Peter Shelton

The myth of certainty

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on January 21, 2010

Following a freak-accident death in the backcountry last week, it’s worth listening to the comments flooding in on-line.

There’s been an outpouring of shock and condolence from Mary Scott King’s family and friends. None of the missives I’ve seen have included the slightest hint of bitterness. All of them, including the brave statements from her boyfriend, Carlo Fafarrete, who apparently planned later that afternoon to ask Mary Scott to marry him, stressed only this woman’s love of life and skiing.

There’s enough sadness in the world. I admire these people’s ability to steer clear of self-pity (or blame, or insisting on reasons) and focus instead on the beauty they shared.

Now fresh snow is coming with its ability to make the world new. And in that spirit I want to focus on these things that skiing so seamlessly gives its adherents:

Silent turns. We’ve all spent the last couple of weeks hearing skiing. You shouldn’t have to hear skiing: other people’s edges, your own edges grating, shaving, scraping up a cacophony of steel-on-ice. (Even the backcountry serves up a discord of hollow hard-pan and rotten, tinkling crystals.) Among the redemptive things I’m looking forward to should this storm deliver is the blessed sound of nothing.

Nothing audible below the knee as skis bend and snow pushes back like frosting under a soft blade. Nothing perhaps except for the quiet tapping of snow on goggle lenses and the internal music of breath and blood and the mind’s terrain-rhythm reactions.

Hiking. Last week, for the first time since my hip surgeries, I hiked up the ridge to Bald Mountain on Telluride’s southern flank. It’s not a hard walk. But it does involve some shattered, timberline rock and, this day, zipper lines of well-trod (and slippery) steps in the snow—what old friends on Loveland Pass used to call “the stair chair.”

Just moving up—slowly, skis on left shoulder, poles in right hand, one foot in front of the other, each step just so so as not to lose balance or momentum—steadily, without pain, seemed like a miracle. Past the wonderful, strange warm-air vents with their dark interiors and two-inch long crevasse crystals growing like transparent fins on a school of invisible fish. Past the rainbow-broad summit to the north-facing reward of Jackpot.

New skis. Well, mine aren’t new; I bought them used. But they’re newer than anything else in the quiver, and they are teaching me what they know—German-made schoolmasters of precision geometry.

Heroes. Skis are so good now anyone can channel Carlo Janka or Marlies Schild, or Body Miller, the New Hampshire genius iconoclast, who is back. Bode won the Lauberhorn combined in Switzerland last week after a summer of retirement indecision and the slow process of skiing himself back into shape. He crushed his competition in the downhill run and then hung on in the slalom to notch his 32nd World Cup victory, far and away the most by any American.

In second that day was the young Swiss Janka, who has suddenly come into his own and leads the overall World Cup standings. Janka is known as Iceman for his cool demeanor but also for his preternatural feel for the snow. You watch him and it’s like watching water run downhill, glassy and infinitely supple. He doesn’t look like he’s doing anything. Certainly not struggling, even while dealing with terrific speeds and large centripetal forces.

Schild, a lithe 29-year-old Austrian, has come back from a gruesome broken leg a year ago to win two slaloms in a row. She skis, she races, with a smile on her face. Everybody’s pulling for her. And she’s skiing brilliantly, making the ice-hard ping-pong of slalom look natural, look nuanced and. . . well, not nearly as desperate as you know it is.

When I say you and I can channel these skiers, I’m exaggerating, of course. No way we could actually ski as they do. But with the new skis, we can at least nudge up against the reality of Bode’s laid-out, razor-on-rice-paper carves.

And what a giddy thrill! To be leaning so far over (hiking out to windward!) standing against that solid, curving trench. The beauty of the arc. The certainty of it. And the anticipation of the next one to come. As certain as anything in this life.

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