St. Mary’s Glacier, CO, July 30, 2001–Sweat dripped into my eyes and left streaks on my sunglasses. We crested a rocky hill. The dirty, pocked snow of St. Mary’s Glacier and a glittering basin of run-off lay before us. Craig and I paused to pose tourist-like, but we were easily distinguished from the lazy walkers who had also made the three-quarter-mile trek–we wore our skis like badges of honor and planted our scepter poles with each step. We bathed in their recognition: we were somebodies. We were cool. We defined cool. Schlepping gear and sporting fat shades, a digital camera, and anxious grins up the side of the snaking glacier, we left the tourists far below.
We followed the wide path of snow far beyond what we’d first eyed as the peak, eventually reaching a flat spot to mount up. I snapped crisply into my bindings–the DIN cranked to 16 from my racing days. Craig’s Reagan-era GEZE’s gave a muffled and weak “click” as he stepped in. And we started skiing. It was mid July and there we were–shirts off, sunglasses wiped clean, as close to whooping with delight as kids stumbling on Christmas presents early.
The snow had softened under the hot sun but maintained its integrity. We found it hard to set an edge, given that neither of us had made turns in several months. The snow surface was unevenly troughed and cratered from the daily beatings of the sun. We looked like idiots. Luckily, we were far out of sight from our envious tourist counterparts. We made awkward, rear-seated turns down to a couple guys from Vail who were working on a kicker.
“Mind if we take a few pictures and grab a couple hits?”
It’s easy to establish a friendly rapport on the side of a lonely glacier in July. Craig and I spent an hour trading roles as professional photographer and freestyle guru, though secretly we are poorly suited for both.
We left our new friends to try some gnarlier terrain we’d noticed from the base. A long cornice ran along the front pitch of the glacier. It looked like an easy five- to ten-foot drop, maybe one turn after the landing, and then a big sweeping right-footer to carry you out and over the lower rim. Cake, besides the boulder line that began only 60 yards below the near-vertical apex of the wall. I went first, making five or six turns above my chosen launch. Then, I floated for a brief second, arms forward, and touched down. A big right-footed turn carried me across a washboard of pocks. Determined, I held on and eventually popped up the lower rim to the cheers and claps of our pedestrian friends. I took my skis off and waited for Craig to drop in, go out of sight for a couple seconds, and pop back up the ridge.
He dropped in fine–nice and tight. As he landed, his visor flew off and I saw his hand reach for it instinctively. His head turned back up the face for a quick glance. Then, out of sight. I waited for him to pop up in front of me with a big grin, the cheers resonating again from the gallery. When he didn’t show up for half a minute, I figured he must have stopped at the bottom in order to hike the forty-degree pitch to snag his visor. I walked toward the edge of the rim and caught a glance of one of our spectators running along the base of the glacier. Then another one ran over and confused shouting ensued. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I rushed to the lip.
Craig was kneeling in the snow at the bottom of the glacier in obvious pain. Something was in his mouth. I ran down and he was chewing on a cherry Sno-Kone. A deep laceration pouted torn flesh on his right forearm. He pulled the snowball away as I arrived to reveal a mangled bottom lip and several teeth missing from his upper jaw.
“Call 911! Call an ambulance!”
I tied a bandage around his arm and helped him to a nearby rock–probably the same one he’d eaten moments before. With the help of two samaritan spectators, Craig made it out safely and into the waiting sanctuary of an ambulance. An hour later we weree in the emergency room. Four hours after meeting the E.R. staff, I skimmed the pages of a National Geographic as an oral surgeon reassembled Craig’s mouth.
Craig will be fine. He is lucky. I am lucky too. We can still throw back a beer and reminisce. Maybe the ego factor got in the way that day. We skipped wearing helmets and dropped off an untried lip, knowing the conditions would be variable. A hungry pile of rocks waited to devour our incompetence.
That said, to get to St. Mary’s take I-70 West from Denver to Exit 238 and drive until you see the parking lot for St. Mary’s Glacier on the right (about 25 minutes). A 20-minute hike will have you breathless beneath the slab of slow moving snow and a Tahoe-like glass pool. Bring lots of water, sunscreen, and of course, your helmet.