towers. We knew someone who was stranded in Boston for two weeks, unable to get back home to Colorado. As I was verbally test-driving this edition of Smoke Signals, I was astounded by the richness and resonance of the stories I heard as a result of me bringing the subject up, sometimes to chums, sometimes to perfect strangers, by way of asking simply, “Where were you when the planes hit the Twin Towers?”

Par for my personal course, my 9/11 experience was a bit off the mainstream radar.

My wife, Gay, late dog, Cali, and I were happily ensconced in a motel room at Mile 0 of the ALCAN Highway, in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, ’96 Outback pointed toward the Northwest Territories, which we planned to ingress that very evening.

It had already been a sorta weird trip. Several days prior, with Gay behind the wheel, we left U.S. territory at Sweetgrass, Montana, and approached the Canadian border crossing at Coutts, Alberta. As we neared Coutts, my mind predictably wandered back 21 years, to the last time I passed from the Big Sky State into the Sunshine Province.

My amigo Ed and I had procured an ounce of red Lebanese hash somewhere along the line and had been doing our damnedest to get rid of it over the course of a journey that had already seen us meander our way from Georgia to Montana. Though we had made an impressive dent in that hash stash, it had not sufficiently diminished in size to the point where we stopped referring to it as  “The Big Chunk.”  We still had a lot of hash left on the day our extremely disheveled selves were scheduled to cross into Canada.

The unspoken unthinkable was starting to get thought and spoken: We had too much hash! — which marked the first time those words had ever visited my young cranial mainframe. Alas, we were going to have to either modify a travel itinerary that was months in the making or we were going to have to … to … dump … that … hash … before crossing the border. That was a mighty depressing proposition. Rather than toss The Big Chunk unceremoniously into a ditch, however, we hoped to find some wayward hitchhiker(s) or fellow backpacker(s), and bequeath The Big Chunk to him/her/them.

Stunningly, Ed and I cold not locate anyone appropriate to give our hash to, which shocked us, given that, in those days, you could scarcely throw a rock in the woods without hitting some variation on the partying freak theme.

So, as Ed and I approached the Canadian border, a “plan” started gestating within the bowels of thought processes that were without a doubt extremely dulled by massive doses of THC. Rather than give our hash away, and rather than attempt to smuggle it across the border — which, even stoned nitwits such as ourselves knew better than to try — we would just smoke it all before leaving America! Great idea! The only flaw was, when we made that decision, we were only 30 miles from the border. Not much time to inhale what by then was probably 10 grams of moderately strong hash. So, we loaded bowl after bowl and smoked as fast as our respiratory systems would allow and, by the time we passed a highway sign that let us know Canada was a mere half-mile away, we were obliterated, and we still had probably eight grams of hash in our possession. The Big Chunk would not go away.

What to do? Three choices: Pull a Bat-turn, throw the hash out the window or plow ahead, consequences be damned. Of course, we opted to follow the path of least wisdom, clear up to the point of no return. The hash was stashed in the pick compartment in my guitar case, which was in the back seat, on top of Ed’s guitar case. Not exactly a sophisticated smuggling operation, but there we were. When only a few cars separated us from the Canadian border authorities, I looked over at Ed and pretty much dookied my drawers. Not only did he look as wasted as a person possibly could be, but he was also sweating profusely, fidgeting uncontrollably and coughing his lungs out. He might as well have had the word “GUILTY” tattooed on his forehead. We were doubtless doomed. So, under the pretense of making sure the hash was secure, I surreptitiously moved it from the pick compartment in my guitar case to the pick compartment in Ed’s guitar case. That way, if — when — we got busted, I could at least pretend I was totally innocent, completely unaware the man I was traveling with, someone I thought was an upstanding citizen, was in fact an international narcotics smuggler!

The Canadian customs officers took one quick look at us and asked that we park in the Special Assured Imminent Arrest Area, where several uniformed officials, all of whom were wearing latex gloves, stood smiling. They pulled every item out of the back of the car, wincing as they rummaged through piles of crusty skivvies and malodorous hiking socks that had not been washed in weeks. They went through the glove compartment with a fine-tooth comb. They looked under the hood and in the console and under the floor mats. The ONLY place the customs officers did not look was in the two guitar cases there in the back seat. They likely thought, surely, even obvious stoners such as Ed and I would not be so stupid as to hide the drugs in a guitar case! After an hour of searching, they welcomed us to Canada through gritted teeth. The Big Chunk made it all the way to Vancouver Island.

