heard the familiar hoot of the Land Rover's horn as he stuffed his lunch into
his backpack. He danced over to turn the
stereo off and closed down the air vent on the wood stove. As he grabbed his skis and shouldered his
pack, he reviewed his habitual mental checklist, 'skis, boots, poles, hats,
gloves, gators, Pieps, shovel, climbing skins. . . .'. When he stepped out onto his porch, he hardly
noticed the crisp, cool, morning mountain air suspending frozen particles of
moisture that glistened rainbows in the sun.
His attention was focused on the fluffy new snow he slid through as he
ambled to the street where his long time ski buddy, Willie, was waiting in his
They had met more than 10 years ago
at the University, each with varied backgrounds and interests but with a shared
passion for skiing of all varieties.
Willie, a native of Northern Maine, was new to the western mountains
while Luke was born and raised in the shadows of the Wasatch Range. Willie possessed many of the characteristics
of the traditional north woodsmen. He
was strong, silent and simple with a complacent wisdom remarkable for one so
young. His scruffy brown hair and beard
all but obscured his squinty bright eyes, ruddy Irish freckles and wind
shingled lips. The rest of his hulky
frame usually filled out layers of wool and cotton fashion older than L.L. Bean
Luke was the cosmopolitan, western
version of the same spirit. A tall,
slim, clean shaven perpetual-motion-music machine with dusty blonde hair, wide
innocent eyes, and an easy, natural smile.
His deceptively athletic frame was impeccably attired in the latest
modern-miracle-material and style.
Luke's easy going character and ability to play the fool endeared him to
all, but inhibited any serious respect from those he revered.
Their respective personalities
counterpoised each other remarkably well whether they were at a fraternity
barbecue or in a snow filled coulior.
Willie's skill as a mountaineer and shear physical strength complimented
Luke's knowledge of the local area and mystical intuition. As they rumbled down the unplowed road
leading from Luke's cabin to the main canyon, their minds open and hearts
anxious for the adventures of the new day.
Willie drove slowly and deliberately, grinding through switchbacks and
around potholes with a constant momentum.
Luke scanned the radio dial for the, 'hypothetical, quintessential rock
and roll tune,' switching stations wildly.
His frantic efforts were abruptly interrupted when Willie pushed down
the tape in the deck and filled the cab with scratchy bluegrass and off key
Luke looked every which way,
spotting deer, owls and hawks, snow sluffs, slides and fractures cut by an
occasional wind swept ski track. Their
excitement and anticipation increased the higher they drove until they pulled
off onto a plowed, firm, shoulder of the highway. A long line of cars and busses passed them on
their frenzied way to the ski resorts up the road. They quickly mounted their climbing
skins, shed two layers of clothes, clamped their pack on, activated their Pieps
and broke into the new snow on the barely discernable trail that led up the
drainage. Climbing in silence through
tight aspens, alternating the lead like pursuit cyclists with only the sounds
of their breath and their avalanche beacons audible above the tromping of their
skis and the soft song of the mountain breeze.
Breaking their first sweet sweat, they settled into their own thought
looking up occasionally to notice familiar landmarks. They passed the 'peace sign' carved into an
aspen years ago when these trees were shorter and war was real to young
Americans. Older proclamations of love,
lust, and anger had been elevated above the snow pack by the maturing trees,
and obscured by sap and bark. They
passed the beaver ponds, the glory holes, and the mines indicative of the
relentless spirits of the men and animals inhabiting the back country. They crossed from the warm, sunny aspen grove
to the cool conifers on the north facing slopes, pushing, plowing, packing,
testing and tasting the snow on their way.
They paused to wipe the perspiration from their eyes and to peel off
another layer. Breathing deeply, the
thin, cold air, they could feel their pulses pounding in their temples and in
their groins. Sharing swigs of water,
they arched their backs and looked up patiently at their ridge line
Rising above the tree line, they
powered into a zig zag traverse on a protected ridge that intersected the main
ridge one thousand feet above them at a corniceless junction. Climbing, with a macho intensity, they paused
only to reverse direction with a kick turn and to look around for signs of
weakness in the snowpack or in their partner.
Upon reaching the ridgetop, they rested again, changed their sweat
drenched shirt and donned dry layers of shirts, hats, and gloves. Although the high altitude sun was very
strong, obscured only by a layer of wispy high clouds, the wind on the ridge was
persistent and quickly drained their bodies of all warmth. After adapting to the rigors of the ridgeline
microclimate, they calmly surveyed the panorama that is usually unbelievable to
those not accustomed to it. Standing on
the top of their world, surrounded by blue sky and sawtooth peaks, they studied
the terrain that had become so familiar to them. Theirs was a deeper appreciation of the
beauty, the clarity, the majesty and menace of the terrain they viewed as one
would eye a venerable old friend. Their
inspection was a detailed analysis of shadows and shapes, of wind and its
deposition, of bowls and couliors. When
they looked at small towns spotted below them, they say familiar houses, cars,
dogs, and people. When they looked at
slopes and chutes, they saw all the previous turns they had done there. They perceived detail too small to see and
compiled it with what they all remembered to determine where it would be safe
and where the snow would be deep. The quiet
intensity of the climb matured into the summit silence of the insignificant.
