There are few Mountain-Country nightmares more universal, more ass puckering, than the notion of unintentionally/accidentally (and, ergo, generally sans control, because, if you had control, then you would either be doing this on purpose or, failing that, not doing it at all) skiing into the trees. Avalanches trump that nightmare, sure. And being caught upside-down in a hole while kayaking, falling or getting bonked on the noggin by a rock while climbing and maybe getting pulled for a faulty taillight after consuming something on the order of 47 tasty, frothy, carbonated beverages all make the Land-of-Vertical-Terrain-lifestyle oh-shit list. But skiing into the trees (as opposed, by a wide margin, to “tree skiing”) holds it own, at least partially because a high percentage of those meeting their maker on the slopes do so while interfacing at unfortunate speeds with aspens and blue spruces, neither of which give much when impacted by a flailing human life form whose last thoughts are likely focused big time on some frantic variation on the can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees theme.
This reality is most certainly exacerbated when one’s skiing skills can best be described as “mighty poor,” because, after all, were one’s skiing skills better than “mighty poor,” then, in all likelihood, one would not find oneself barreling into the slopeside or trailside rough and, even if one did find oneself doing just that, then one would stand some chance of being able to rectify the situation before things got Really Bad on the physiology front.
You may feel perfectly comfortable in classifying me as a “mighty poor” skier, which is a bit weird, as 1) I have spent one serious amount of time with my leather boots three-pinned into touring skis, 2) most of that time has transpired in the backcountry boonies of the Colorado Rockies (i.e.: rugged, challenging terrain) and 3), while not hinting for even a moment that I’m fit to carry Carmelo Anthony’s jockstrap or anything, I have participated in sports my entire life and possess at least a modicum of balance and reflexes.
Yet, I have never really managed to translate a lifetime’s worth of admittedly low-rent athletic acumen into anything even resembling competent skiing, even though my life has largely been spent dwelling in places where the drunkest guy/guy-ette at the end of the sleaziest bar can chug his or her 39th beer of the morning and go out and ski 2nd Notch or Zero Chute with stunning sangfroid. For many winters, I psychologically dealt with my oft-mortifying skiing incompetence by spending most of my winter outdoor recreation time tromping through the woods on snowshoes, which, in a way, worked just fine, because I am more than anything a walker/hiker/backpacker, and snowshoeing is the closest approximation of those activities when you live in a place that boasts five feet of snow on the trails for half the year. But, well, here’s the thing about snowshoeing: Even though it is a sport with many positive components, it just is not all that fun. Or at last not as fun as skiing, even if your skiing skills are, as I said, defined as “mighty-poor.”
So, after a few years of laborious snowshoeing, I decided to put my energy back into touring. I never have much liked visiting ski areas, mainly because, when I have a few extra hours that allow me to get out in the backcountry, I’d just as soon go to a place with a few less thousand out-of-control Kansans and Texans. Fortunately, I have generally lived in places where I can access backcountry trails pretty much by walking out my front door.
Which is exactly what I did on the day I’m getting ready to tell you about here. Dawn had yet to even fully break when I threw my boards over my shoulder and headed out to the kind of trail that people who dwell in lesser places fantasize about visiting once a year on vacation. This is a trail I have traveled upon so many times — in all seasons, skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking — that, if I live to be 100 and never, ever visit that trail again, I will go to the grave with every curve and contour still seared happily into my cranial on-aboard navigation system. It was mid-January and a tad nippy there at 6:45 a.m. Meaning, yes, the trail was a bit on the icy side. If there is one skiing skill I do have (all things being relative, of course), it’s that I am fairly strong on uphills. I have decent endurance and I have developed acceptable technique with my fish-scale Karhus. Yet, the slip-slidiness of the frozen tracks that day made for slow going. Slow going, I should stress, on the ascent. I knew as I climbed that the descent would be a horse of a whole nuther adrenaline-based color.
I turned around at the usual place and pointed my boards down in the direction of what I then feared might very well be an impending mishap. (Yes, that would be a self-fulfilling prophesy.) Yet, as I said, this is a trail I can ski in my sleep. Though there were a few moments when my eyes splayed wide, I made it most of the way down without misfortune. But I did the thing you never do: I relaxed and let my concentration wander before I was technically and metaphorically out of the woods. At a place I know like the back of my hand, a place that I never had problems with before, I found myself 1) because of the iciness of the trail, skiing way faster than I would have liked, 2) losing control just as I arrived at a big curve above a drop-off into an aspen grove and 3) using especially colorful language.
