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Full-Moon Fever

Mountain Life

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The full moon scheduled for Dec. 21, 1999, promised to be exceptional. We heard about it on the radio, on “Earth and Sky” and in the newspapers.

First, the moon was to be full exactly on the solstice night, the longest night of the year, when the sun traces its lowest arc across the Northern Hemisphere and the moon climbs high overhead. Second, the moon would be as close to earth as it ever gets. Lunar perigee, they call it. On its elliptical orbit around the earth, the moon comes as close as 222,000 miles and drifts as far out as 253,000 miles. At perigee, the moon is 14 percent larger to the eye than at apogee. So it was going to be a really big moon.

And finally, the earth and moon together would be very close to solar perigee, as close to the sun as we ever get. So there would be more sunlight to illuminate the extra-big lunar disk. Two orbital wobbles and a solstice converging at one time. It had been 133 years since the last occurrence; it would be 100 more ’til the next one.What to do? Build a Druid bonfire? Offer up a goat to Diana the Huntress? No, we thought, far better to click into the touring skis sometime after dinner and head for the high snowfields.

I remembered the first time I’d skied in a full moon. My wife Ellen and I had just hired on with the Bear Valley ski school in California’s High Sierra. So much snow fell there in a normal winter that the town never even attempted to plow the narrow, hillside streets. They just let them pile deeper and deeper while year-round residents either skied cross-country to work or drove snowmobiles atop the thick, white carpet.

One night early in the season, new friends invited us over to their cabin for baña calda, a powerfully garliced fondue that required downing copious amounts of red wine. By the time we said good night and staggered outside, the moon had risen full over the towering firs and tamarack pines.

We had only wooden Bona skis then, with lignostone edges and a bit of blue kick wax underfoot. The buried road back to our place shimmered with an icy crust. Had the night been dark, I’m not sure we would have found our way or managed to stay on the track. But the moon bathed our route in brilliant, blue-white light-W.B. Yeats’ “moon in a silver bag”-and we coasted home as if floating above the snow, riding on that silvery light.

The next time I remember skiing in moonlight was in Colorado, outside Telluride’s diminutive sister-town Ophir. Once a silver-mining district with a population over a thousand, Ophir today counts more active avalanche paths than residents. Slides regularly bury the road out to the state highway. And the biggest path in the valley, Spring Gulch, has brushed, or destroyed, houses on the east side of town. It has one of the biggest run-out zones I’ve seen: A giant alluvial fan spreads from the edge of Ophir proper to the cemetery a good half mile to the east.

It was on this gently tilted fan that we skied one night with an Ophir friend named Paul. A wet-snow slide had poured down Spring Gulch a few days before. We clambered awkwardly over debris like cottage cheese boulders. The bed surface above the debris had been sheared smooth as the walls of a Carrara quarry. The flanks of the track were cut perfectly, too, 6 feet high and vertical, as if by a saw. Inexplicable snow pillars stood sentry in mid-track.

Once the kinetic energy of the moving snow dissipated, everything froze to marble hardness. In the moonlight, it felt as if we were walking through a ruined, tilted Roman city, marble walls and columns throwing sharp, blue shadows across our skis.

Or, we might have been exploring the moon itself, so starkly did the snow throw back that alabaster light. Maybe it was the light or the eerie quiet or the latent power of the avalanche or all three, I don’t know, but I felt the chill of Alexander Pope’s line in which “all things lost on earth are treasured there.” It was an easy leap to the pagan notion that things wasted down hhere find a home on the moon: misspent time and wealth, broken promises, unfulfilled intentions.

Afterward, the fire in Paul’s wood stove proved especially radiant, glowing through cracks in the cast iron, warming us to the core.The full moon last December arrived with no such baggage, pagan or otherwise. The night was clear and cold and windless. After supper, my daughter Cecily and I picked up two friends and drove Ouray County Road 5 to the end of the plowed surface. We put skins on our telemark skis and started up. The first mile was in the trees, moonlight snipped to ribbons by slender aspen trunks or else blotted out altogether by banks of dark spruce. In the stillness, Cecily noticed that the squeak of our pole plants sounded like crickets.Then, suddenly, we were out in the open cutting a meadow underlain with sage and wild grasses. The moon hung huge and bulbous, and so bright it obliterated all but a handful of stars. More stars, it seemed, sparkled on the ground; the moon had cast them to earth in the form of snow crystals that blinked everywhere around us.

You could see colors, Jerry’s red jacket, my purple skins, and read the”Dynastar” logo on Cecily’s skis as plain as day. Jennifer’s stainless steel thermos glowed like a chunk of kryptonite. The big peaks of the San Juans looked like a black-and-white photograph of the Swiss Alps from the last century, just slightly underexposed.

No problem seeing the terrain on the ski down, striding through fields of fallen stars. We were giddy, drunk on the pull of the night, a crew right out of Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Gliding left and arcing right, “They danced by the light of the moon.”

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at