Point of Contact

by Fitz Cahall
Winter 2007

Wax droplets bead on the snowboard’s worn base. Beneath the work lamp’s anemic glow, I run the hot iron across it until I’ve filled the tiny nicks with an even coat of wax. With my swollen hand, I steady the board across the workbench. With my good hand, I scrape away the excess. The wax shavings float to the floor like thick snowflakes.

The goal is standard: up another peak with another descent down a steep snow ribbon. Its significance is not.

Two weeks ago, I tumbled down a snow gully studded with rocks. With bare hands, I scratched at the snow until my fingernails bent back. Three hundred feet later, I found myself clinging to a boulder along the gully’s edge. Blood trickled like snowmelt down the sleeve of my jacket. I stared at the drop off just 20 feet below and listened to loose rocks chatter over the cliff top, then whistle like bottle rockets accelerating into space. Since then, even as I walk between work and home, my footing has felt insecure.

I run my index finger along the heel and toe edges. By touch, I search the metal for the subtlest inconsistencies. Satisfied, I turn to my crampons and draw the file across each dull point. I press the pink flesh of my thumb into each spike just to be certain.

Morning begins in regular fashion: frozen hands warmed by a mug of black coffee. As the sun breaks the horizon, I skin through the maze of spruce and pine. Flustered by my approach, chickadees bounce anxiously between branches. The whole forest seems nervous, and I fight off the urge to talk to myself.

Miles of skinning later, I’m at the base of the final, slender, snow band and need to swap skins for crampons. I reassemble the splitboard, attach it to my backpack and wrap the ice axe’s leash around my wrist three times. My broken knuckle and discolored thumb throb to the rhythm of my heart. The board extends up from the pack like a great sail, and unsure of my balance, I lurch beneath each fluctuation in the breeze. In the steep, exposed sections, I move more quickly than normal, until I’m forced to stop and let my lungs catch up. The snow is beginning to soften.

“I’m okay,” I say aloud.

My hand uncontrollably tightens around the ice axe. Blood drains from beneath the knuckles. I try to feel each sharpened crampon point bite into hard snow. I flinch from the exposure and lean into the slope. I’m connected to this mountain by the thinnest margin. It’s not enough. Instinctively, I slide the glove from my bad hand and place my bare fingers to the snow in the same manner that I might reach out to find the reassuring reference of a wall in an unfamiliar dark hallway. I fall into the burning rhythm of upward progress until there is no more mountain left to climb.

Twenty minutes later, I’m strapped in above the 50-foot-wide snow ribbon I’ve just climbed. Balanced entirely on the heelside, the board quivers with the subtlest shifts in balance. Hardened fear softens. I drop in, cutting two quick turns to check my speed. I feel the strength of the metal edge beneath me and for the first time today, sense the connection that extends from my feet into the snow, into mountain, all the way to the bedrock roots. With the gathering speed, the doubts rattling in my ears are swallowed by the wind’s roar until they become only vague threats heard from the greatest distance. Then I stop dancing between turns, leave the security of the edges and turn my board in the direction of gravity. I let go and it’s in this moment that the point of contact is the strongest.

About the Author

When he’s not chasing his wife up backcountry skin tracks, writer Fitz Cahall produces the Dirtbag Diaries, an adventure podcast dedicated to untold stories of near misses, life-changing experiences and humorous moments in wild places. Cahall prefers it when he is not the subject of his own stories. Listen to the Dirtbag Diaries at www.dirtbagdiaries.com, or on Patagonia’s blog, www.thecleanestline.com.