Before I could even properly soil my knickers, I was headed willy-nilly for those aspens, and there was seemingly nothing that was going to get between me and an imminent direct interface with a tree, except, perhaps, another tree. I had visions of the front-page story in the local paper, and my buddies coming out to eyeball the Place Where It Happened. “How could anyone hit a tree here?” they would ask, shaking their heads slowly, as they made their way to the wake, where their solemnity would at least be assuaged somewhat by the free beverages my widow would surely pony up for.
It’s important at this point to stress that, compared to the speeds that real skiers routinely achieve in this ski-crazy part of the country, my forward momentum was likely laughable. I once covered a pro ski event at Keystone, and, from my perch mid-mountain, scant feet from the course, I watched downhill racers zipping by at speeds that made them seem less skiers than corporeal manifestations of the Doppler Effect. Later, I heard they were traveling at almost 80 mph! I was even more dumbfounded than usual.
Me, as I was headed toward that grove of aspens? I would be surprised if I had even achieved double-digit miles per hour, but 1) it seemed to me at that moment quite fast enough to result in measurable calamity and 2) I know from personal experience that it does not take much on the speed front to intercourse oneself up when one impacts a tree. Though I am not exactly proud to relate this, this I know because, a couple decades prior, I lived in Grand Lake, Colorado, where I was employed by the town government to run its admittedly modest tennis program. (That was not a bad gig, let me tell you.) I know this will come as a stunner to many of you, but, one night, I over-imbibed at a long-gone watering hole called the Corner Pub. There was a fairly substantial line of pines between said bar and the one-room, refrigerator-less, bathroom-less, $100-a-month attic I then called home.
Now, you would think that one as practiced as I was/am in both the art of over-imbibing and the art of mostly accurate perambulation would have been able to miss that line of trees by a wide margin — especially when you consider that I had to walk by those pines numerous times every day. And it’s not like those trees went into sudden, unexpected camouflage mode. No, they were right where they always were, doing what they always do. Despite the fact that I was not exactly sprinting, and despite the fact that my drunkenness autopilot was surely doing its best to make sure I was practicing some semblance of involuntary evasive action, I still managed to pretty much head-on collision one of those pines hard enough that I remember looking up into the night sky and wondering what my feet were doing all the way there in the middle of the Milky Way. Thing is, amusing (at least to my drinking chums) though that mishap was, the main point here is that my shoulder was bruised and contused enough that I could not swing a tennis racquet for a solid week.
As I began to accelerate my way that icy morning toward that grove of aspens, I don’t know how fast I was moving (surely, I had not achieved double-digit miles per hour), but I was definitely going faster than that night in Grand Lake — the very night I became a proponent of aggressive clear cutting — when that malevolent killer tree jumped out of the darkness and knocked me on my ass for no apparent good reason.
Researchers of all things human-brain related surely have studied the fact that, sometimes, when shit is about to hit the fan, time slows way down and sometimes it speeds way the fuck up, and this inexplicable reality is not just a matter of how one person handles shit hitting the fan and how another person handles it. With any given person, it can go either way, depending on who knows what. Most times, with me, time speeds up, and that means I don’t usually muck up a potentially dangerous situation with extraneous thought. My wuss gland usually just kicks in of its own volition, and, in the context of skiing, that generally means that I automatically go into slide-into-third-
base mode, with skis up, in hopes of fending off whatever I’m getting ready to crash into with the largest and most powerful muscles the human body has to offer, by way of a personal sacrifice to the tree deities.
This time, though, time slowed way, way, way down. It was as though God had just sprayed the world, Agent Orange-style, with a big batch of Quaalude dust. The birds were now tweeting as though you applied light finger pressure to an old LP, just to see if you could hear any subliminal references to devil worship. My breathing, which I knew had to be operating at a hyper-inflated, fear-induced rate, seemed instead like I had inhaled a bucket of molasses (in January). I felt like I could have composed a long and heartfelt good-bye note to my beloved in the time between when my skis parted ways with the trail and when I arrived air mail, special delivery, into the midst of those trees, with, I’m sure, a look of abject terror defining my countenance so vividly that, when search-and-rescue finally peeled my mug out of the aspen bark, an indentation of my petrified visage would have been left behind like a Basque sheepherder tree carving.