As Gay and I approached the border at Coutts, my home- and business-owning, long-married, semi-responsible self could not help but smile at those memories. I could not help but look at M. John through the prism of time. It would be inaccurate to say I miss that irresponsible pack-toting hippie who used to bear my name. After all, I have plus-or-minus grown up to be the person that young hippie wanted all along to be (mostly). Still, it’s hard sometimes to overcome nostalgia, to wonder where all that youthful innocence went.

Little did I know.

Little did any of us know.

It was Saturday, September 8, 2001.

“Have either of you ever received a DUI?” the immigration lady, who looked like an orc, asked.

“Uh, yeah,” I responded from the passenger seat.

“Then I can not allow you to pass, because, in the eyes of the Canadian government, you are a felon.”

Utter instantaneous deflation! Vacation plans mixed metaphorically torpedoed before they ever got off the ground.

Just as we were about to turn around, the orc said words to the effect of, “Well …  we might just be able to make an exception for people who look as responsible as you two.”

Gay and I have done enough traveling that we instantly understood the words, the inflection with which those words were spoken and the words that were not spoken. We glanced at each other and prepared for a border dance we never expected in, of all places, Oh Canada. I was pointed toward an upstairs room that was already populated by several dozen forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, I came to learn, had, like me, answered honestly when asked about their DUI history. One by one, we were led into a small office, where we heard the exact same obviously well-honed spiel from the orc: For $200, we could pass into Canada. Cash only. No receipt. No guarantee that, the next time we tried to enter the country, the same “opportunity” would be available. Understand? Yes, I understood fully. The entire process took four long hours, which totally screwed up the rest of our travel day. It was dusk as we approached the first town in Alberta, Milk River, which had a public campsite, which we ended up sharing with most of those same forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, like us, were $200 poorer.

By the time we arrived in Dawson Creek, a beautiful little college town, the bad taste of the border crossing experience had begun to dissipate. We were finally feeling like we were on the road, unfettered and free, with nary a care. We found a bar with a TV that had upon its screen, of all fortuitous things, a Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and the Giants. The Donkeys kicked ass, 31-20, and we returned to the motel happy about the result of the game, happy about the fact that, here we were, way the hell up in British Columbia, happy about the fact that, before we left the bar, one of the rather surly locals, who we’d been chatting with, told us that we didn’t seem to suck as bad as most Americans.

The only down side was that we heard a cold-weather front was moving down, and, when you’re that far north, that’s news you pay attention to.

It was September 10, maybe 11 p.m.

Next morning, with Gay in the bathroom enjoying what was supposed to be her last interface with indoor plumbing for quite some time, I turned on the TV to check out the weather report.

You all know what I saw. Same thing we all saw. Even as I was trying to reconcile a mild hangover with the images flashing on the screen, the second plane hit. “Uh, Gay, I think you’d better check this out.”

We watched for a few minutes before going down to the motel’s breakfast room, which was filled with people staring slack-jawed at the images being replayed over and over. All eyes fell upon us when we entered the room. People started saying how sorry they were. We don’t know how they knew we were Americans, but they all did.

It is fair to say we were a bit shaken, but, man oh man, I wasn’t going to let even the biggest attack on American soil in history stop me when I was six hours from the Northwest Territories. We lit out, passing by the last vestiges of civilization, fast getting to the point where the world was defined by wild. We saw bears, moose, raging rivers, endless lakes, thick boreal forests and vistas that did not end till they reached Hudson Bay. We were cut off from the outside world, and the last word we heard before even the AM band went totally dead was, “War.”

When we finally anticlimactically arrived at Fort Liard, NWT, people streamed out of houses and businesses to ask us for the latest news, like somehow we had a proprietary cosmic communications connection to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. A French-Canadian, whose English was poor and whose accent was thick, told us that he had heard via short-wave radio that the President was unaccounted for and that most high-ranking government officials had already been taken to their secret bunkers.

We stayed at a community campground by a lovely lake that night. Ours was the only tent; everyone else had a hard-sided camper or motorhome. The campground host came by at dusk to warn us that there had been some recent bear activity in the campground. He suggested that we remain constantly vigilant. “I’m really sorry,” he said before departing. I don’t know whether he was sorry about the bear situation or what had happened to New York City and Washington. Maybe he was sorry that we lived in a world that required constant vigilance.

