I am inescapably and resoundingly middle-aged. I have been a college student for three years now, liquidating savings and borrowing heavily against presumed future earnings. Recently—remarkably—I graduated: thirty years almost to the day since I finished high school. Early that morning I drove to the mountains for a celebratory ski in the Mt. Baker backcountry, my excuse being that I needed to look for the camera I lost in a backcountry bowl, three months and many blizzards ago. I would have plenty of time to ski a couple of thousand feet, then drive back to the lowlands where I live—plenty of time to dress up and walk my final undergraduate walk. The ceremony was to start at 1 p.m.
I left the parking lot at 7 a.m., made it to the saddle in an hour, and then dropped in great, swooping arcs down the other side, inspecting camera-sized bits of debris here and there, skis chattering on still-frozen sun cups. At the very bottom of the slope, on the edge of a tiny lake just beginning to melt out, was my camera in its case. I picked it up and pressed some buttons; the lens zoomed in and out and the shutter clicked and whirred. I whooped and bellowed and listened to the answers from the surrounding cliffs. Then I hustled back up to the saddle and started down the other side.
What can I say? I was in a hurry. I’d skied that spot many times, and although it is undeniably steep it is not unreasonably so, and there’s enough room for a few turns or to sideslip out onto the open slopes below. Usually I ski it cautiously. This time, concerned about being late for my graduation, I blasted through the little chute without hesitating, turned twice….and tripped on some icy chunks. I hit the ground and started sliding fast.
Then came a distinct distortion of linear time. I thought in no particular hurry about the trees below me, and about how unfortunate it would be to hit one. I thought about all the people I know who wear helmets in the backcountry, and I thought that if I could miss the trees I’d be fine once the slope flattened out in three or four hundred vertical feet. I had my Whippet buried deeply in the snow, and this kept my head upslope of my feet—which past experience has convinced me is much preferable to the alternative—but it did not slow me down. I wished my spine was not so arthritic, that I might dig my edges in and stand up skiing….but I didn’t dare try, for fear of injuring my back or cart-wheeling out of control. I noted, somewhat disbelievingly, that I was accelerating, then airborne over a little roll, aimed directly at a tree.
I spun sideways and hit the tree hard with my femur, bounced, screamed curses, and continued downslope towards the next cluster of trees. Fortunately, these were deeply buried, with only the tops exposed, and I ricocheted around a bit before coming to rest in a tree-well, tangled in branches. It took about 15 minutes to get my skis off, and another 15 to climb through the trees and out the other side. My left leg was totally useless, and I slipped into mild shock for a while, but for the most part everything else felt OK. I couldn’t find any broken bones, so after thinking it over carefully I gobbled some ibuprofen and started sliding, hopping and crawling the couple of miles and 1300 vertical feet to the parking lot. There was a certain amount of pain involved, and I wasn’t entirely confident I’d make it, but at this point, I figured that I had all day.
A couple of hours later, half way to my car, I saw two skiers starting to climb the slope below me. When it became obvious that they saw me and were headed in my direction I was surprised to find myself weeping. They were kind enough to abandon their tour, take my pack and accompany me back to the parking lot—a fifteen minute journey which took another couple of hours. We got there just as I was due to be walking across the stage back in town, surrounded by friends, classmates and flashing cameras. I thanked them as best I could, took some more ibuprofen and began my drive. All the way home I listened to music from a time before I ever imagined myself as a skier or a college grad; before, in fact, I understood my own vulnerability to death or disability. By the time I got to the hospital, graduation was over and my left leg was swollen and throbbing almost beyond comprehension.
I spent the rest of the day shuttling around the ER in a wheelchair, suffering the jokes made by doctors and nurses and trying not to let anyone bump my very vulnerable leg. Friends from school came to sit with me en route to and from various graduation parties; all politely refrained from lecturing me about the taking of needless risks (for some this restraint was a definite strain, and a few rather pointed discussions ensued). Eventually it became clear that my femur was intact—how this could be true, given the force with which I tried to snap it in two against that tree, I cannot imagine—although my fibula was broken. A stroke of luck, said the doctor; normal activity in a month. I found this encouraging, and began to entertain thoughts of adventures to come.
By this time, it was evening. I went home, ate a pizza, and headed out to the biggest and grandest of the parties. After a couple of hours and a paltry few beers I hit the proverbial wall, and I went crutching down the dirt road in the dark in search of my car. It was 2 a.m., and party-goers were still arriving.
So it is that my ski season ends early, just as the North Cascades snow was coming into shape. I have a nice new pair of crutches and a bright red handicapped parking placard, and in a week I’ll take them on my drive east to visit with friends scattered here and there, trying not to relate to every place I see in terms of its potential as ski terrain. In August I’ll fly to Greenland for a glimpse into a world where formal education, career goals and the pursuit of what we Westerners name “recreation” do not figure so prominently in lived experience. Early next October it will again begin to snow in the mountains, and I’ll again ski the backcountry each weekend, wondering where my conditioning went and why this mysterious telemark dance seems on some days so straightforward, at other times so evasive.
This story has no moral, really—though some will doubtless disagree. This was the most pronounced life-threatening event of my foreshortened ski season, and it will find its way into my risk assessment and my understandings of what I am doing out there, wandering in places of undoubted danger. Here is one ending of the many:
Picture this: I am 46 years old, on skis in mountainous backcountry. Multiple layers of meaning and metaphor have adhered to such places during the long span of my earthbound life, attached to the storms and the wilderness, to my presence and all that comprises my Self. I slide smooth and graceful through an undulating snowy landscape, passing gnarled trees uniquely adapted to short growing seasons, to cloudy skies and massive precipitation; passing ancient basaltic outcrops and the tracks of hares, foxes, and marmots waking thin and hungry in early spring; passing mysterious insects walking patiently across huge blank fields of white. In this landscape and in this action, what can I adequately define or describe?
So picture this instead: I am traveling through a mystic, mythical place where I have been a thousand times before, though nothing here is quite describable in words or concrete imagery. I am moving in a landscape that is my own constructed Self, through my own history, through memory and interpretation and all the things I’ve done and all the places I’ve been. I am alone here and all that I see, touch, smell or hear is an aspect of who I am, a projection of Self.
It is the dreamtime that I always forget, and as such it is always included in my telling, no matter what the words may say. I will return bearing whatever gifts I may find, whether sharply defined or forever inchoate. You know this, and you listen for it, because in their absence the story is incomplete.
You are the mountains, and the mountains are you.
Mark Harfenist was born and raised in New York. After 40 years in places with insufficient snowfall, he settled at last in Bellingham, WA., where he dabbles in mountain biking, motorcycling, backcountry skiing, kayaking and world travel. In his spare time, he works as a family therapist and mental health counselor.