Peter Shelton

Summit Day

Posted in Personal History, Ski evolution, Uncategorized, Weather & Climate by pshelton on January 4, 2016

The wind was not so loud I couldn’t hear the words of the volunteer patrolman at the top of the Summit Chair. My hood was cinched tight, and for the last thousand feet of the lift ride I’d held my gloved hand up to shield a bit of exposed cheek. It was a sunny morning, single-digits cold, with the wind ripping out of the southeast, rivers of snow like airplane banners streaming from the peak, gusts rolling over the mountain’s ribs like waves breaking over jetties.

He was standing in the middle of a vibrating thicket of signs at the entrance to the backside runs. All of the signs said, basically: Whoa! Don’t ski this area without a partner. Maybe don’t go this way at all.

I asked him if this was prohibition or recommendation. A week before, when the Northwest Chair first opened, patrol was enforcing a buddy system, on account of the deep, unconsolidated snow and the worry that tree wells could swallow an occasional powderhound. Patrol is concerned now, my gatekeeper told me, about “the difficulty of hauling a wreck out of here.” And, he added, “not many people go back here. You could get hurt and no one might see you for quite a while.”

Message received. But the policy was voluntary, the terrain was open, the deep snow had all blown away. Or rather, I was hoping some of it had blown – was blowing – into favored bowers on the west side, 90 degrees around the circumference of Mt. Bachelor’s bald-top cone, one long right-hand traverse from this point at the south end of the compass.

He let me go, and right away a hundred feet past him I saw the logic behind the caution. The south face with its myriad ribs and gullies was a ravaged icescape. Banks of giant, unskiable coral heads, gleaming with wind-polished rime, choked off any conceivable descent route. Maybe Killy could have skied it. Maybe Stein in his prime. (May his soul glide in perfect arcs.) Not me. Not in this lifetime. There was a traverse line, though. Set by skiers and boarders when the snow had been softer, it contoured now a step above the surrounding scour, like a rock-hard welt. I wasn’t the first skier to venture out. But I was alone, as far as I could see, on my powder mission.

It was my first run from the summit. I’d missed opening day and missed, too, the last brace of days when Summit had not opened at all thanks to steady 80-plus mph winds. (It happens. They store the chairs in the cavernous bottom terminal when it gets that bad and let the wind sing through the cables unimpeded.) I’d missed those first soft days. But I was here now. I was stoked. This was big weather. Wild weather. Exploratory skiing, with no promise of any reward. I had to go find out.

I hadn’t counted on the wind sailing me out the traverse with quite so much force. Right at my back, it shot me along faster than I wanted to go. Braking was tricky on the frozen-brick rubble. I didn’t want to scrape skis sideways any more than I had to, and only in spots that looked to have collected a few soft grains, like stray electrons, that might offer a bit of resistance. Twice I got myself into dead-end alleys of coral heads and lava rock and had to turn around step-by-step into the wind to rattle down to a better line, a through line.

From one ridgeback to another I scudded, feet spread, anchor dragging, looking to keep the speed down. Off to my left, way down at the base of the volcano, Sparks Lake looked like a frozen paw print on the forest floor. Not that I could afford an extra second gazing at it. The wind felt like a feral, boiling thing, not malevolent really, but alive, if not actually conscious.

I was beginning to think all of the December snow was gone, blown across the Cascade Lakes to settle on the Three Sisters, or farther still, to Mounts Jefferson, Hood, Rainier, all the big volcanoes in the chain to Seattle. But then I crossed the first small shield of wind buff, a nascent patch of grains coalesced in a hollow, like sand. In place of the constant clatter, my skis went quiet for a bit.

On I went around the horn to my right. Over fields of “chicken heads,” millions of rime-ice nodules poking their little necks out of the firmament. These were not the worst chicken heads I’d seen on Mt. Bachelor. These toppled over, like dominoes, under my edges. Out onto the west-facing Serengeti Plain.

