In rough weather a skier is completely clandestine. Not an inch of an identifiable feature is exposed. A hat or helmet covers the hair, dark goggles hide the eyes, while a balaclava conceals the entire rest of the face. No skin reveals the possibility of even discerning the build or ethnicity of the inhabitant under the thick layer of garb. That’s me today feeling like a 1960 astronaut hardly able to bend elbows or knees with the heavy layers of winter ware protecting vulnerable skin. That along with cement ski boots.
Let me begin by comparing this weekend’s disastrous foray onto the mountain at Boyne with last weekend’s comparative bliss, even with extreme conditions:
Last weekend I’d thought was the most severe conditions possible for skiing. The temperature never rose above -5 degrees. On the final morning, as we emerged from our ski condo’s cocoon of warmth, the thermometers scraped the bottom of the mercury tube at -17, a full 49 degrees of frost.
Nevertheless, in contrast to today, there were mitigating factors on that last ski outing.
The sun shone, sending weak but welcome rays of heat onto the exposed trails. Even with layer upon layer of fleece, the difference between skiing the shadowed side of the trail and the side in the sun was significant. You could choose to shiver down the dark side of the moon or slide down under the kinder and gentler rays of light seeping through gaps in the trees.
The second, most important, redeeming factor was the human one.
Last weekend, I was skiing with my daughter and my tiny, talented 7-year-old grandson. My daughter has skied since the age of two, skimming down the slopes with complete confidence. My cheery grandson would fall and pop right up again with the happy grinning flexibility of youth. It was sheer pleasure watching as he found his ski legs and discovered his edges. Kid charisma on skis.
This weekend? Today?
Dante couldn’t have constructed a weather-hell worse than today. The sky is a furious gray. The air rages with needle like pellets passing as snow. The wind is belligerent.
In its infinite wisdom, Boyne Mountain Resort has added an infuriating additional obstacle to skiing pleasure: they are making snow with snow cannons blasting snow fogs in the already white-out conditions. The colors of winter, which before today were black, gray and white have been reduced to white and almost white.
Today the second, important factor, the human factor, is that the threesome now consists of a bulbous-nosed, acne scarred stutterer and a whining pudgeball of a man and me. I’d met the two superficially twenty years previously at a book club meeting. Bulbnose accosted me weekly at home basketball games. He prided himself on his skiing abilities and offered to meet me one weekend, not knowing it would conquer all hellish records for bad weather, and assured me he knew Boyne ‘like the back of my hand.’
Their physical characteristics aside, their lack of the most basic practical knowledge on the slopes beleaguers me. As a result of unforeseen circumstance, my husband was not able to come with me to Boyne. HIs 96 year old mother had fallen and broken her hip the day before leaving and his help there was urgently needed.
In lieu of my husband’s presence, safety required I ski with someone. As regulars at the men’s basketball games at MSU we met Bulbnose, an usher, and would talk with him on a regular basis. He’d mentioned this end of January ski trip and suggested I come along since over 70 seniors skied free during the week. Later I discovered this wasn’t true, the age required for free skiing was 80. He had a companion that was planning on. Joining him, a fellow forty year veteran of skiing as well, was Pudgeball.
Personally this morning, I am a bit peeved because I came to downhill ski and was on the hill by 10:00 while Bulbnose and Pudgeball didn’t arrive until afternoon. For safety reasons, and because all three of us are over 70 years old, it is preferable to ski with a companion.
I skied anyway. My love of skiing wouldn’t limit me to less that several hours of skiing today. The exhilaration of downhill skiing, in my estimation, is incomparable. I’d desired this trip with pumping heart all season.
The main high-speed lift that zips up the mountain directly in front of the central building worked well and I chose to go up with a fellow skier whenever possible, which wasn’t often since this same demonic winter storm was hitting all over Michigan with temperatures in the negatives. Chairs would go up empty.
Immediately Pudgeball voiced his dislike of the front run, “Too steep. Let’s go find another run.”
