One after another, I watch the guys throw big tricks off an improvised jump. I often volunteer to film them partially to support them, but mostly because I’m in awe of what they can do. Before I get into position and pull my phone out, they tell me that I have to hit the jump too. Oh boy. “Okay.” I quietly hope that I’m not getting in over my head.
Will: Backflip. Ashton: Backflip. Drew: 360. Tim: Lincoln loop. Suddenly it’s my turn. I stuff my phone into my chest pocket and pick my way through trees to the starting point above the jump. My skis slide hesitantly a little lower. Then a little lower. The guys cheer me on from below. I point my skis downhill and feel myself blast off the thing.
My air wasn’t huge, but it was pretty big for me. Somehow, my body knew what to do. Rather than spazzing mid air, I felt controlled. I crest the highest point and come back down to a plush, powdery landing. Ooh, it felt so good. And it set the tone for the rest of the day.
A few laps later, I look up from the skin track and see another opportunity to feel the air rush beneath my skis. A sizable cornice had formed above a cliff feature that wrapped around into a sweeping left turn. The time was right and the cornice was calling.
Tim and I climbed above it, keeping our distance from the edge while we determined precisely where to drop off. From above, the landing was somewhat blind. Suddenly my fun cornice drop became a scary question mark in my mind. I paused a moment, balking at my seemingly brash decision. Tim directed me to the sweet spot and encouraged me with his phone out, ready to film my drop.
I often get too caught up in willing myself to jump off things and struggle to announce my drop: “Three… two… one… dropping!” Most times, I’d rather just push off at two so that I don’t have to confront the fear of getting to one. For this reason, I often don’t get the shot, haha.
The air whooshed beneath my skis as I plunged from the cornice above, to a small intermediate rocky cliff, to smooth powder snow below. It all happened so fast. I link a few swooping turns and look back to see Tim perched above the cliff, only higher. He asks me if I want to film. In the interest of saving transition time, I shout back, “No!” And watch him push off, tapping the edge of the cliff before dropping 15 or more feet to the snow below. I immediately regret not taking my phone out.
Tim is my boyfriend, but he’s so much more than that. Most of his boyfriend duties practically stop once we leave the frontcountry. From there on, he’s my partner. Tim rarely pushes me to do things I haven’t set up myself; but there’s something about his encouraging smile that gives me the courage to trust my skis and will myself into the unknown. Often, into the air. It reminds me of when I was learning how to slackline; if there’s somebody there beside you to rest so much as a single finger on, you suddenly find the stability you need to make tiny steps forward. Progress.
We skied until sunset, pausing before we ripped the skins from our skis for our last run of the day. I looked across the valley and pointed out a couloir saying, “I’d like to ski that.” To my surprise, the guys thought it sounded like a good idea and said that we’d come back for it tomorrow.
My nervous mind had played out several crash reels on the skin track on the way over and up. What if there’s a mandatory drop and I catch an edge immediately? Will I tumble to the bottom? Will I learn what it feels like to tomahawk? Are there any cliffs I need to worry about? Trying to estimate my margin for error, I asked Drew, “Do you think I should do this? I don’t want to chicken-shit-out at the top.” He reassured me that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Drew’s vote of confidence was good enough for me. My doubts melted away as we crossed over to the peak.
We began to climb a face too steep to skin; Ashton and Drew ahead of me rapidly kicking steps, and Tim right behind me. As we climbed a semi-steep bootpack together, I felt well aware of the fact that I only had a shot at this line because I had the comfortable buffer of their experience to insulate me from poor decision making. Especially Tim.
About halfway up, Tim asked, “Are you nervous?” I can’t remember what I said verbatim, but I remember telling him with paradoxical confidence in my answer that I was. Yeah I’m nervous, but not scared. I was comfortably pushing it. I felt aware of my exposure and risk; I was accepting. There were still opportunities to bail, but so far, no reason to.
Drew and Ashton took a steeper, more committing couloir that split the center of the peak. The ride down looked like what it would feel like to drop a bouncy ball down a stairwell; from either side, step-like cliffs protruded just enough into the narrow corridor before letting out to the valley below.
Tim encouraged me to check out another couloir to the west. Our line was less steep and wider. I could see that this line was definitely going to go for me. Even though it was just the two of us standing there, we didn’t say much to each other. He encouraged me to look out for rocks and stay low in the couloir. And then he was gone.
I paused a moment. Alone. I looked out from my perch, keenly aware of my exposure. There’s something magical about being alone in the mountains. It’s not a feeling that readily lends itself to description; it’s the combination of recognizing your own mortality, and esteeming it with such vigor that it motivates repeat encounters with the ineffable: the vast masses of granite, impossible icy plunges, wilderness as far as the eye can see.
I click into my bindings, well aware that I could kick a ski from my perch 1000 or so feet below. I buckle my boots down. Check all of my zippers. Gloves on. Goggles in place. Okay. It’s time.
My hand fumbles for the radio at my shoulder. “Dropping in 30, boys,” I say, trying to feign my usual casual confidence, but my voice comes out small and higher pitched than usual. I don’t know how long I waited, but I pushed the fear from my mind as I simultaneously pushed my skis over the edge.
And so it goes. My first true couloir.