There is no worse hiking gear than what you wear for downhill skiing. Your boots are stiff plastic with no give to speak of, your jacket is designed to hold heat and sweat as close to your body as possible; both things are great when you’re soaring downhill, but absolutely terrible for trudging through thick, wind-stiff snow. I was learning this first-hand, step by sweaty, blistering step up the ridge-line.
It was my first time climbing to the top of a run. My first time back-country skiing altogether, in fact. We trudged up the mountain in a line, post-holing through the snow where the wind had dropped it in great white drifts, or kicking the hard plastic toes of our boots into the brittle crusted ice where the wind had blown all the snow away.
Wind seemed to be the only constant up here. High above the treeline, looking down on the world, there was nothing to keep the wind from pulling at our baggy jackets, or pushing us back and forth. Threatening to knock us off the mountain. Blowing a constant spray of ice to scour any naked skin we’d been dumb enough to leave uncovered.
Step after step, I focused on my feet, looking up only to check that everyone else was still ahead of me. Secretly making sure that none of them had vanished in that last strong gust, toppling away down the side of the mountain.
I was so focused on my feet that, when I caught up to the others, it took me a moment to realize that we’d reached the top. Or, as close to the summit as we could get, anyway: the peak of the mountain still hung above us, built to an impossible point by the snow that clung to the top of it. It was so close that I felt I could reach out and touch it, all stripes of basalt black and jagged, blinding white, bright even through my ski goggles.
I looked out, to my right and left, and I felt a jolt of vertigo hit me in a nauseous wave. There was nothing to either side of us; nothing but swirling wind and the kaleidoscope of distance and ice that caught the sun like handfuls of broken glass. Out beyond that was nothing, just empty wind between me and the rest of the world.
“Well, are you guys ready?” asked someone over the wind. I nodded, lying. As one, we set out our skis and kicked the hard-packed snow from our boots, then clipped into our bindings.
There’s beer at the yurt, I thought, trying to quell the rising panic I’d begun to feel. Just get down, and you can have beer back at the yurt. I looked down the side of the mountain with another wave of vertigo, and tried to pick out a good line.
“Ready?” someone said. I nodded again, trying to convince myself. I took a deep breath, steeled myself, then dove.
Exhilaration hit me like a bowling ball. In an instant, everything was forgotten—fear, reward, thoughts of anything beyond the sheer sensation of soaring down the mountainside, gliding across the face of the snow-pack, graceful and free. I swept across the slope in big, luxurious curves, feeling rather than hearing the satin hiss of the snow beneath me. Nothing to dodge, nothing to slow me down. Completely and utterly free.
It went on like that for a beautiful, timeless while until, sooner than I’d ever expected, we reached the bottom.
We all looked at each other, steam in our goggles and big, dumb grins on our faces.
“What do you think?” someone asked.
I thought about the climb, and the sweat, and the beer back at the yurt.
The beer would keep, I decided.
“Let’s do that again.”