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The nadir of my relationship with ski-town ice occurred on a frigid January night in 2016. I was limping through a Telluride alley, debilitated by a spinal surgery two weeks earlier. While my peers shralped the best early-season snowfall in Telluride’s collective memory, I shuffled slowly along the town’s whitened sidewalks, sporting a cervical collar. I walked with a pole, as elderly hikers do, and strove to always maintain three points of contact with the surface below.
I looked pathetic, and things only got worse. Limping through an alley alongside two so-called friends, I suddenly found myself legs overhead. I landed on my back as the cervical collar smacked against boilerplate. Then, thanks to my jacket’s nylon slickness, I proceeded to slide helplessly downhill, skidding to a stop right beneath an idling laundry truck. How my “friends” laughed and laughed.
Skiers comprise the group most vulnerable to the perfidy of ice. Because we suffer the misconception that all precipitation is benign, when we spot snow on the ground, we reflexively relax. ‘Hey! There’s that downy soft precipitation to which I’ve dedicated my entire life! I’m all good, brother!’
No, you’re not good. You’re not good at all. You’re approaching nature’s sneakiest weapon, since those weight-spreading, six-foot-long planks you depend on as desperately as a toddler relies on water wings are back at the lodge. Sure, staying upright is simple when snow piles atop snow. A quarter-inch of cloud dandruff atop frozen water, however, represents the most treacherous surface in winter’s wily playbook.
If you’ve spent any time in the mountains between Thanksgiving and Groundhog Day, you might understand. Streets and sidewalks tucked against north-facing slopes win maybe 10 minutes of sunshine a day. Snow that falls there never melts—it just liquefies a bit then refreezes over and over again into an impenetrable glacier.
Every time Telluriders fail to wear shoes with the grip of 10-point crampons, we lurch and splay to the extent that cartoon balloons exclaiming “Oops!” form above our heads. Each winter, I yelp “Yikes!” so often it bores me—at which point I consider opting for “Suffering succotash!” or “Great Caesar’s ghost!” even if only to amuse myself.
When it comes to slip-sliding away, the Internet shines. Schadenfreude-addled misanthropes can amuse themselves for hours with videos of ice slapping victims vs. tarmac. Shoppers can purchase winter traction devices such as Cat Tracks. Litigious sorts can contact all manner of ambulance chasers willing to sue businesses and homeowner associations.
My sorry glide beneath the laundry truck occurred about 100 feet from where—years earlier—my friend Travis slammed so hard into an icy crosswalk he ruptured his spleen and was hospitalized for a week. Travis happens to be a superb snow rider who medaled twice in ice climbing at the Winter X Games in the ’90s. A conqueror of vertical ice, he was damn near killed by the horizontal version.
According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, more than 8,864 Canucks were hospitalized after falling on ice in the 2016-’17 season. It’s an astounding number. It means that, in the Great White North, la glace accounts for a third of all ER visits—more than hockey, skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, ATVs, ice-skating, and snowmobiling combined.
The Telluride Medical Center treats more injuries related to ice than skiing. Doctors here once issued a PSA that admonished pedestrians to use gloves, due to fractures suffered by folks with their hands in their pockets. If you can’t break your fall, you break your face.
Best advertisement for hand coverings we’ve ever heard.
Originally published in the November 2018 issue of SKI Magazine.