As the saying goes, it’s been a long, strange year. Coming out on the other side with vaccination available, mask mandates dropped and daily life returning to some closer semblance of ‘normal’, it’s a prime time for gratitude. This essay Lou wrote some time back exemplifies it: gratefulness for cold snow, high peaks, partnerships encountered in the life-giving experience of skiing.
As we shift into summer, it’s a good reminder of the joys of seasons past and those yet to come. Read slowly, and savor. — Manasseh
At midnight, Ted and I begin climbing the mountain. It’s a day of harsh wind and deep trail-breaking, what we call a “beat out” in polite company. Hours later, at the summit, we lean into the wind, gulp water, and force stiff hands to twist and pry our ski mountaineering bindings from uphill to downhill mode. Despite the torture we’re smiling, even laughing. It is glorious full-blown man in nature, placing ourselves at the mercy of creation: “Come what will,” our minds shout into the wind and whiteout. “We’re here. Bring it on!”
It was then Ted came up with one of my favorite mountain sayings: “If I had one wish,” he proclaimed, “I’d climb one mountain a week, for eternity.” With that, he pointed his ski tips over the lip of the summit, poled off, and made swooping arcs down the side of the white monolith.
At home, bombarded by life, I frequently see the world as a harsh, unforgiving place. Someone somewhere is always being starved, stormed, virus shattered or worse. Yet it seems every major spiritual tradition, from west to east, C to Z, Christian to Zen, teaches that creation also provides nurture, peace, and wisdom. More, the ancient traditions present the world’s mountains as a primary source of those gifts. Buddha left his footprint on a summit in Sri Lanka — pilgrims still journey there to touch of the great teacher’s essence. The Prophet Muhammad worshipped in a cave atop Jabal al-Noor, where he received the first revelation from angel Jibraeel. Moses received the tablets on the summit of Mount Sinai. The way I read it, Jesus attained spiritual transcendence atop a mountain, and battled with Satan on a summit as well. (The latter a bit of trivia all alpinists might keep in mind.)
As a lover of mountains and a Creator, one of the most touching tales I know occurs in the Biblical account of God appearing to Abraham. In this, the supreme being refers to himself as El Shaddai, which according to some translations means “One of the Mountain.”
That’s what Ted was talking about. One of the Mountain who shows himself with the gifts he showers on us from the heights. Gifts our family knows well, and wish to partake of as often as possible — at least once a week – for eternity.
In summer we spend time on crystal cascades, fooling trout into becoming our dinner. Hikes in the mountain forests — and heights above — invigorate us with alpine air that while thin of oxygen, sustains with something more powerful. Come autumn we trod fallen aspen leaves, these bits of sun nourished matter now receiving the gift of peace, just as we receive it. Some of us connect by stalking elk in the high country. When the meat fills our freezer we’re awed by the gift of sustenance we have received from the wapiti. If we come home without firing a shot, we still enjoy remarkable experiences when each step along the trail is significant, every sound important. Then comes winter.
Ever dreamed you flew? Swooped through the air, or hovered in a room? Many have. It’s usually pleasant, even blissful. But sometimes fearful. After all, the closest you can come to flight without technology is to drop like a rock off a cliff, usually with calamitous results — or encumbered by ropes and hardware that while triple-nines reliable, there’s still that fourth nine.
It must have been the joyful and elegant swoops of birds that inspired humanity to seek the sky, when the consequences of trying were so dire. Without taking to the air, as skiers we can have it too, the mountain’s ultimate gift of flight — the swooping arc of glisse, sliding on skis down white mountainsides with gravity as our power.
Humans have skied for thousands of years. First we skied for sustenance, shuffling through Nordic snows in search of food, using rough hewn wooden planks like the 5,000 year old ski the Swedes dug out of a peat bog some years ago. Then we skied to war. Famous legends of military skiing harken back to great military victories, rescues of kings, and our own 10th Mountain Division’s heroics in the Second World War. Along the way we skied for the gifts. We went to the mountains on our planks so El Shaddai could help raise us above our burdens, to play on his shining mountains in childish joy — swooping on skis over snowy landscapes in the closest activity to flying we do with our feet on the ground — receiving multitudinous blessings along the way.
