In the summer, there’s not as intense a belief in the cosmological order of wandering clouds. It seems more opportune and self-reliant to get off the peaks before noon and knock a little wood to keep the snow snakes from the knees. But from October to April every order of snow worshipper wonders how often winter will break the fast and let the harvest begin: pagan snowboarders, alpine altar boys, and telemark priestesses holding their breath for the sacrament of the season, the constant blessing of falling flakes. We thirst for powder, the transubstantiation of the sky. Over the jagged spires of the Rockies or the Tetons or the Cascades or whatever range constitutes a horizon, it is expected to arrive looming black and terrible, howling with a bitter wind, and depositing a white blanket of cold peace.
For a skier, watching the weather and waiting for great gobs of precipitation exacts the faith of a farmer. I don’t know that I’ve ever met a skiing atheist. Everyone seems to have his or her own prayers and promises and sky-gazed mutterings that are supposed to bring on the clouds.
It’s as timeless as anything on this planet, the western, purple, rolling appearance of a storm, and the eastern rising of the sun—as old as any idea of God. And who’s to say that the shafts of gold light that break through the gray of a day at four p.m. are not the corridors through which divinity is descending? That we are not the powdered pilgrims sucking up all the sunsets we can for some definition of soul? It is a miracle, that’s for sure, the way each pattern of cirrus and cumulus and stratus can conjure a different emotion a separate image of the world.
Ascetic hermits in their basement apartments watch the Weather Channel for its progress, fingering the neckstraps of their Pieps. Something is always moving there, rippling in the jetstreams of the heavens with the chance to bring the best day that has ever been. Perfection travels in low pressure systems so moistur-laden they rip their fat bellies on broken ridges, or suspended aerographic columns of snow that plop deep on the pockets of ground where the heat has risen to welcome them. It is evoked by the feasts of New Year’s and Valentine’s, called for by bodies flailing around the ski bonfires where the emptying of kegs is accepted as the cure for drought, as well as through the sacred chants of snow dances in which each footstep has spent centuries in rehearsal. And when it comes, we immerse ourselves in the act of skimming the earth, balanced on the crystal weave of winter, with the speed of wings.
We want rapture: faceshots in a swirling galaxy of flakes, a waist encompassed by the fallen sky-thick as a milkshake and parting. And a run of fresh tracks which extends for a thousand vertical feet…for a mile…for forever. When it’s January, and zero degrees, nothing is as buoyant as snow.
There is a quiet, too. The white reverence of padded powder broken only by laughing crows and skiers, trespassers on the robes of frost eying the forbidden glow of icicles and carving sinuous wakes. Plunderers of the flakes which have crossed continents and ages to land where they lay. Prometheus come for the fire.
Of course, there can be too many blessings, and that deepest fluff which seems the essence of life can spell the end of it, as well. Every backcountry skier knows that, perhaps considering it an integral part of the joy. The power of any deity is to be indifferent in bad and good, and each mountain has it share of saints. In Wyoming, prayer flags flutter from lines strung between spruces for a patrolman who announced his final vision in the morning and went out to have it fulfilled. There are crosses in Colorado like crucifixes on the mounds. In Alta, an etched rock marks the spot where Jamie lay for three days underneath the snow. The pessimism of death is foretold in skeleton clouds.
The mountains will not remember us. We don’t expect to change the crowns of stone that have been shaped by a millennia of ice and wind. We can only hope to read the signs. I happened to be standing on a porch next to Pepi Stiegler, the Olympic skiing champion who runs the ski school at Jackson Hole, during one of the continuing days of a blizzard in ’92. “It keeps snowing,” he said, nasal and factual in his Austrian accent. “That’s not good.”
Religion is not danger though, and it is the guideline of life, hope, and the ethereal freedom of carving out a set of tracks beautiful in their undulations, resplendent in their rhythm of descent, and exact in their interpretation of gravity’s glacial call. Avalanche is shark attack, the gray-eyed inevitability of nature. So get turning, cavort in the northern shadow of chutes where the snow holds fast.
Every run helps stem the impatience of the plea for powder, until the days grow long, and the heat and the corn become the standard condition. It’s the high pressure then, a bright bubble which shows the deepest blues of the sky and all the stars of the night, and sweats the mountains until the waves are smoothed to slate and the rocks have grown gigantic and invincible again. The evening cold makes everything sit still, then loosen its hold through the warming morning, when steel edges can sink into the enamel and roll it away in balls of slush. Then the world is a spongy tabletop and the vertigo of open air makes it seem possible to step from peak to peak, from range to range. Each turn is the speed of spring, like senses coming unfrozen with the waking ground, loose and reaching for the light. And the completeness in that repeating mantra of linked arcs and burning, breathing lungs, is that every melting thing has followed the same path down the hill.
It will be fall, then winter in Argentina and Australia and Chile by then. And rain in the cities of Europe and the U.S. The cycle repeats, and our bones and muscles grow weaker or stronger because of it. Our minds remember the quirks of the season. Each month is a name in the pantheon of our mental galleries, where the mention recalls the sight of snowflakes or sunshine, or a lone cloud spilling dew to reflect refracted rays, and the sense that something glorious is about. In the scurry of ascent and descent and anticipation, there is something holy and irretrievable about the fog rising out of the valley and the lenticular stretch of a cloud, permanent and vanished, as if it would be enough for any day to be spent standing in the way of the wind.
Reprinted from Couloir VIII-1, Oct. 1995