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Skiing's Power To Heal

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Like an old pair of rock skis, I’ve taken some core shots in my life. There was the time, fresh out of college, when my first serious girlfriend dumped me. I don’t recall her exact words, but the message was clear: “You’re useless. Beat it!” I foundered in self-doubt until my best friend and lifelong ski partner bought me a plane ticket to Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“We’re going skiing. First week in March,” he said, with no room for dissent. And something special happened that week. Something life-changing. Somewhere, probably skiing the Hobacks in deep powder or maybe while enjoying a cold one at the Moose, I became myself again. Not long after that trip, I left the Wisconsin flatlands and returned to Vermont to teach and coach skiing.

Maybe I’ve had too many powder days since then. Or too happy a marriage. Or maybe bad things just happen for no reason. After all, there is no explanation for the loss of a child. Born three months early, my son Paul never had a chance to breathe the mountain air or ski the slopes near our home. He weighed less than 1.5 pounds and lived just a little more than 24 hours. That was two and a half years ago.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. In fact, up until the moment of his birth, I was certain Paul was going to be a girl. And I was game for that—game for having one of those strong, independent gals that the mountains seem to mint. Before Paul, I imagined my future daughter as a ski partner enthused for first chair and hike-to steeps. In the aftermath, I cared little about anything. Even skiing.

For a year I grieved, and despite the condolences of family and friends, found little solace in the world around me. On autopilot, I agreed to join a trio of ski pals on a spring trip to climb and ski the eastern Canadian backcountry.

Ten hours from our Vermont home, my friends and I found ourselves on a ridgeline leaning into a stiff spring wind, which seemed to portend a change in fortune. That night we made the first of several new friends, including Super Mario, a Canuck with a yen for GS turns. The next day, two freeheeling females crashed our party and lightened the scene.

From trailhead to summit, our posse fell into a rhythm of steady skinning and easy conversation, all fueled by the skiing ahead. Soon, chutes and bowls lay at our feet, topped by a perfect ball-bearing carpet of corn snow. Primordial dark orange rock, thrust up from the earth’s mantle, punctuated vistas of blue and white. The mountains were working their magic, and I fell under their spell.

Alone above the untracked slopes, I found myself whispering, “What do you think, Paulie?” And each time he’d answer me, “This is it, Dad. Let’s go. Let’s ski!” Drinking deeply in the moment, I’d smile and comply.

At day’s end, like folks at ski areas everywhere, our group would gather for brews and grins. “And the land is good,” became our weeklong refrain as we smiled at our great fortune.

Each day the cycle repeated itself, renewed by newfound friends, a just-arrived partner or a hidden cirque revealed around a bend. At night, we broke bread and offered toasts in a nearby lodge. In the morning, first-track honors were granted to the elders and compliments bestowed for fine lines skied. The days were long, sweet and rejuvenating—as perhaps only spring ski days can be. And at some point, the laughter returned.

Yes, somehow, with the help of the mountains, the laughter returned—for the first time in a long time and, I hope, for the rest of my life.