With time moving at about quarter speed, I tried mightily — to the point that I could both hear and feel my quadriceps separating from their attendant tendons — to engage the most aggressive snowplow ever initiated. Then, with all hope for a happy outcome slipping by fast, my lizard brain came up with a survival plan that, to this day, I cannot fully explain in any manner save the most basic transitive relation. What I did was this: While continuing to apply every ounce of positive energy I could muster to my largely ineffectual snowplow, I lifted my gloved left hand, which still retained, within its increasingly weak grasp, a ski pole, and pointed my index finger directly at the aspen that, in fractions of a nanosecond, I would soon impact. I do not know why this felt like it was the right thing to do, but that’s exactly what it felt like: The Right Thing To Do.
Now, at that time of my life, I was deep into martial arts training, the deepest I ever was and ever would be. One of the main concepts you hope to get a grasp on when you’re trying to learn how to bust your fist through concrete blocks without shattering every bone in your upper body is this thing called chi. Matter of fact, the generation and studied utilization of chi is probably the most important concept when you’re learning any martial art. And the goal is to be able to call forth the chi power that flows through us all, flows through every living and inanimate object under the sun, without really having to think about it. It’s one thing when you’re applying every ounce of your concentration onto an imminent attempt to bust concrete blocks while a dour-looking Korean Grand Master is scrutinizing your every movement, but it’s an entirely different thing when you’re out in the woods by yourself and about to ski into an aspen, which, as my buddy Milt said after hearing this story later that day, at least has softer wood than many other kinds of trees.
In that Quaalude-dust, molasses-breath slow-motion time, I focused every molecule on my internal energy into that extended index finger. I tried to use my skull as a cosmic antenna to attract every gram of chi that happened to be in the neighborhood that particular frigid January morning. And, then, finally, I made first contact with that tree, finger first, and finger only. And all of the physics that applied to my there-and-then condition — momentum, inertia, gravity (of both literal and figurative varieties), equal-and-opposite reactions, all that shit — met head on with the chi that was spewing forth from my body, my existence, and zeroed in on that one frail extended digit, which did not exactly “hit” that tree, but which, rather, met that tree, as though I was doing nothing more than reaching out to touch it, as I often do with trees.
And I came to a complete stop, like I was doing nothing more than pushing a doorbell that happened to be attached to a side of an aspen out in the middle of the glorious Colorado High Country. It was like, all I had to do was push that doorbell, and doors would open to entire new worlds. Which, I guess, in retrospect, is maybe exactly what happened.
I would like to schuss my way to this story’s denouement by saying I emerged from the woods that day unscathed. I cannot say that, because, powers of chi notwithstanding, physics still played a large role in the experience. My left index finger was, not surprisingly, truly trashed. I never went to the orthopedist, because, for some reason, that just did not seem quite right. But I’m sure there were at least two fractures, a dislocation and some torn soft tissue. For most of the next year, that finger pointed at about a 40-degree angle to starboard. But, like most things, it eventually got better and now, by looking at it, you would never know that it was one day long ago used to push an aspen doorbell at the exact moment I was trying as hard as I could to gain access to a place I still wonder if I ever really, truly visited. Maybe I was just peeking through the window.
There is a reason why I decided to share this story. For a long while now, I’ve wanted to solicit from our readers mountain-related stories about their digits, about the things that have happened to their fingers (we’ll get to toes another time) that show in some way, direct or circuitously, the impacts, good and bad, that life in the mountains can have on these particular parts of our anatomy. The plan is run one story per digit, so we can compile a composite portrait of mountain hands, and tell the stories that came from those hands. I am open to stories about injuries, accomplishments, thumbs used for hitchhiking trips, wedding bands placed and removed upon ring fingers, hell, whatever our readers can come up with. As usual, I’m interested in how those stories reflect upon Mountain Country and one’s relationship with Mountain Country — lessons learned, lessons not learned, wisdom gained, wisdom lost. At the same time, I want pictures of these digits, even if, after all these years, they’ve healed or gotten worse.
I’ll need these stories, along with photos of the digits-in-question, by Feb. 1, 2011. Send them along to email@example.com.