Bulbnose pointed to a lift that was moving at a right angle to the one we’d taken, “Let’s take that one. I know the way to get there fast. I’ve been here many times before.”
Shaking my head in consternation, as I now think back, I deferred. After all it was two against one. Both my companions continually reminded me that they knew Boyne well.
We found ourselves skating, the term used for crossing flat land on downhill skis, through lovely, long trails between trees. The snow was so cold that instead of slipping along, we stuck. The skating became a laborious process but we eventually arrived at a lift tended by a young man shivering in a hut.
One run down was enough.
Even constantly wiggling my fingers inside their glove liners covered with thick ski mittens, my thumbs and fingertips were losing feeling. Ditto my toes. The wicked wind cut through all four layers—the Underarmor, turtleneck, insulated vest and sweater, under my ski jacket. The cold wiggled in faster than my fingers could wiggle it back out.
“I need a break, guys. You can keep skiing but I need to go back to get warm and have a bite to eat.”
“We’ll go with you. It’s too much out here. I’m going to ask the ski lift aide the best way to get back.”
In broken English, the ski lift attendant assures us, “The best way going is to left after you put down skis from lift. Make go left as far as can you ski and you come to the lodge. Me? I not so like the cold. I’m from Brazil.”
Bulbnose repeats the directions for our benefit.
Another problem has been creeping up and now becomes critical. I can no longer see. My goggles have frozen FROM THE INSIDE. I take them off and rub them, but they need a scraper. I take off my mitten and then the glove liner but my fingers have stiffened so much in the glacial cold that they are useless. All I accomplish is a thin pencil-line of vision. “I’ll follow you. It’s all I can do. Just don’t get too far ahead.”
Taking the left at the lift Pudgeball points out to Bulbnose, “I think that alley between the trees to the left is where we ought to go.”
“Nah. The lift-guy said to just keep going.”
I kowtow to what I believe is their knowledge of the terrain. We ski on. And on. And on. The top of the ridge becomes a groomed trail with the snow previously packed down by snow machines. This groomed trail appears a little like a cross country ski trail, from the minuscule amount I can see. With less and less success, I now follow the colored back tips of the skier in front of me. The rest of the landscape is a whoosh of white. My skis sense the undulations as they angle slightly upward and descend a bit, curving around a stand of ominous oaks whose branches whip around above our heads sending cascades of snow shards down upon us.
No one can see well. I least of all. The other two wear no ski masks. With their faces exposed, frostbite must have started.
I have no idea where we are.
We ski on. And on. Skiing is a misnomer here. Our progress is more like trudging as the snow makes chalkboard-like scrapings that offend my ears. The only sounds are the hiss of the wind and that fingernail scratching of the skis. We emerge from the wood ridge and ski down a curving slope. On the far right I see what looks like a covered bridge.
“WHERE ARE WE?” I shout through my balaclava-masked voice. Nothing looks familiar and cold is burrowing into my bones.
Pudgeball says, “I’m going to the top of the next ridge to see if I can figure out if we are near the top of a lift. We’ve been skiing for almost an hour.”
Bulbnose replies, “Not me. I don’t know where the hell we are.” He looks my way, “DO something.”
I reply, “You could call the ski patrol if you’re worried.”
Bulbnose, “I can’t. My phone is frozen. And my friend didn’t bring a phone.”
Am I the only one who has put my phone near my body’s warmth? I, who am supposed to be depending on this pair of masculine know-it-alls?
With trepidation, I bare my hands and am inordinately pleased to make contact. When I get the ski patrol, I address my two companions standing like runts in front of mama (although they tower over me), “The ski patrol thinks they know where we are and are on their way.”
Both Bulbnose and Pudgeball take off their skis. It’s like they think they’re waiting at a bus stop downtown for a minute. .
Exasperated, I yell at them. “Put you skis back on! Keep moving if you don’t want to freeze. We’ll head back toward the lift,” says Mama-Bear Me.
The two nincompoops each put on their skis and then HEAD OFF IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS! This pair is not merely a distraction, they are fast becoming a liability.
