Snapping his goggles into place, Maurice exclaims, “What a beautiful day!”
Sean’s smile flashes as he too slips off the bench. “I’ve been waiting for a bluebird like this all season.”
Having secured an early seat on the lift with his three companions, and now clearing the off ramp at the top, Paul cheerfully asks the group, “So, we’re all doing ‘The View Points’?”
Gary hesitates as the other two nod and smile. “I’m not in the mood for something so tame. Is anyone interested in going down ‘Mind Games’ with me?”
All three spin on the tips of their skis and stare at him. Sean is aghast, “First run of the morning, and you want to do a Double Black? Are you nuts?”
“Certifiable. But I love that track. I want to get at it before it’s all chewed up.” He looks from one to the other, hopeful. “Anyone?” He gets nothing but shaking heads and a suggestion to save it for their second run. “Awe, nuts.” He groans. “Go ahead girls, enjoy the scenery of your Blue run.”
Disgusted, doing an about face and pushing off, Gary calls over his shoulder, “See ya at the bottom ladies!”
They watch him, until he disappears behind a strip of trees on the otherwise bare shoulder below a brilliantly white peak. Shrugging, and shaking their heads in disbelief, the three friends drift across the snow covered surface, heading toward the sweetest run on the hill.
“Can you believe him?” Maurice feels abandoned. “I thought the day was set.”
Sean quips, “He’s like that, at the last moment it’s exit, stage right. Let it go.”
“That’s my big brother alright!” Paul declares.
Lined up at the verge, they make their final preparations, ensure everyone is ready, and slip off the edge. The freshly groomed run has seen only a dozen or so skiers passing down it’s length, and they lazily traverse the first stretch.
At the crest of his Double Black Diamond run, named aptly for its deceptive nature, Gary takes note of the sign proclaiming ‘This run has not been evaluated. Exercise caution’. Wiping his goggles clean, he adjusts his balaclava and mutters, “Pussies”, then leaps into the air. Using his poles as a fulcrum, he tosses himself, sideways, downhill.
This first section is a pounding abuse of the knees and hips. One hundred meters of heavy mogul set on a brutal slope of 50% discourages most of the looky-loos, but it’s exactly what he wants this morning.
Twisting and hopping from one hillock to another, Gary’s heart begins to pound with building anticipation. It’s over far too soon for his liking though, it always is. At least I’m warmed up now. Smiling, he prepares for the next phase.
Exiting the drop delivers him to a hip-swinging fairway where he tucks into a tight slalom for the next three hundred meters. He enjoys testing himself, as well as his equipment, and cuts much more aggressively than necessary.
Hard on the heels of this bracing run, the line of fall takes a sweeping curve to the left. This section is under the sun, only recently and briefly, so he shreds some vicious carving through serious corn.
Gliding from there into a domesticated fall along a decent side slope, he plays with a series of naturally formed moguls. Weaving, dodging, catching air; he thrills within his growing excitement.
Their selected Blue run is a wide and generous one, named for the magnificent scenery available. It’s not uncommon for skis to be sticking upright in the snow at each look out point along the route. People often take hours descending this one.
The first line of four hundred meters leads into a long, well contoured arc to the right. It’s open on their left to expansive views of the opposite range and the valley far below. A clear blue sky and blazing winter sun makes the moment inviting, while the casual line of fall allows them to appreciate the panorama, but they don’t stop. It’s far too early for that. Everyone wants to practice their slalom skills between standing timber, on the way to the sharp left at the bottom of a long, narrow 25% grade.
Riding high at that turn, throwing snow as they cut edges, Sean leads, with Maurice and Paul fast on his tail. The trio cross a shallow run as it drops to another wide arc, this one to the right. The turn, taken leisurely, delivers them to another pull-out. Here, they do come to a stop in a spray of fine powder. Regrouping, the three of them laugh and sip at their hydration packs.
“I hope Gary’s enjoying his run,” Sean pokes at their absent partner, “he’s sure missing a great time over here.”
Paul grumbles, “The man ain’t happy unless he’s about to die.”
Smiling, Maurice confesses, “I’m quite comfortable knowing I can do this all day long.”
Slapping a high-five with him, Paul cheers up. “That’s the truth buddy.”
Flying high into the air off a sharp rise, Gary screams through his rush of adrenaline, and plunges down the alley. Back in shadows again, the temperature bites hard, like his skis have to in the crusted surface battering the boards.