They proceeded westerly along the
ridge, keeping a safe distance from the cornice edge yet examining each and
every slope's potential. Soon they began
to feel more comfortable, more at home and they strength and their nerve. Willie pounds on one section and a large
crack appears between his legs but he quickly scampers to the high side. A snow boulder the size of a Cadillac breaks
off and starts a storm of snow cascading down the slope, exploding into a sugary
cloud as it hits the trees two hundred years below. Standing on the ledge, Willie smiles his
crooked smile but Luke just stares down at the twisted trees and suspended
The crash of the boulder broke some
of the tired tension and they began to feel the joy, the excitement, and the
adventure of the moment. They are
anxious to ski so they shuffle down the ridge another half a mile to where the
slopes to the north open up. They stand
atop a bowl shaped like an inverted triangle and lined by thick pines that seem
to hold all the snow and keep it protected from sun and wind.
Luke threw down his pack in exhaustion and prepared for the descent.
In a few moments, they stood at the edge with their tips cantilevered
over the waiting pitch. With a wink and
a grin, Willie leaped off the edge pumping his arms and legs wildly and landing
into a pillow of pure fluff. His
momentum seemed stalled and he momentarily appeared stuck but as quickly as he
landed, he popped out of the drift and began a series of smooth, rhythmic
telemark turns. His upper body remained
calm and low with his hands out to the front as he shuffled his feet, almost
kneeling on his inside knee as he cranked each turn. His speed remained unchanged as he stepped
out away from the hill to initiate each turn and the muscular stress needed to
maintain control was vaguely perceptible.
He cleverly disguised his struggle with confidence, grace, and
balance. As he approached the bottom,
Luke could hear a muffled, choking, yodeled - scream of ecstacy. Willie pulled to a stop before
entering the trees and turned to admire his serpentine signature etched in the
mountain. He held his poles in the air
and tapped them together three times, expressing his satisfaction and his
anticipation of Luke's run.
Luke gritted his teeth in determination,
stretched his legs once more, adjusted his goggles and dove off the edge. He landed and exploded out of a spot 10 feet
to the right of Willie's and began a synchronized crisscrossing of Willie's
tracks, exactly 1/2 wave length out of phase, drawing an endless row of
connected eights. He dove deep into each
turn to check his speed and popped out of each carve to catch a glimpse of his
location and a breath of air. He had
alternating views of spewing waves of snow and Willie's smiling face getting
closer, bigger, and brighter. Exhausted,
he tumbled from his last turn into a entangled pile at Willie's feet but his
friend quickly picked his up and shook him off.
They looked up to the slope and laughed as they admired the most
expressive symbol of the bond between them.
After a short respite, they donned
their climbing skins again, shed their outer layers and happily began to break
a switch back trail through the deep snow up the south end of the bowl. Trudging like mechanized tanks, taking short
strong steps at a pace dictated only by the strength of their hearts and their
lungs. At the top of the ridge, they
suited up and shared an orange. Once
again, they flew and crashed, recovered and turned, revelled and rested moving
slowly across the bowl that was decorated with their toil, their joy and
delicate creations. Their switch back
trail up soon became packed solid, a veritable highway to the sky. The marks that they left, their impact on the
slope was temporary for the wind had begun eroding their tracks immediately
after they were made. Even the large
cornice they sent smashing to the trees would be rebuilt quickly by the
prevailing winds. A new storm would
completely obliterate any trace of humanity, resetting the scene in pristine
Luke and Willie eventually left the
bowl and moved down the ridge examining the countless opportunities for
descent. Luke had visualized every
detail of Dutchess Draw and would not be tempted by any other bowl, no matter
how deep the snow was. They stopped in a
sheltered southwest facing alcove, dug a large pit and formed chairs with their
rescue shovels. Sitting back with their
feet propped up on snow ottomans, they absorbed the warm rays of the winter sun
while they ate their lunches. Luke
munched on an assortment of granola, raising, dried fruit, and nuts and washed
it down with a high energy exotic fruit punch.
Willie ate his traditional peanut butter and honey sandwiches and drank
his frozen frosty beer.
A sudden chill overcame them as the
sun slid behind one of the afternoon clouds.
They packed their trash, loaded their packs and mounted their skis. They traversed down the ridge further until
they arrived at Duchess Draw where, for the last time, they prepared for the
descent. They stood at the edge looking
down into the shadows and trees, planning their route, imagining their turns,
recalling countless days spent skiing this very spot.