“Never mind, come back.” I’m beside myself. My body is already starting to lose core heat and has tiny constant shivers that I can’t control. “We’ve got to stay together.”
Nothing happens for five minutes. For ten minutes. For fifteen minutes. We crane our ears, stretch our eyeballs around corners. Nothing.
“Call again. Did you tell them your number?” That’s Pudgeball.
I nod. I don’t want to call again since that means that I have to take off my mittens and gloves and frostbite is now stealthily approaching. Not only that but it is not possible to call directly since the ski patrol doesn’t carry a phone, only a radio. “Call them again. They must be mixed up. What if we have to stay here the night? We could take shelter in that covered bridge. We could die. I think we’re lost.”
Bulbnose blurts out, “I’m going over to that house up in the trees that I can see on the other side of the this snowed-in meadow.”
He takes one step off the groomed trail and sinks to his thighs, toppling into the deep snow. “Guess not. Help me up.”
Disgust with their inability to take care of themselves, I’m now appalled. I’m far too small to help up a horizontal man twice my size. And temperatures are freezing our cores. Uncontrollable shivering has begun.
When he finally gets himself back on his feet, he starts heading back the way we’ve come. God help me, neither man has any sense of direction. Am I the lost one leading?
I call ski patrol again, through the radio relay process, I make certain I explain the landmarks, which are “trees and snow”, nothing remotely remarkable or recognizable. Ski patrol thought we were actually on a cross country trail and one of the trails nearby actually has a covered bridge over it. I work through the description again as both the others shout unintelligible advice to me as to what I should be asking, telling, reiterating on the phone. The cacophony, needless to say, doesn’t help. I’m shivering uncontrollably now.
Bulbnose makes one of his know-it-all pronouncements, “We’re in trouble”
It’s one of the most ludicrous statements I’ve yet heard. Neither one wears a helmet or face covering. Bulbnose’s face is turning purple, little dangerous white splotches are beginning to appear on his chin and nose. We all move in jerky motions. I’m having trouble keeping my thoughts lucid and assume the other two are having the same difficulties.
“Call again! Tell them we’re desperate. I can’t even move! My feet and legs are numb. We’re going to die here...”
He can’t even finish his sentence before the whir of a snowmobile, the welcome whir, the relieving whir, the whir more comforting than the comfiest purr of a kitten, increases in volume.
And there it is!
We wave our arms crazily over our heads— as if he can’t see us in our green, red and yellow jackets against the world of white.
“Here’s a tow rope for two of you and one can sit on the back with me.” Bulbnose pushes past me, not even a slight acknowledgement that he should allow the smallest one of us—me, the relief of sitting. He plunks himself down behind the ski patrol man.
I sigh knowing he needs to be out of the wind since his face will burn later from the frostbite that is spreading across his face. I grab the far end of the rope and we are off toward safety, following the path we took hours ago and now will traverse in ten minutes.
Pudgeball’s hands start slipping on the rope ahead of me. “I can’t hold on.”
He’s going to jam into my skis in a second. I pull as hard as I can to the right. I’m not letting go!
Just as he’s about to tumble backward into me, his hands lose their grip and he falls to the side. I turn sharply to the other side, avoiding by inches a crashing impact.
“I’ll come back for you.” The ski patrol shouts over his shoulder.
A warming house never felt warmer, a helping competent hand never more appreciated than the smiling ski patrol who never ridiculed the stupidity of continuing away from safety for an hour and not having any emergency equipment, such as face coverings or working phones or glove liners, in a crisis situation alone on a mountain in the most frigid part of winter. The other two continue shaking with returning body heat. Neither says a word to me nor looks me in the eye.
The next night at dinner we rehash the mishap, now inappropriately renamed the Adventure. Neither will now admit how helpless they were, how disoriented, and how they took zero responsibility for the rescue.
When I mention how disoriented we were, Pudgeball looks puzzled, then blurts, “I still don’t understand why the ski patrol took us the opposite way that we came and we still got back to the little warming house near the lift we left...”
Why is it I doubt I will ever ski with this pair again?