The sound is not exactly the same but the feeling is. The otherworldly rumble of an earthquake that seems to fill the space in your skull before you feel anything actually shaking, and the whump of a backcountry snowpack giving up the ghost somewhere in its layered depth, conjuring a frosty question mark for your split-second contemplation – is it going to slide?
The last light was rapidly dying and there was only one more pitch to ski before we would hit the track leading to the hut. The Hut. Full of unscary things like snow melting in pots on the wood stove, watery instant hot cocoa, G.O.R.P., ancient instant oatmeal packets, an incomplete set of checkers. Warm things. Life things.
I turned slowly to the figure beside me who suddenly seemed impossibly small, impossibly frail. Between a snow-laced woolen hat and scarf, her 14-year-old face hovered like a small, pale moon, eyes huge. In a thin whisper more in than out, she said, “I’m scared now.”
And that made two of us, because here’s the thing about me: I’m not a skier, not really. Rock climbing was my improbable, blessed escape from an introverted and disgruntled adolescence. So it wasn’t until my 20s that I even owned a pair of skis. Never mind that I moved to Telluride in short order and skied as much as I could. Never mind that I subsisted for a while on a diet of avy courses and backcountry tours, chasing epically strong skiers (mostly men) around the San Juans, gobbling up any crumb of wisdom that happened to drop along the skintrack from behind curtains of frozen facial hair. I was still a climber who skied a little.
But on skis I learned to love the mountains – trees, wind, clouds, snow, birds, the whole world – more deeply. The first time my pack, my skis and I somersaulted down a pitch of funky spring crud, and I landed face-up, sweating and unhurt at the bottom, I whooped with joy at the unimpressed blue sky above me. Or when ptarmigans exploded in a startled shower of white as I skinned past their tree-side huddle in the late-afternoon light – who can resist these things? They felt like emotional exclamation points and I was overflowing with them. I wanted to pass them on.
I began guiding weekend trips for middle and high school students in San Miguel County. Climbing in the warmer months, ski touring with expert local guides in the winter. As anyone who interacts with kids that age can tell you, you can’t help but witness some of them detaching. Vulnerable, pissed off, looking for anything with relevance – heavy emotions that quite often drive people into drugs. Or, sometimes, into the mountains. I thought if I could introduce even one kid to the empowerment and humility of wild places, that’d be something.
So what good was I doing now, standing here in silent, powerless panic as this young girl relied on me in precisely the way I’d told her she could?
I knew the snowpack was pretty stable despite the settling and the new snow. The area was wellskied, not particularly dangerous. Our guide, Joe, was even waving us on to his stance below where he stood spotting us. “It’s okay! Come on down!” But in that instant, everything I’d ever done, in the mountains and out of them, rewound and played fast-forward in my mind as I looked into this young girl’s uncertain face. The weight of the responsibility I had invited onto myself was suddenly brutally unromantic, and staggering. She raised her eyebrows.
More deluge than a confession came the thoughts: Don’t look at me, I’m not a skier, I’m a fake. I took violin lessons. I’m a klutz. I’m a rock climber, not even that strong. I’m a capital ‘C’ Chicken. I studied poetry.
Her voice burned a hole through my emotional fog. “I’m scared,” she repeated softly, and I was unable to lie to her. I swallowed and answered, “So am I ...”
Then from somewhere in myself, the same place I had cataloged all the scared, cold, unsure moments I’d lived in these mountains that I loved and that gave not a damn about me:
“... but we’re gonna be ok.”
And I knew it was true.