La Plagne, France circa 2008: Riding the frozen wave.
King of the Mountain.
I’m breathing heavily… my calves burn under the strain of the upward hike, skis splayed out before me. Step by step, I climb up this slope, gravity fighting me at over 3,000 meters above sea level. My abs are ablaze with the strain of hauling hardware that was designed to descend, not ascend. Behind me, a herringbone pattern snakes a tortured path down the mountain. A testament to half an hour of trekking to a peak where few follow.
Droplets crystallise before my eyes… as each clouded breath passes before me in a slowing rhythm, I gaze down at a 70 degree falling slope. Virgin white washed slopes conceal jagged shards of rock and ice. These perils welcome me. Out here, you leave normality at the bottom of the pist. This is not terrain for the faint of heart.
Avalanche zones actually have the best powder and the ‘no go’ signs lay behind me. Off pist is off track and out of the assistance zone. I pause to clear my thoughts. For a timeless moment, I am alone with my universe.
“No fear”… I think these words. They roll from my lips into the ether in a soliloquy with no-one. I face the beast and this is my mantra.
I involuntarily tense every muscle. Adrenaline courses through my veins. My breathing becomes ragged. My fingers fumble with my ipod and Metallica fills my world with their nervous energy. I am ready. Like a coiled spring, I release… into the void. As I enter space, I loosen everything. Tension drains from me and I become fluid. I feel my edges lose traction and I slip into no man’s land. In less than a second, I am beyond the point of return and gravity shifts with me…
I’m over the edge now. I hit the slope in a downward trajectory, the edges of my skis slicing into powder and sinking out of my sight. My knees become bathed in a white sea, and my point of reference with the terrain becomes invisible. Against every human instinct, I shift my weight forward on bent knees, committing to the mountain. I embrace this danger, there is no other choice now. With my downward weight comes control and fantastic speed. Instinctively, I rock from side to side, riding the powder and cutting parallel into the shifting mass beneath me.
There is no time for thought, regret or prayer. The white beast stalks my heels. A snaking path trails in my wake, powder erupting in a spray behind me, to my side, in my front… white sands shifting all around me. I have the slope descending with me now. I cannot stop, or I will disappear. My poles work like pistons, on automatic. Plant, shift, plant, shift, I ride the frozen wave… ski or fall, hopelessly rocketing towards an unknown destination. I am one with the mountain. I am master… of nothing. Then, a moment of brief relief as the slope eases slightly. I relax my concentration, just for a second…
I feel the vibration of a rock rake my edges and one of my invisible skis kicks in protest. One ski connects with the other and my balance pitches forward. My arms shoot out, reaching into nothing like a tightrope walker. My stomach twists into knots. I am on the edge of control now. I have been here before. Every muscle strains to maintain the thinning line between command and collapse. My chances are 50/50. I like those odds, so I abandon my parallel turns and rocket down the slope, gambling on my speed and my arms to maintain my delicate balance. But I am a pendulum in mid swing. There is no time to smile, for two thirds of the slope has disappeared now. I work with single minded determination to ride out the storm.
Finally, after a small eternity, I begin to feel myself centering… then…
Another hidden rock hits, splaying my skis completely apart. I pitch forward, my balance is completely gone. Experience tells me that there is no point in fighting this now. The forces against me are too great and my joints will fail before I succeed. I’m going to fall. I resign myself to it. As my skis part in opposite directions, my upper body pitches towards the ground. I release my grip on my poles, withdraw my arms into my center and grab my head with both hands. Shrinking into myself, I pull my chin into my chest and shield my face and neck with my forearms. I crouch forward, rolling into the mountain. Breath leaves me as I impact and roll, roll, roll… twisting in the air in between hits. My world becomes a spin cycle of white and the darkness descends as I barrel into the powder… I absorb the speed of my folly with every fibre of my being. In this maelstrom, I fade into chaos.
Silence now. The world is still. I breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
My eyes open slowly. I am part buried. My cold burns are excruciating… and the pain feels so good on my skin – it tells me I’m alive. I mentally orientate myself as I lay in the snow – checking for injuries before I move. I grin now… I’m still here – in one piece… From the powder I rise. Born again.
I look up at the slope that beat me as I brush myself off. I turn towards the mountain and begin my hike to the summit again.
Next time I will not be beaten.