On September 12, we arrived at an end-of-the-world outpost called, of all things, Checkpoint. The café had a small black-and-white TV with a grainy image and scratchy sound. We could barely make out the face of Donald Rumsfeld. He looked like shit, which I guess is understandable. He was also incoherently babbling something about the media being at least partially responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers. It would be inappropriate to turn this into a political diatribe, so suffice it to say that, with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove with access to the Big Red Button at that particular moment, our nerves were not exactly calm. When we got to the intersection of Canadian highways 1 and 3 — so close to the Mackenzie River, Yellowknife, the Great Slave Lake and Wood Buffalo National Park — names I have been uttering since I was a child — that we could almost touch them, we sighed and, instead of taking a much-desired left, we took a reluctant right and pointed the Outback south, toward a home we hoped would still be recognizable upon our return.

Since the border was closed, we had conscionable opportunity to dilly-dally in Jasper and Banff on the way down. Not Wood Buffalo National Park, but not too shabby either. Everywhere we went, people would eyeball our license plates and go out of their way to express heartfelt sympathy. On the Icefields Highway, we parked next to a herd of scary-looking Canadian motorcycle enthusiasts. The biggest, ugliest, smelliest one walked over, extended a brotherly hand to me and said, tears welling up in his bloodshot eyes, “I hope you guys bomb the living shit out of them.” I thanked him, but 1) I did not know who “them” was, but 2) I knew we would indeed end up bombing the shit out of someone, somewhere. It often seems that is the only thing we know how to do anymore. What happened to us?

By the time we got back to Summit County, the vitriolic barroom arguments were already commencing full bore. I remember one lady in Pug Ryan’s shouting me down after I mentioned that, maybe, we ought to have our ducks in a huddle before we start sending troops abroad to who knows where in a masturbatory attempt to avenge the 9/11 attacks. She was of the opinion that people like me ought to just shut our traps and get with the national goose-step program, whatever that program might be. My response was, predictably, that, in times of intense jingoistic flag-waving, getting with an undefined program just for the sake of national unity is the absolute goddamned worst thing a person can do because, at such times, that’s when crazy shit like the Patriot Act gets passed by a compliant and inept Congress.

And so it went. For months. For years. Clear up until the wounds started healing and people started composing their personal 9/11 stories and telling those stories to each other in measured tones-of-voice.

With two 9/11-based wars still raging on the other side of the planet, without the slightest hope of positive outcome, I opted to pull up stakes and relocate very near a completely different border, the other side of which can be found the most-dangerous cities in the world — which was not the case pre-9/11. Two weeks ago, while passing through an airport security checkpoint manned by TSA people, I had my toothpaste confiscated. Last week, while driving down Interstate 10, I was pulled by Border Patrol for no other reason than … who knows why? The National Guard is deployed south of my home. There are people seriously talking about permanently deploying regular military troops along a border that is now seeing erected upon it a 50-foot-high, million-dollar-per-mile wall that will never, ever work, and anyone who thinks it will is deluded.

Ten years after 9/11, it has come down to this: The higher the walls you build, the deeper your prison becomes. And that is no way to live.

I’d like to hear your 9/11 stories, especially if they have any connection whatsoever to the mountains or life in the mountains. Send them along to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

 

Slide

Mountain Gazette - Slide
Illustration by Keith Svihovec

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?

You shrug.

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. 

Behold the Ski Boot

Mountain Gazette - Behold the Ski Boot
Illustration by Keith Svihovec

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.

Alissa Johnson is an associate editor at the Crested Butte News. You can find more of her writing at alissajohnson.wordpress.com.

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #182

Bob Chamberlain's Mountain Vision #182Bell Mountain, Aspen, 1964

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. 

Way of the Mountain #182

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/

 

Send poetry submissions to poetry@mountaingazette.com

Winter Carnival, 1979

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

Pure

Light seeps in
under door
pure entry

one red leaf
in the road
omen of fall

in the garden
fragrant petunias
full-blossomed cannas
belie season’s finale

I give you this:
take it
and go on

— Linda Keller
Denver

Of wisdom

it steps armored out of the head
and commits itself

to battle
itself and teaches us to prize

the self-made wound
by displaying its purple bruise
 

— Dan Beachy-Quick
Fort Collins

Lunch

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

Skiing and DNA

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.Mountain Gazette #182 - Cartographic

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. 

Snowmen

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 own rewards! This was a lesson I would be learning all too soon.

In the distance, I heard 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.

Kitzbuehel

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.

“Swiss?”

“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.