Willie turned to Luke and nodded don the slope. Luke dropped his goggles down and leaped
unhesitantly into the bowl. After
slaloming several small pines, he faltered slightly, leaned far forward, and
planted his face in a magnificent summersault, egg beater crash that sent snow
and equipment flying. He stood up,
collected himself, brushed off the snow and dejectedly skied out the rest of
the run muttering to himself of nightmares and bad Karma. Willie frowned, sharing his friends
disappointment and slid off the edge towards the center of the bowl. Luke watched as Willie linked several deep
turns in the waist deep snow. Out of the
corner of his eye, Luke noticed a huge fracture develop just below the
cornice. He watched as the whole slope
released at once turning it into a menacing wave of snow. Willie did one more turn before he noticed
that the bottom had fallen out on him and he vainly attempted a quick traverse
to the trees. His attempt was too late
and he was swallowed up by the onslaught.
Luke scampered out of the slide
patch into the protection of the dense trees.
He watched Willie disappear and a few seconds later, saw a ski shoot out
of the snow cloud and splinter in the trees.
The slide exploded into the pines at the bottom tearing up roots and
branches before subsiding into an erie stillness. It ended as quickly as it started, in minutes
or seconds or milliseconds, the slope was ravaged and Willie was gone! The severity of the situation overcame Luke
as he screamed for Willie and for help.
Entombed in dense, packed snow, Willie heard the screams and tried to
answer. He could not move, he could not
see, he could not breathe, he could not even tell which way was up. He tried to relax and wait for Luke to get
him. The panic raising in his chest
abated as he started to pray. A feeling
of helpless bliss overwhelmed him and the last thing he heard before blacking
out was the steady, rhythmic beating of his heart and the far away sonld of the beeping of his Piep.
He gathered his wits and calmed
himself as he reviewed the rescue procedure they had practiced. He kept thinking that if he didn't find his
friend in 20 minutes, Willie would be dead.
He reviewed the events of the slide in his mind and imagined the spot
where he last saw Willie and his ski. He
turned his Piep from transmit to receive and listened for the sound of Willie's
beacon. He listened intently scanning
the slope and twisting his Piep at all angles, hearing nothing. He scanned again and he heard nothing
again. He climbed frantically up the
slope towards the last sighting and heard nothing.
Luke continued his climb for what
seemed like an eternity, then stopped to listen again and he imagined he heard
a faint beep off to the southwest. He attempted
to move in that direction but his skis inhibited his progress so he opened his
bindings and kicked off his skis. He
found that he could maneuver easier on the dense debris without his skis and he
moved towards the direction of the stronger signal. The signal got louder and louder as he walked
south, then quickly faded away. He
retraced his steps to the loudest point, turned ninety degrees and walked until
the signal intensity peaked. He repeated
this procedure five or six times until he had pinpointed the loudest
point. He pulled his shovel out of his
pack and dug furiously at the dense snow.
His frustration and fear turned to rage as his folding shovel kept
collapsing in the hard snow. Although
the digging was very strenuous, he did not stop or rest and was soon five feet
deep. He checked his Pieps and assured
himself that he was in the right place.
Suddenly, he saw the blue fabric of Willie's pack and found new strength
in his elation. He screamed to Willie
that he was saved and yanked on the pack.
The pack easily pulled out of the snow and Luke saw the broken shoulder
strap and the Pieps broken cord twisted around the shoulder strap. He threw the pack aside and jumped into the
hole digging with his hands, blinking tears of rage from his eyes. He stood up hopelessly when he found nothing
else, feeling that he had failed and betrayed the trust and confidence of the
person he respected the most. He emerged from the hole and scoured
around the area for any clue or sign of his partner. He tried his Pieps again but remembered
Willie's disembodied Piep and threw his down.
Overcome with loneliness and grief, he dropped to his knees and flailed
the snow with his pole.
He stopped suddenly when he felt his
pole hit something solid. He crawled up
a few feet and found the tip of a ski, Willie's ski! Again he began digging madly and tried to
pull the ski out but it was anchored firmly.
After further digging, a tattered ski boot appeared and he dove at the
snow with all his remaining strength. Soon Willie's unconscious body was uncovered
and his yellow lifeless face held a peaceful grin. Luke started resuscitating him while
imploring him to breathe. Finally,
Willie grasped, choked and puked into the snow.
He looked up at Luke with tears in his eyes and smiled.
After recovering much of their gear,
they climbed out of the Draw, skied back down the ridge and over to the Land
Rover. It was well after dusk when they
nervously climbed into the truck. They
drove down the canyon that once was so friendly, towards their homes, their
lives and their loves. Willie reached
over, turned the radio on to a rock 'n roll station and started to rhythmically
tap the wheel. Luke looked at Willie,
smiled weakly and turned the music down..