For myself, the gifts of skiing are most powerful in the early winter, the holiday times. Perhaps because I’m shifting from myself and immediate family centered existence to thinking about generosity and giving, Christmas is when my emotional door is most open to mystical experiences. More, pondering the supernatural origins of the celebration is enough to give anyone pause — believer or not — and always profoundly affects me.
Winter is still fresh in these times of short days and low sun. We’ve only seriously skied for a few weeks, starting with backcountry jaunts to high snowfields for early turns, then switching to resort skiing and bigger backcountry lines provided the snow piles up. One of those early-winter backcountry ski days is burned into my memory like it was yesterday…
Five a.m., still dark. The cold December air rakes my throat when I head outside to grab equipment from our garage. Back inside, with my sense of smell cleansed, the fragrant coffee is as much inhaled as sipped and the the oatmeal somehow exceptional. I browse the avalanche report. My sphere of awareness grows in minutes from coffee mug to mountaintop. I consider my partners for the day — how we’ll behave in the avalanche terrain, so we return to our loved ones. What should I carry? Airbag pack? Two-way radio? The emergency bivvy sack? Maybe the rope for a ski cut? The weight adds up, but could save the day for any of us. Just as my awareness has rapidly gone to the summits, so have my self-centered attitudes been chased away by thoughts of others — of how our group can have a terrific day and return healthy. Attitude adjustment. I receive the gift.
Headlight beams swirl through our kitchen as partners pull up on the street next to our home. Packed and ready, I meet them outside. We speak a few words, yet communication is strong. We’re immediately a team, with common goals, no bogus agendas that’ll compromise our simple focus of climbing up and skiing down a mountain. A simple sense of purpose in contrast to the daily complexities of life. I receive the gift.
It’s cold at the trailhead. With first-light coming up, we sling our packs and shuffle away on our touring skis. I drag my ski poles by the wrist straps, warming chilled fingers by curling them inside my gloves. Breathing comes hard after an hour in the car. After twenty minutes on the trail, we finally warm up. Then, it’s like a shot of fast-furious nitrous hits our motors. We begin kicking out a miraculous amount of work: lungs open up; hearts find rhythm as strong as a marching band’s base drum; without protest our leg muscles drag heavy skis and boots though deep snow. We’re even chatting and laughing. A gift: for such a time in life to have a body that can do this.
Most of my partners are good friends, although we socialize primarily during mountain trips. Our alpine fellowship is special. In years of climbing up mountains, we’ve covered everything from relationships to religion, and always come out the better for it. Today it’s small talk of family and work, of the pleasant sort that has a warm feeling of friendship. We also chat about gear, as this is a sport of technology. Backcountry ski gear has reached a stunning level of creative engineering, and much is thought up while the designers are out doing exactly as we are — trudging up a mountain. They receive inspiration from the mountain; we in turn are blessed with the results.
The mountain’s creative inspiration manifests beyond gear. Today is painterly, with wind blown snow fringing the ridgetop, backlit by the low December sun. Colors are muted yet vibrant, the sky pastel. Camera shutters click and we take home rewards. The pictures work their way under refrigerator magnets and into social media, invoking sweet memories, bringing back an offering of today’s sweet encounter.
As I make a last switchback to the summit ridge, my eyes rake a hundred square miles of landscape. The view holds me for a moment as my vision tunnels and my spirit takes flight. I sense the closeness of something beyond the view, something felt not seen, and yet connected to the ground we’re climbing.
We rip our climbing skins from skis, snap our boot buckles. I’m ready a few minutes before the others; I glide to the top of the run, then stop, standing at the apex. I take a deep breath of crisp alpine air, as if I’m inhaling — smelling — the land that surrounds me. I stand straighter, immobile, face to the sky, and let my awareness expand. The sacred mountain now holds me in its sinewed hands. I feel tiny, even a bit intimidated, yet sustained by a powerful love. I continue to merge, to fit with the mountain just as the trees and snow fit the landscape — a mystical mountain blend of modern human with ancient winter.
At the perfect moment, the hands of Shaddai gently release me. I lift one ski and place it in the fall line. I hesitate a split second, then flip my second plank into line as gravity speaks, and pulls. Without thought my skis find the perfect arc — effortlessly blending snow density and slope angle. Another turn follows, then another as the mountain gifts me with flight of body, and spirit.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.