Tucking deeply, at increasing speed, he races the clock down a smooth surface laid out before him.
The air rips at his garments as he slices through it, wind burning exposed skin.
Standing timber a blur of grays, browns and greens on both sides.
This is incredible! Nothing else thrills him quite like this run.
Swinging into an ever widening traverse, he slows his rate of descent in preparation for the left hand hairpin rapidly coming at him. Setting himself up and entering the turn on the high side of a nasty cross-slope, hugging the timberline, Gary carves deep and hard to execute the move.
Snow flies, his heart and knees trembling beneath the force exerted, a satisfied yell ripping through the weave of his face covering. “Yeeeeeeeeeeehaw!”
Suddenly, everything goes silent except the chatter of his skis.
Losing traction on glassy sheet ice, his graceful arc becomes an awkward slide.
Sharp edges search for a grip, his near-side fist a third point of contact.
There’s no mercy as centrifugal force throws him dangerously close to the lower line.
Spotting rapidly approaching crud, Gary shifts into a christie as he throws himself upright, snapping into a sharp hook as he hits the looser pack.
Losing his tenuous balance, he stabs with his offside pole, destroying it on a tree.
“Fuck!” is the only comment worthy.
Side-stepping to a halt against the tree trunk, he breathes deeply to calm his racing heart, and notices...he isn’t the first to do this today.
Gary carefully exits the turn. Finding the next passage covered in ice as well, he spots where two other brave souls have counted their blessings, and left the piste through a catwalk on the left.
Reluctantly deciding discretion is the better part of valor, he makes for the exit himself, Nobody needs to know… Nonetheless, he curses his luck. These are...damn...were...my favorite poles!
Having discussed the next leg of their run, Sean, Maurice and Paul schuss down a line of a couple hundred meters before entering six long sweeping arcs with increasing pitch. This is the part they’ve been anticipating for it’s fast pace and high energy. Traversing back and forth over each others track, they call out, encouraging greater devil-may-care antics.
Sean wants to know, “Whatcha doin Paul?”
“Looking for Easter Eggs.”
Swinging his hips, Maurice sings at the top of his lungs, “Cha-cha-cha, baby!”
As rookie as it is, this was the highlight of the run, and it’s been sweet. Plowing to a stop at the next view point, they laugh and tease, babbling through their excitement.
Sighing deeply in satisfaction, they prepare for the next stretch. They can see almost the entire line of fall to the peak’s chairlift base. Everything is laid out for them to examine, except an S-turn at the bottom of the next drop.
They know it’s a tight one, hard to the left, then snapping right, and they plan their strategy.
This side of the mountain is under cold shadow. Even the catwalk, weaving through tall timber at the base of rock bluffs, is crusted hard. The people ahead of him have left advice on the surface. Frequently they had to bite deeply, and cut wedges to prepare for slick turns.
Without both poles, this is a lot harder than it should be. He’s making out okay, until he swings tight on the high side of a turn around a rocky point, and finds two guys blocking a narrow stretch of the walk.
He has one course of action, and cuts hard, shooting off between the trees on the downhill side.
Air-born, black silhouettes flash past. His only thought, “This is gonna hurt.”
All of his energy is focused on the rapidly approaching surface, and a tree on his left.
Throwing his fist at it, hard, sets him past vertical in time to smash his shoulder and hip against a tree on the right.
Impacting with the base of a third tree, the tails of his boards sink deep into the crud, slowing him brutally.
Residual kinetic energy from his flight throws the tips of his skis into the air, sending him into an ass over teakettle spin.
With his forward propulsion failing, he falls upside down into the tree-well.
Whipping his arms across his face as the snow load collapses on top of him, he sucks in all the air he can hold.
As his motion stops, Gary presses the snow away from his face with his forearms.
He exhales, slowly. “Stay calm. Think this through. They saw you. They’ll be here soon.”
Again, practicing their slalom, cutting sweet turns throughout the fall, they’ve decided on an aggressive tactic for the approaching turns. One by one they line up on the high tree line. As they clear the timber they stagger, and execute perfect hard edged parallels.
Paul, followed by Sean, then Maurice, slingshot around the corner with snow flying. Propelling themselves over a small rise, they duplicate the move, and whip around the last tight turn.
From here, they have three more easy falls, separated by two graceful arcs, delivering them to the base of the upper chair-lift. They play all the way.
