Reflections of an In-Bounds Warrior
I sat in the house watching the weather move from sunny and warm (for December) to increasing clouds during the second shortest day of the year, opting to go for an uphill ski after Keystone closed instead of taking advantage of the mild day earlier. I started up the hill about a half hour after the chairlifts stopped running, and the gray sky made for an early dusk. With music in my headphones and my eyes up the hill, I took one slow step at a time, placing my skins carefully for the most traction on the steep and skied-up icy pitch. I watch the remaining skiers dawdle down the hill, and eventually, a ski patroller I didn’t recognize come down on his sweep. He yelled something I couldn’t hear, something other than “closing”, probably the standard warning to uphill users about being on our own, and I smiled and replied something along the lines of “you too”.
As I crested the top of River Run face and approached the gondola mid-station, the wind and snow picked up, but the pitch flattened out significantly, allowing me to knock down the climbing wires on my bindings and pick up the pace a bit. I’m a fair weather skier these days, and would have been well within reason to say “fuck this”, turn around, and go home. Instead, I reminded myself that we’re not meant to be comfortable all the time, so I adjusted the hood on my coat, turned up the music, and watched the snow as it swirled and danced back up the hill. Dusk turned to nightfall quickly, but smugly, I thought to myself how nice it was for Keystone to leave their lights on, even in the absence of night skiing, just for me.
About halfway up, I spotted a fresh skin track, wondering if I was going to catch whoever left it, and to my surprise, the only other person on the mountain soon came into view. I eventually passed him, and by then, my hands were cold and my only focus was getting to the top so that I could put on warmer gloves and layers and head back down. The wind and snow picked up even more, so the summit snuck up on me. I sidled up to the Outpost gondola building and began to transition for the downhill. Wet layers off, dry layers on, skins off, bindings locked down, boots tightened, almost ready to go, and…lights out. I wonder if that’s what that patroller was trying to tell me.
I grabbed my headlamp out of my pack and was proud of myself for being somewhat prepared. The guy I passed earlier made it to the top, and I briefly thought about asking him if he wanted me to wait before skiing down, since it was pitch black and snowy and all. He avoided me like we are in a global pandemic, so it was every man and woman for themselves, I guess. Already a bit dizzy from being a bit dehydrated (too much coffee, not enough water throughout the day), I had serious vertigo as I tried to link turns and my headlamp illuminated the flying snow and not much else. Barely sensing which way was up or down, the only thing I could do is trust my muscle memory and that I knew the terrain, and let go a little bit. Slowly, one turn after another, I was making my way, knowing that a right corner was coming and that the pitch would get steeper. I thought of how many people I have taken down in a toboggan off of that face, whether due to injury, or fear and inexperience, and I kept my pace steady. Before I knew it, my balance changed, I was off that face and the slope flattened again.
I continued navigating my way down, one slow turn, until I would see the faint outline of trees, then turn the other way. Repeat. It’s funny how easy it is to take for granted the fact that a closed ski area, groomed runs and all, is still a mountain, and I was up there alone at night and reliant on myself to come down safely. Two thirds of the way down and the blowing snow lightened up a little, and ambient light from River Run Village made it a little easier for me to see. I still had to look hard to avoid the few people who were sledding on the final face. Back at the base area, lights were on, people were walking around, the smell of food wafting from the restaurants that were still open for takeout. I was the one person still walking around in ski boots and carrying my skis. I felt like I had come from another world after surviving the darkness. I looked at my phone when I was back at the car, and saw an emergency alert for a squall. “I am the squall” I said to myself, misremembering some quote or meme I saw on Facebook earlier.
Turns out, I wasn’t the squall. The actual squall came in as I was driving home past the lake, and like the alert said, visibility was zero. There just wasn’t any. And so I put my car into first, sometimes second gear, and pointed towards a guardrail or road sign, if I saw one, to avoid driving on the wrong side of the road, then turn the other way until I saw headlights. Repeat. I’m happy to say I made it home without wrecking, and that was probably one of the shittiest drives I’ve ever had. From shittiness comes gratitude, however, and I was pretty grateful to come back to my warm home, take a nice warm shower, and cuddle my warm cat.