Firstly, there’s a ski on top of your snowboard. The queue scrapes and slithers forward but you can’t move because someone’s ski is slap bang across your board. Left foot strapped into the front binding, right foot planted on the slush beside the board, you look up and ahead and see chairs coming round and scooping up twos and threes from the front of the queue. Then you look down and trace the ski to its owner. He’s prodding his poles into the snow to push himself forward. You smell Ambre Solaire and garlic. “Excusez-moi?” you say in your poshest French, with attitude, pointing down. The man, expressionless under bandana and wrap-around shades, ushers you forward with the tops of his poles and you wrench the board free and lurch toward the gate.
Now there’s a chair swinging round behind you and nothing you can do but wait for it to hit you in the calves and sit ungainly, inelegantly, thankful, at least, that no one decided to share it. It carries you over a dip and then upwards. “Place ze board on ze bar,” you say, mimicking this morning’s instructor, and pull the safety rail down in front of you. No poles to drop; makes it easier. The board’s on the bar okay; free foot’s hanging in space, nonchalant. You soar up and over the piste, touching your goggles to make sure they’re still there, butterflies in your stomach as you look down from on high. It’s impossible to fall unless you make it happen. Yet you feel scared. It’s as if you don’t trust yourself.
“Stand up on ze board,” you recall out loud, and it works, the chair pushing you forward until you glide down the gentle incline to a flat area at the top of the piste. Your breast swells with the achievement. You bend down to strap your other foot in, seeing your breath billow beneath you, your mitten-ed fingers fumbling with the buckles and ratchets. You glance at skis going past and feel different … rarified. You stand up slowly, touch your goggles again and let your arms fall by your side. You look good. You look great, actually. You look in the direction you want to travel. You cannot move. Snowboards don’t travel on the flat. You jerk and jump forwards. A skier offers you a pole and drags you towards the lip of the mountain. “Merci,” you say, confidently, as if you’ve done this before.
You’re on your own. Skiers swish past as you allow yourself to slide on the snow at the top of the piste. The ground glints faint blue in the afternoon sun, the snow still frozen and hard up here. Your lips move as you recall the instructions. Judging the contours of the mountain: trez important. Make sure the board is either flush to the surface, as in schussing straight down the slope, or that one or other of its edges is biting the slope. If you’re looking up the hill you need to be on your toes, leaning forward, so your back edge doesn’t catch and send you onto your derriere. If you’re facing downhill, stand on your heels and lean back so your front edge doesn’t catch and send you sprawling onto your face. Use the full width of the piste. Initiate the turn by pointing where you want to go. Your hips will follow, then your feet. Have faith. Bend ze knees. And it works, just like they said. You feel breeze on your lips and bumps in your thighs as a rhythmic tilt guides you from side to side, your board scraping on the piste, weaving amongst the downhill skiers, a moving tapestry of thrill.
The scrape turns to a hiss. You slide over gentle undulations that you feel beneath your feet. It’s smooth here, quiet, seductive. You stop and drop onto hands and knees, looking up the slope. Where is this? You haven’t noticed until now but the sun’s gone and there’s a chill in the air. You sniff and look back along the track you’ve made in the fresh snow. You hear brief laughter in the distance. Then silence. A fog has suddenly appeared. You can’t see the piste any more. You look around you. Beyond your outstretched mitten you see noting but white. You stand up and immediately feel movement. You know you have to turn back towards the piste so you initiate a heel turn. You feel the board gather pace but the turn doesn’t finish and the board carries on going faster. You lean back but feel yourself falling, not forward as you’d expect but backwards, down the mountain, your elbow hitting the powder and your legs dancing above you in a crazy arc. You slide sideways, blind, disorientated, lost. You stop. Silence pounds in your ear. You lift the goggles up to see if you can see anything without them. The whiteness is just the same. Cold damp stings your eyes. In the bleakness of the white, you imagine shredding out of control, head first into a snowdrift, legs sticking out like an action figure when they find your body the next day. You wriggle onto your stomach, find a toe-edge in the snow and lean on the mountain on your elbows. Or maybe die right here? Frozen like Jack in The Shining. Suck some snow. It’s tasteless and doesn’t really quench your thirst. A survival novel you once read occurs to you: a man, Lars, eating snow and grass to stay alive until rescued. Was he? Did the fjord whisper his name after he was dead?
Down, go down; lose height. You stand up and allow the board to start moving again. Initiate that turn. But the mountain seems to go up when it should be going down and this time you twist and fall onto your face, your outstretched hands digging into snow to try to stop the headfirst slide. Wetness creeps inside the sleeves of your jacket. You feel your face. Your goggles have gone. You slither around on your hip to try to sit up and the board slips and shudders so you have to hoist it into the air and then let it thud below you, digging in your heels in to come to another uncertain stop. You feel wildly around you but … your goggles are gone and you are blind.
Take it off, then. Take the board off. You’ll have to walk down. You undo the clasps and take your boots out of the bindings, gripping the board hard for fear that it too will disappear into the brilliant gloom. You put it under your arm and cautiously stand up, breathing heavily. You brush snow off your beany with your free hand, lose balance and sit heavily down on the snow. Oh God, dear God, I promise I’ll be good if you get me out of this. No more wine, no more menthols; no going behind lovers’ backs, yes I’ll apologize to them all; no more killing looks at work, I’ll definitely be nicer from now on; no more texting while driving … Phone! You wrestle off a glove and thrust a hand inside your jacket. You stare at the screen. No signal. You look around again but see nothing. You no longer have any idea where the piste was. Panic rises. You have to lose height; get out of this cloud. Walk down. Try again. Get up. Move. You inch your way forward with one hand stretched out in front of you, expecting at any moment to hit something. The cruel whiteness unrelentingly plays tricks on you and your fantasies expand: you’re falling off a precipice with your next step, plunging into a gulley, your dying scream engulfed by the silence of the mountain. Your breath comes quicker.
And then, suddenly, there’s a glimpse of an empty chairlift, over there, in the sky, over to your left. It disappears, a mirage in the desert of white. Then it comes again and you are once again able to tell up from down. Relief floods through you; tentative steps become strides; and, like a great wanderer returning from the hall of the mountain king, you emerge from the clouds, squinting into the watery sunlight. At the edge of the piste, skiers and boarders hurtle past, oblivious to you. It’s comforting, the return of the familiar. You put your back-up sunglasses on your nose and consider strapping the board to your boots once again but a memory comes of tin trays on an icy hill, wet scarves, and squeals of excitement. You carefully sit between the bindings on your board, point it downhill and, smiling now, let the wind burn your cheeks. You remember how to steer by leaning and brake with your heels and sledge yourself to the bottom of the run in good form, as if you always meant to come down like this.
You stand up and glance left to the queue for the ski lift, then right to a café on a raised wooden plinth, umbrellas with Stella Artois on them, tables with ashtrays that spin when you press the top, people with tans sprawled in plastic chairs, tapping ski boots gently to Chic. You remember the moment of vulnerability, the bargaining, the undertakings in exchange for the gift of life. Up there, it wasn’t a café you needed to exist. But that was then and this is now. You hesitate, then drop your snowboard, take off your gloves, and turn toward the music.