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Don’t fall,” hollered Marko over his shoulder. “Someone slipped and died here a couple weeks ago.”
We were flying across a long traverse several ridges west of Verbier, and I was in the middle of the pack, my speed as outside my control as that of a center subway car. I’d given little thought to anything but maintaining my place in line until Marko shouted his warning. But then I looked down, below where my skis skittered along the icy track, and I saw a series of huge cliffs and sharp-edged reefs that plummeted a thousand feet or more.
Funny how a little thing like certain death can focus your attention. I became acutely aware of every little nuance on that side-slope trail, every little nubbin of hard snow that might knock me off line, and my stomach tightened. Then we came to a small washed-out section, and my precious downhill edge slipped. It took all of two nanoseconds to recover, but my heart and brain were jolted by a lightning strike of adrenaline. Jesus. It wasn’t until a couple hours later, the cliffs long past, that I started breathing again.
Traverses like this are part and parcel of big mountain skiing. If you’re going to seek out the best snow and terrain-and why wouldn’t you?-moving sideways around the mountain, sometimes through serious no-fall zones, is as much a part of your day as hiking, sidestepping, and tucking. Traversing skills are an integral component of the skier’s art, as important to learn as reading snow, navigating in a whiteout, or driving your manual-transmission with boots on. The sooner you come to terms with traverses, the better off you are.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Of all the gnarly runs I’ve skied, traverses have been some of the gnarliest. Now, I’m not talking about some soft-snow glide to the promised land of face shots, where the toughest thing is breaking trail or finding the cardio to keep up with your iron-lunged buddies. I’m talking about the high-speed, hard-as-nails, arrhythmic death tracks that are littered with whoops, whoas, and oopses. The ones with rocks, trees, fall-away airs, and sudden jaggy direction changes. The ones that peril the knees, whiplash the spine, toy with the head. Those traverses.
They’re almost always steeper than normal traverses, so you fly along faster than you might like, trying to keep your momentum for the inevitable uphill portions, trying to stay ahead of the wolf pack snapping at your heels. You head into burly sections way too hot, skittering across chocolate-chip rocks and trashing your bases, or flying off some parabolic hump and stack it into the double. What to do? You can’t snowplow, there’s no room for a check-turn, and if you dump speed by turning uphill you’re going blow the traverse line. Your only choice is to ride it out.
Yet commitment to speed brings issues all its own. I’ve seen people blow some tiny corner in the blink of an eye and fly off a traverse upside down. Hazards come up way too fast, and there’s nowhere else to go. I’ve punched it and hurt my back far worse in a traverse gully than anywhere else I’ve skied, and I still have a scar on my biceps where I whaled a tree on a short slot above the Expert Chutes at Jackson Hole. Throw in a funky fall line, sideways gravity pull, and peer pressure at the front and back, and you can see why traverses can be as tough as the rowdiest couloir.
But I love ’em. I love them in the way that, were I an alligator wrestler, I might love the teeth of the reptile. I love them in the way I love mandatory airs, breakable crust, and choke-point chutes. I love their physical challenge, the mental psych, the uncertainty and constant change, the lack of comfort no matter how solid I feel on my skis. Traverses are almost never easy, but that’s the point. In difficulty, pleasure. In challenge, accomplishment.
I also love the practicality of traverses, that they serve as physical bridges between terrain, between snow. I love that thhey let you gauge the dynamic interplay of sun, snow, wind, and mountain, so that moving along a slope just a few hundred yards can mean the difference between crust and powder. I love, too, their symbolism: Traverses remind me that sometimes you have to move sideways to get ahead, that much of the time you have to work for what’s good, and that no matter how accomplished you are, there’s something out there that’ll totally screw with you, and how you deal with it is what matters.
Finally, I love that a traverse well-skied is a thing of beauty. I hold out hope that someday, one of my bros will say to me, “Dude, you killed that traverse.” And that, perhaps, he won’t be mocking me.