Peter Shelton

The White Ribbon of Death

Posted in Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on December 1, 2011

I liked Brian Scranton from the moment I heard him say the words “white ribbon of death.”

This was a couple of years ago, very early in the ski season. He was talking about making the long drive across the divide to Loveland Basin for their opening day. It might have been the first day of lift-served skiing in Colorado that autumn, sometime around Halloween.

Scranton knew it was ridiculous to make the 275-mile one-way drive from Ridgway just to ski a lonely strip of man-made snow. But he couldn’t help himself; it was without question going to be worth it. Giving the ersatz ski experience a mock-terrifying sobriquet only made me like him more.

Scranton and I ran into each other last weekend in Telluride on its version of the white ribbon of death, aka Village Bypass. We didn’t actually physically run into each other, although that would have been quite possible as the morning wore on and more and more turn-starved sliders funneled, like migrating salmon, onto the human highway. The snow guns roared, making more. The ground on either side of the ribbon was nearly bare.

It made me think of other times, other strips of white that sufficed.

In the mid 1990s Ellen and I traveled to her grandmother’s home turf in southern Poland. The Iron Curtain hadn’t been parted for long. Cab drivers carried rolls of bills that included U.S. dollars, German marks, Polish zlotys and near-worthless Russian rubles.

It was February. Snow coated the High Tatras above Zakopane. But to get up there you had to ride the ancient tram (circa 1936), and not many Poles had the zlotys or the connections to get on board.

Never fear: local entrepreneurs had set up little ski strips on a meadow at the edge of town. Each one had its own draglift, its own lift tickets (a rubber-stamped scrap of paper) and its own boom box and fire pit at the bottom, where family members could sit and roast sausages.

We picked a T-bar with a sign in the lift shack window that said: Ski School. We didn’t see any lessons being given, but we did see two guys on foot balancing a woven basket full of snow on a wooden sled. They traversed it out to a bare spot in the piste, dumped the load and spread it around a little, then headed back into the trees.

We also watched as a kid of 10 or 12 skidded stylishly to a stop at the bottom, stepped out of his boots, which were still locked in their bindings, and walked in his socks to the fire pit. Whereupon his grandmother (we think) got up, walked over to the boot-ski setup and slipped her stockinged feet in, ready for her turn on the hill.

Another time, another year – 1976, the driest winter on record for Telluride – a friend and I went looking, rather desperately, for some backcountry sliding. (The ski area had closed after an abbreviated Christmas season.) The best we could find was the toe of an avalanche path on Vermilion Peak. This is a very active path, and that stutter-step winter it must have slid multiple times during the few measurable storms that came through, until it had built a teardrop-shaped mound of chalky, wind-sanded snow. Sharp-rock talus surrounded the mound on all sides. My friend and I climbed the patch three or four times, scratching out a dozen telemark turns on each ecstatic descent.

That’s the thing about white ribbons of death. They’re not about death. Unless it’s the death of dreams – the end, rather, of all that dreaming-about-skiing that leads up to the doing.

I wasn’t nervous that first day when later I ran into Brian Scranton. (It was already his ninth day of the season; he’d been savoring – and logging the highway miles to – Wolf Creek’s prodigious early snows for nearly a month.) I did, however, feel the gas bubble of anticipation, as months of imagined turns tilted toward that morning.

These visions – carved turns etched on the womanly flanks of curving terrain – are more than imaginary. They are swallows carving up the air; the lean of a particularly perfect bicycle arc; a vicarious video of a surfer’s wraparound cutback. Even something as pedestrian as a well-steered corner in the car can do it: all the forces of speed and radius and suspension coming together to produce a transcendent result, a moment of fluid balance.

So when the death came last weekend, and all those pent-up roundings were freed to find expression on actual snow, it couldn’t have been sweeter. For one day at least, the white ribbon is all you need.

3 Responses

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  1. Bob Berwyn said, on December 1, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Lovely imagery … thanks, Peter.

  2. cecilybryson said, on December 1, 2011 at 6:00 pm

    If that doesn’t make you want to ski…

  3. mark_rikkers said, on December 2, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Denny Hogan, Ann Mellick and I toured into the Weminuche Wilderness a few years ago and, among other things, climbed and skied a classic alpine climb on Arrow called the “Green Ribbon” that we dubbed “White Ribbon” …. here’s to White Ribbons!

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