• Otter Views: Chair Lifts and Alpenglow II

    (Last week we were skiing at Lake Tahoe, or, one of us was. The other was not so skilled. We take up the tale at the moment of impact).

    I became a one-man avalanche, tumbling and clattering downhill like something ejected at high speed from a trash compactor. I finally skidded to a halt on my belly, skis hopelessly entangled, my arms outstretched. I lay like that for some time, taking slow, raspy breaths, intent on milking the scene for its dramatic possibilities.

    “Great fall!” my brother Mike shouted. “You didn’t even lose your skis!”

    Indeed, the skis were still attached to my legs, which were still attached to my body. I could see my arms out in front of me, so I knew my head was still attached, too. Amazingly, I didn’t hurt. That would come later.

    “That was fun!” I grunted, ratcheting my skis around. “I want to do that again!” “I’m sure you will,” Mike said. “But first, let’s run through ‘the snowplow’ one more time.”

    Ah, yes. The “snowplow.” How could I have forgotten this simple survival stance: body in a fetal crouch, arms akimbo, knees bent inward, ski tips angled toward each other?

    Planting my poles in the slope uphill, I heaved myself onto my feet. Then Mike demonstrated the snowplow, showing how a transfer of weight from one ski to the other would enable me to make primitive turns and thus control my rate of descent. Or something like that.

    At length we pushed off again. Soon Mike was flying over moguls and slashing through the deep powder that lay in pockets beneath stands of pines. The sun winked off his poles as he flicked off down the hill.

    I crept downward in my hunched snowplow position, crabbing across the flank of the hill, then turning wildly and crabbing back in the other direction.

    “Lean, plant, swivel, unweight, turn!” I recited my brother’s mantra-like instructions, executing a “snowplow turn” without great bodily harm. If the hill steepened and I got moving too fast, I would simply crash-dive to the side, kamikaze-style.

    This method worked well so long as I skied “intermediate” slopes like Weasel and Sherwood Forest. But at the end of the day all the skiers on the mountain had to go down something called the “Valley Run.” This was a steep, narrow road of snow into which all the other ski runs funneled. Roughly two miles long, it snaked from the mid-mountain lift stations to the main ski lodge at the head of the parking lot.

    For accomplished Tahoe-area skiers, the Valley Run is the perfect ending to a vigorous day on the slopes – a long, fast glide with a full lake view and the fellowship of hundreds of happy companions. But to a displaced islander, it was a different kettle of ice entirely. I called it the “Valley of the Shadow of Death Run,” because I feared some evil.

    “OK, we’re going down the Valley Run now,” my brother said solemnly. “Your kamikaze crash dives won’t work on this one. Just stay in the snowplow and take your time.”

    As we stood at the crest of that final run, I gazed out upon God’s white earth. Most of the mountain was in shadow, but the highest peaks burned with a clean, gold fire. The sky behind them ached with color. The forests were dark and still. A full moon floated over the lake. I didn’t want to leave.

    “Time to go,” Mike said. We pushed off and were soon hurtling down the snow freeway with hundreds of other skiers, some white-haired, some barely out of kindergarten, all more skillful than I. “Passing on your right,” they would call before rocketing past, or “Watch out to the left!” But nobody yelled: “Use the chair- lift, flatlander!” I was grateful for that.

    Locked into a rigid fearplow, I skirted the sheer drop-offs on the downhill side of the run. Were those ravines littered with the bleached skeletons of other beginners, I wondered, their tattered parkas lifting in the breeze? I leaned, planted, swiveled, unweighted and turned. Funny how those little skills come back to you when your life flashes before your eyes.

    Finally, shaky but happy, we reached the main ski lodge at the base of the mountain. The restaurant and the huge indoor bar roared with après-ski festivity, and a fire blazed merrily in the big stone hearth. Mike and I carried our coffees outside to the deserted deck.

    Above us, the day’s last light kindled the peaks with the mysterious mountain light called “alpenglow,” turning the snow canopies deep pink, then rose, then crimson. At last, the final flickers of daylight leaped off the highest peaks into a star-sparked cobalt sky.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on February 20, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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