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Mountain Chronicle Head First

Mountain Life

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My life did not flash before my eyes in the split seconds leading to impact. I’d left the groomed pitch unintentionally, the victim of a sudden and mysterious edging glitch. And I found myself sailing into the trees head first, face to the sky, with no idea when or what might cause deceleration. Just moments before, the new skis I was riding had put me in mind of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. Together we were blazing the early-season corduroy “trailing clouds of glory.” Now, “mortal nature/Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised.”

Up until then, skiing had almost invariably been about delight, discovery and good luck. Consider the great good fortune of having cousins who spent a year at school in Switzerland, then came home to California with a VW microbus full of wooden skis and leather boots and reindeer sweaters and said, “Come on, let’s go skiing!”

I met my wife skiing. Our kids grew up skiing and snowboarding and now, still, they love nothing so much as a family trip somewhere to slide down a mountainside.

What kind of good luck was it that got me my first writing assignment for Powder? I had no experience. When I visited Powder’s offices in Dana Point, Calif., then editor Neil Stebbins, a word lover and deep-snow surfer, offered the fatherly advice that I might want to write ad copy; that’s where the money was. But he also had an ear for the quirky, and liked my idea about a story on Telluride’s Lunar Cup Fourth-of-July ski race. The first annual had been contested by the light of the moon high in Savage Basin on strips of sun-pocked corn. What luck that the 1981 race featured a portable rope-tow, pro racers in tank tops and a colorful P.A. man nicknamed Reefer Theobold.

Had my unfortunate flying incident taken place a year or two later, I might have flashed on Sonny Bono crashing at Heavenly. I might have weighed the merits, argued recently in these pages, of helmets versus no helmets. But Sonny hadn’t yet merged with the universe, and the debate about helmets had not formed in earnest.

I might have chided myself for skiing alone and apparently paying the price for a motor mistake that likely went unobserved. It was late in the day, snowing lightly. I don’t recall there being any other skiers on the run with me. But I often skied alone when riding the lifts. I whistled softly through my teeth and matched sounds with the swishing arcs my skis made. Alone I listened to the hill, what it had to say, and not what other slashing bodies, other lines insisted.

I might have berated myself for skiing so close to the trail edge, for pushing the envelope so early in the season, albeit on a lazy intermediate run I’d schussed a thousand times. But, as I said, I had new skis. They were like dancing shoes. They were leading, and if I struggled occasionally to catch up, I loved the waltz they were spinning.

So, no, there were no recriminations. If anything, my mind may have been lulled by the good luck of years past. There was the time on my first assignment to Europe when I left my notebook and its 10 days of precious quotes on a gondola car. I discovered the loss at lunch and, mortified, informed my Swiss hosts. Before the ceremonial plum brandy, before dessert even, a technician appeared, in blue overalls, bowing slightly, my notebook in hand.

Then there was the time the family and I were coming home on a train following a Christmas holiday with my sister. We’d met in Truckee and skied Squaw together, and now we were on the overnight click-clacking through the desert. Around midnight a large California ski club got off in Salt Lake City. The porters offloaded all of the skis in the baggage car, including a cherished pair of K2s I’d been nursing along for years, fearful I’d never be able to turn on anything else. Amtrak people in Grand Junction were not optimistic, but said they’d pass the word back to Salt Lake. A week passed. Then, when I’d given up hope, my skis appeared on the porch. They’d been founnd at Alta. A business card floating in the bag set them on their incredible journey home.

More to the point of physical risk, what about the time I’d wanted a picture of friends skiing a chute in the Red Mountain Pass backcountry? It had been storming hard all day, blowing, drifting. But I had insisted on a photo I knew would be a chest-deep winner. I snuck down through the trees on the side, set up just off the fall line and waved the first skier in. He hadn’t gone five feet when the slab released beneath him. Someone shouted. Bare handed and minus a pole I bolted the wrong way only to find the slope there even steeper and more exposed.

Everybody was fine. The slide stayed relatively confined. My friend lost a ski but rode the other one to safety. Hearts thumping, the rest of the group picked their way down the rubble. I even found my pole.

And what about all the other times I’d managed not to get ‘lanched in the backcountry? All the times I’d been lost? And all the times I’d slid harmlessly, in one vehicle or another, off the road into soft snow banks? And then been able to dig myself out and continue down the road?

You might think I’d have tried at least to twist around in the air to see what was coming. I knew full well the woods were not ready for skiing. Cover was super thin. Deadfall poked through the surface everywhere like pungi stakes. How could I not land on something sharp? If I managed somehow to avoid all the tree trunks? If I winced or stiffened in anticipation of touchdown, I don’t remember it.

No, skiing had always been about transcendent moments, about what mystically-inclined speed skier Steve McKinney once described as the search for “the center of light.” McKinney was the man who broke the 200 kph (124 mph) barrier on skis, beyond which physics is rumored to go haywire. He was a gorgeous skier. He had survived rock climbing falls and helicopter crashes. Only to be crushed while sleeping in his car by a drunk driver.

But, as I said, no sad irony filled my mind, nor any sort of conscious thought. Not dread. Not anything that I can remember. It happened too quick.

I landed on my back soft as you’d set a baby down. Pungi stakes on both sides, branches everywhere blotting out the sky. Only afterwards did terror race through me with “Thoughts…too deep for tears.”

Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at, or check out his previous columns at .