Gary is held in place by the compression of packed snow up the entire length of his body. He knows he’s completely buried.
At the end of his spin, impacting with the surface, his torso was forced toward his knees.
He has no idea how deep his head is. This isn’t what he’s thinking of though.
It’s getting harder to breathe.
Trying to extend what little air he managed to trap around his face, he breathes shallow and slow. It takes all of his self-control to suppress the rising panic.
At the base of their run, Sean, Paul and Maurice glide to the concession below the chairlift. Laughing and joking, they order hot chocolate, and find a perch where they can wait for Gary’s arrival.
Discussion leads to how long he should be. His run is faster than theirs, but he has to cross the base of four other lines to get to where they are. Still, he shouldn’t be too long.
Gary senses a scraping, it’s a vibration more than a sound. He believes it’s the guys he narrowly avoided colliding with, they’re trying to dig him out. It’s taking a long time, and it doesn’t sound like they’re getting any closer.
Trying to stay calm, using his memory of the event as a distraction, he continues to breathe shallow, and ineffectively. He has no choice now. Each tiny breath of air has to be sucked into his lungs with increasing effort.
“Come on guys. I’m not that deep.”
Still, the sound of their efforts seem to be so far away.
Just keep breathing. Stars begin to pinwheel before his eyes.
“Maybe, it’s, wishful, thinking. Maybe, they, didn’t, see, me. Maybe, I’m...”
Those were his last conscious thoughts.
“You know, I’m getting a little worried.” Paul looks it too. “He should be here by now.”
Maurice agrees, “Yeah. At least ten minutes ago.”
“I’ll see if anyone has patrolled that run. Be right back.”
At the concession, Paul questions the staff, one of whom puts in a call to the First Aid Station. Looking sharply up at him, the young woman asks, “Are you a friend, or family member?”
His concerned reply is, “I’m his brother. Why?”
Holding up a finger, asking for patience, she speaks into the hand-piece. “Yeah, a brother. What do you have for him?”
She listens to the response, then hangs up. Sympathetically, she tells him, “There’s been an alert on that run. A team is en-route. That’s all we have right now. If I were you,” pointing, she advises, “I’d head over to First-aid and wait for updates.”
Putting his cup on the counter, he remembers to thank her. His stomach roils, full of sweet hot liquid, as he turns to his companions who have seen his distress, and are rising.
Waiting for them, his head swimming with horrifying images, he advises, “There’s been some sort of accident. Let’s go.”
I’ve, never, been, so, damned, cold.
Wait, what, was, that?
Someone, yelling? At me?
Opening his eyes, wincing against the stabbing pain of bright light, he sees the face of a guy looking down into his. The man says, “Don’t move Buddy. You’re gonna make it, but you’re banged up pretty good.”
Taking the advice, Gary tries to calm himself, but it’s impossible. He gasps, “Are...you...real?” desperately sucking in the air he has long been denied. “I’m...not...dead?”
All he can see is the face at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It smiles down at him as his eyesight begins to clear. He can make out blurred shapes behind the face; the mans body, then his companion, soon trees, and now the sky too.
The smiling face tells him, “Yeah, I’m real dude. Like I said, you’re gonna make it. Help is on the way.”
“I’m so sorry. We should’ve expected someone else to abandon that run. It was totally gnarly. Man, you flew through the air like a shot dead duck though. How much pain are you in?”
Gary’s breathing slowly stabilizes as the adrenaline thins in his blood. The question raises an awareness of sharp and burning points all over his body. “...a lot...”
“No surprise. You hit those trees hard. Just relax buddy. We’ll get you out of here.”
The face looks uphill, and hollers, at the same time his partner begins waving his arms and calling to someone above them on the catwalk.
“Hey, which one of you is Paul?” An attendant has stepped out of the First Aid Station, and approaches their group.
Leaping to his feet and meeting the guy half way, Paul says, “I am.”
“Okay. So, here’s what I know. It isn’t much.”
Looking at the paper in his hand, he reads the report from the field. “Your brother has had an accident, but there were people who witnessed it. They activated an Emergency Personal Beacon, and stabilized him. He’s conscious, asked for you. Search and rescue has him on a stretcher. They’re coming down now. E.T.A. 15 minutes.”
Lifting his eyes to Paul’s face, while his hand falls to his waist, he finishes the report with, “I’m sorry. A helicopter is coming in. The field assessment shows multiple trauma. Sounds like he’s one damned lucky guy.”