“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” – Chinese Proverb
I love the temperature changes one experiences while climbing in the mountains. I find ski touring as my primary means of experiencing the mountains. So many of the sensations and experiences associated with being and moving in the mountains are the same, whether one travels by ski or by boot, by wheel or by boat.
The “alpine start”; the true deep brisk of early morning, laden with the darkness of night not yet lifted. Headlamps bob and stab at the darkness with abrupt islands of harsh illumination. The frost of the evening’s dew lying heavily all around, and on this morning, crunching underfoot. That sting in my nostrils with each deep breath in, it all reminds me that I am more alive today then other days.
As stride and coordination is remembered- my legs settle into a cadence and a warmth spreads throughout, steam rises as heavy layers are shed and skis glide through the landscape, forwards, upwards. Heavy pine scents are awakened with the sun, frozen dirt then mud, thawing soil mixed with snow; sometimes these mornings start with harrowing river crossings other times just the crisp icy crust crunching under slowly but steadily warming boots and skis.
Feeling, smelling, hearing and watching the snow evolve through the morning and as it gives way to the day. The race to the right aspect and elevation has begun; get through the crux or past the hazard, always watching, moving, climbing. Feeling the sun warm, then burn exposed skin; reaching ridge lines and knowing the wind has been waiting for you- up there all morning, relentless. Predictable ridge line gusts, pushing and lifting, drying the cool, damp sweat. Forward progress slows to search packs for warmer layers. Keep stepping, keep pushing upwards, towards the summit.
The steps are a meditation now, these visceral and relentless steps that make mountains.
As the top is gained it can be a joyous, spiritual, or a happy place full of panoramic triumph – or it can be the most unwelcoming, cold, windy and exposed sensations of the day; often the top begs one to not stop but to keep moving forward towards the shelter and warmth that comes with lower elevations.
I am a skier. What always comes next is the sensation of boots and crampons exchanged for long slippery skis. Gingerly bending to secure bindings while standing on awkward, exposed, beautifully nerve-wracking summits. Waxy bases and sharp edges sliding about the icy peak; a slight flutter in my stomach wondering if I really know what to do with these tools, here on this peak, with all that is stretched out below me. Why did I climb up here to feel afraid and cold, wet and nauseous with the wind numbing my cheeks and blurring my vision? Why did I wake so early and drive so far? Why do I do this to myself?
Meanwhile, the calculator of all prior experience and current ability looks down upon the blank canvas of snow stretching below and picks a line. Soon after, all is forgotten, thoughts give way to instinct. The subtle chatter or smooth slide of edge on snow, transmitting information processed at the speed of flying. Subtle adjustments while hurtling through space; shifting weight, flexing, leaning, soaring and powering into the landscape and my skis. No where else do I feel so present. My heart climbs to my throat; eventually I come skidding to a stop, breathing much harder than I had noticed and warmed to the point of tearing away layers, once again. I beam up at the line I have painted through the snow; I am truly and deeply satisfied.