Which is not a single plain but a series of fluted gullies, “furrows,” the volcanologists call them. Each one skewed to a slightly different aspect. Merging furrows. Furrows splitting around moraines. Furrows rolling into bowls and wave shapes. None of them a straight shot to treeline but each one striped with bands of tortured, dune-rippled snow. This was a close as I was going to get to my hoped-for powder.

I picked one gully at random and dropped in along its lefthand flank, the wind ushering me forward and down. Snow grains rushed past on all sides, hugging the ground and whipping into diaphanous, undulating snow scarves that partially obscured the surface beneath. Sunlight came from straight behind me, too. The angle of the light so paralleled the terrain that my shadow danced many hundreds of feet down slope.

When I could see it. Mostly I couldn’t. Every turn I made kicked up a universe of crystalline air, each one caught by the wind and flung downhill faster than I could ski. Each cloud-wake exploded with infiltrated, golden light. Exploded around me before vanishing down the hill. Golden face shots from behind.

Down I curved, half blind, adrenalin fizzing in my veins. I felt barely human. More hawk-like in focus. No past. No future beyond the start of the next turn. Slicing left and right through this tilted, yielding world of airborne crystals, sideways light, wind made visible – everything moving at once.

Less than an hour later the wind had built a lenticular cloud, a cardinal’s brimmed galero, over the summit. The swirl of ice particles let almost no light through. Snow underfoot blurred to an indistinct gray. And it was over. Memories lodged in that part of the brain that sees mirages. That part that craves an insoluble bliss.

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4 Responses

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  1. revwend said, on January 4, 2016 at 1:50 am

    Leaping into the abyss….courage and foolishness all at once—ah youth.

  2. Frank Koster said, on January 4, 2016 at 3:43 am

    Well Peter, I was wondering where you were at!? Missed seeing your smiling grin behind those goggles the last few hectic weeks at line-up… don’t you miss the instructor abuse? LOL 🙂

  3. eunikeasta said, on January 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    I am fascinated by your writing skills. For a minute I was lost in your story, at times felt as if I was right there seeing what you saw.

  4. john fago said, on July 25, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Peter
    Awesome, beautiful… thanks.
    The Mudd Butt posse is putting together some kind of on demand online book.
    Hoping you and E will enjoy your reverent reference from my “bio” requested on three hour deadline yesterday, as Julie and I returned from 600 miles of driving in three days.
    Arturo Goodtimes has written a fine longer intro.
    Evan starts Mt. Sinai med school in August.
    Life is good, but not enough days on snow at MRG thanks to climate change,
    somehow here clad in scant natural snow, low temps and high winds.
    Love,
    jf

    ••••••••••

    In March of 1969, taking leave of Marlboro College I caught a ride to Albuquerque, bought an old BLM slant six Dodge Power Wagon panel truck, tossed in my sleeping bag, a sack of brown rice, some adzuki beans and drove to the Four Corners. I’d heard Lake Powell was filling but if you were crazy enough, you could get to and hike down into the side canyons to hundreds of sites once occupied by the Ancient Ones, then soon to be underwater.

    A couple of months later meandering back to Vermont, I rolled over Lizard Head Pass and down into Telluride. Most shops on Colorado Avenue were boarded up and plumes of toxic waste dust rose hundreds of feet into a crystal blue sky surrounded by snow-covered peaks. It was love at first sight. I made it back in 1974 and went no further than Montrose or Sand Canyon for the next three years. Living in Telluride was the closest thing on earth to going to heaven. We were so remote and unlikely – leftovers from the sixties – as Peter and Ellen Shelton dubbed us all. The culture we built and occupied was nothing short of unique. For a while we lived in a version of the abandoned town in “The King of Hearts” before the Allied “liberators” arrived.

    For me, The Mudd Butts came together in 1987 to make sense of the inevitable intrusion of the real world. It was a dream I woke up in, deeply grateful. Ah, Telluride… as Wendy once said, miners stole it from natives, we stole it from them, millionaires stole it from us and now billionaires have stolen it again. I send big hugs to all good collaborators and the hundreds of children (and their parents!) who trusted us enough to join our improbable backflip through the door to the Magic Theater Realm.


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