The day began with the usual flurry of activity. Scrambling for gear in duffel bags, powering down breakfast and coffee. Crossing off the mental checklist of food, spare parts and essential odds and ends we’d need for our first day of skiing in Alaska. As on any other pre-ski morning, we did feel the gurgling of our fearful guts, but mistook it for a protest of last night’s gamey dinner of elk and moose.
In my seven years on telemark bindings, I’d certainly fallen down some of the sweetest black diamond runs around. I had also discovered the masochist in me that enjoyed the sensation of complete fatigue in my legs and back after doing hundreds of lunges a day. In numerous tours in the backcountry, I’d set off a handful of avalanches and only suffered minor frostbite. Having escaped death and real dismemberment, I almost considered myself a natural, that my heli-ski trip to Alaska was destiny.
Destiny was delayed. The original fourth scratched a week before we left, and instead of beginning our trip in the wilds of the Chugach as planned, we found ourselves riding lifts in Girdwood; we’d been bumped for full-price customers and left to warm-up on the bunny slopes of Alyeska.
But opportunity is what you make of it, right? After a morning of solid skiing, my usual egg-beater-rough-and-rumble style was actually yielding to a fluid ballet of scissor-like, Swiss-clock perfect rhythms. I almost began feeling smug. True, the only powder we found was down Christmas Tree Chute, which ended in an apocalyptic skirt of cruddy snow studded with wraithlike scruffy trees. In fact, as the day spun out in front of us our resolve never to ski this area again grew by leaps and bounds. For we superheroes had come here for a greater purpose.
So you can imagine my great surprise when, on the last run of the day, I skied into some shaded, well-iced moguls and broke my ankle. Yes, I felt two pops. Yes, all of a sudden, I could barely stand. But I was in Alaska to go heli-skiing! “It must be a sprain,” I lied to myself as I skied on one leg down to the Patrol hut. Passing my friends on the slow and painful slip down, I saw a new look in their faces. A friendly, concerned look that clearly said two things: “You’re on your own,” and “Thank God it wasn’t me.”
The rest is what you’d expect. Thanks to my accident, I came to appreciate, on crutches, the coastal town of Healy, a three-hour drive from Girdwood. I also came to appreciate the gifted storytelling of my friends, who joyfully recounted every hour of untracked, epic skiing each evening when I picked them up at the helipad. Thanks to the accident, I forged a special connection to Girdwood, where I developed a new interest in extreme snowmobiling videos and discovered the challenge of neighborhood .22 target-practice.
Lastly, thanks to my accident, my friends and I came to enjoy the pleasant high of painkillers mixed with gin and tonic – a new favorite we called Alaska on Ice.