(From a story in Peaking Out, Autumn 1978. Dedicated to the spirit of Andrew Sawyer.)
13,432 feet: The top, an unnamed, snow-covered summit. We are at the intersection of two ridges, one east-west and the other north-south. Lean back too far and you would tumble back down to Ophir. Roll left or right and you would end up in Bear Creek or Bridal Veil Basin respectively.
We do not lean, we sit and stare off and eat. The climb has emptied us, and the food – cheese and nuts, fruit, and David’s beer – serves to anchor our lightheadedness while it refuels our bodies. Food becomes a ritual, handed around a circle, a key piece of this complicated puzzle we are creating.
Waxing is another ritual. We rub on a coarse, soft yellow in strokes across the ski to break the suction of the wet snow. It also gives us a chance to feel our skis, to run fingers down the edges, bend them, imagine their turns. It’s all there in the mind’s eye: the feel of the curves, the breathing of the body, extending and contracting, the lightness and weight, the resistance and the letting go.
Bindings click. The first turn is a coming home.
13,100 feet: Stopped midway down the first pitch, I am surrounded by sliding snow. There is a thin, windblown crust still unmelted on this northwest exposure, and it shatters where we ski, sliding along, tinkling madly like thousands of runaway chimes.
12,700 feet: A marmot dives for his hole as we wing out onto the broad flats below the steep.
12,600 feet: We’ve come to the top of a whale-shaped knoll. In the distance, we can see where our route will follow the creek itself, twisting along its bed and out of site. But the convex nose of this rollover prevents us from seeing what is directly below. The exposure is good. There are no obvious cliff bands. We decide to ski it just as the sun takes a powder behind one of the few afternoon clouds. The light goes flat. We wait.
David is dreaming of what he calls alpha turns – identical short-radius turns that transport him into a kind of peaceful, brain-wave bliss.
I am dreaming of alternate gravities created by my own speed, which will allow me to hang, bobsled-like, from gully walls.
Who knows what Lito and Linde are thinking? They will entwine their tacks in figure eights of affection.
The sun comes. We go.
12,500 feet: I breathe in long, whooshing breaths, matching sounds with the skis on the snow.
12,200 feet: We pull up as if in a dream, the only sound our collective breathing.
The snow was perfect, velvety. And by some magic of the day, we were all set free at once on that knoll – freed from trying to ski, freed from thinking, so that what came out was something akin to extemporaneous music, the score for which we leave behind as tracks.
11,200 feet: The harsh purity of the snowfields is now pierced by an occasional spruce. Ruby-crowned kinglets chat and dart about purposefully. Here, too, is the ruined Nellie Mine, the first sign of man’s work since the cabin at tree line on the Ophir side. We’re coming down.
10,800 feet: The couloir. A 30-foot-wide snow slot through the cliff band. Bear Creek Falls roars offstage left, out of sight. We ski one at a time between the rock walls, carefully; this isn’t the place to soar. Below, I can see the Big Rock at the end of the road up from Telluride – the end, most likely, of our skiable snow.
10,600 feet: Down and safely out of the couloir. Violet-green swallows ride on updrafts along the cliff. Trickles of water and bits of ice from the crevices above leap out into the sunlight like temporary jewels and fall back into the shade of the cliff base. The dripping has created a rock-hard causeway of ice, jarring and slippery to ski on, but it is the high line to our last bit of soft-snow skiing – a slide path off Wasatch Mountain that runs right down to Bear Creek and the Big Rock.
9,800 feet: Skiing right on the creek now, its rush only a vibration through the thick layer of avalanche-deposited snow. Broken spruce branches lie about on the surface. Bent willows point down-slide. It is the last tongue of winter, melting fast, pulling back up-canyon.
I encounter several windows of creek noise where the snow has pulled away from the sides of big boulders. Water roars for a moment, then stops as I glide by. It feels like a game: hands over ears, opening and closing, at play with the sound of the world.
9,700 feet: Open water.
9,600 feet: A dipper (water oozle) bobs on a rock midstream. A blink of white eyelids and he’s off, beating furiously, inches above the water.
Walking is easy down the road. Skis strapped on packs, we are like rag dolls, hips loose and rolling, knees flip feet forward, plop, onto the soft red dirt.
9,400 feet: First firs – a new spice in the evergreen perfume.
9,300 feet: Line of aspen change. Above: winter’s bare finger branches. Below: shimmering fields of new green color, like an impressionist painting in motion. Currants leaf. Rosehips bud. Birds are talking everywhere.
9,000 feet: The road turns west, away from the creek, and we descend into Telluride.
Dogs. Saws. Cars. Hammer and boards. The sounds of town are clear and busy – and welcome. Natural town sounds, they would be as foreign where we’ve been as the snowy stillness would be among the houses and streets. The contrast is exquisite.
This is what we go for, I suppose: to trade our comfort for a little pain, our complacency for a little fear; to walk up in the shadows, ski down in the brilliant sun. Hard snow turns soft, winter into summer. All in one day from Ophir to Telluride.
Part One of this column ran in the May 27, 2008 edition of The Ouray County Watch.