I’m sitting with seven other skiers and two guides in CMH’s Galena Lodge getting a briefing on what to expect over our next few days. The seven other guests (all men) and myself (not a man) are signed up for a heli-accessed ski touring trip. We’ll spend a day on either end of our trip with the rest of the lodge’s guests, but for the two days in the middle we’ll get a heli bump in the morning and spend the day touring together. The majority of our group has traveled halfway around the world for this unique experience.
From the get-go it’s pretty obvious Toshiaki, an outgoing Japanese man, speaks very little English. He tries, but we can only make out a few words. Of Toshiaki’s travel companions, three other Japanese men in their mid-50s, one drops a singular English word on occasion and the other two seem fine to let Toshiaki try to communicate on their behalf. The rest of our group is comprised of two Americans and an Italian who doesn’t speak any English. He and I communicate (poorly) in Spanish. I’m his only lifeline to the group.
Regardless of the language barriers, it’s not hard to tell everyone is excited as we make our way uphill on the first day of touring. We take turns skiing one at a time on the steeper pitches, all of us cheering on the rest and high-fiving at the bottom. We’re easily able to share the excitement despite our inability to communicate.
By the end of the day we’re laughing, smiling, and taking selfies as we wait for the heli to ferry us back to the lodge. The trip continues like this, full of smiles and stoke, until the second-to-last day when I stand at the top of a line with Mike, one of the guides who’s tail guiding our group today. Suddenly, a call comes in over the radio and panicked-sounding Japanese bursts from the speaker. Mike straight-lines 50-feet ahead of me and disappears into the trees.
I hurry to follow and find Toshiaki first, who points below to where Mike is scrambling to pull one of the other Japanese men out of a tree well. The man is panicking and kicking his feet which makes him fall farther—headfirst—into the well. We covered tree well rescue on day one with our guide in a mock scenario where we had to work as a team to dig him out. We also watched safety videos in each of our respective native languages covering this exact scenario. Still, the man’s three friends, including Toshiaki, are frozen with fear and panic.
Mike works quickly and pulls the man out before anyone can even assemble their shovel. We all take a minute to breathe after the incident. Tree wells are no joke—people die in them every year—and we were lucky to have an experienced guide who was so quick to react. I didn’t need an interpreter to understand the Japanese men’s acute sense of relief.
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On our last night at Galena there’s a party and everyone raids the in-house dress-up bin. It’s chock-full of weird and ridiculous costumes, wigs, muumuus, you name it. I find a red lifeguard bathing suit with giant stuffed boobs twice the size of my head and throw it on over my jeans. After a week of hanging and skiing with men old enough to be my dad, I’m pretty sure they’ll get a kick out of it, and they do. The Japanese men line up for photos right away. They clearly think it’s hilarious, though I have no idea what they’re actually saying.
The next morning, as we head out for our last few runs, I throw the costume in my bag. We spend the day laughing, high-fiving, and soaking in the stoke of the trip. It’s been snowing the whole time and it’s even deeper now, blinding me on each turn as it flies into my face. I dip into the trees and slide the lifeguard costume on over my ski pants, taking my time to make sure I’m the last one on the run. I ski the final pitch down to the group, laughing so hard I can barely stay upright.
That’s when it occurs to me: Words are not important, after all. Emotion—happiness, fear, and everything in between—is the universal language of skiing and communicates better than any words ever could.
Originally published in the January 2020 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great writing delivered directly to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE NOW.