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Avalanche sign and mountain

Needed: A Hardy Mountain Spirit

The conditions were near white-out, an avalanche was expected, and I was all alone, not sure if I could even continue. It would be such an unhappy end for my first cross-country ski trip deep in the mountains near Mammoth, CA.

I was sure that with my backpacking experience, spending a long weekend skiing cross-country and snowshoeing with old college girlfriends at a lodge accessible only by SnoCat would  be well within my comfort zone. After all, the lodge’s web site says, “All you need is a big smile and hardy mountain spirit.” Check that.

Riding up to the lodge on the SnoCat that first evening, I was in awe of the beauty of the cold, clear night that showed off the tiara of stars hanging over the mountains. We arrived after a 30-minute ride and checked into our cabin—a modern A-frame. One wall was glass from floor to ceiling to show off the snowy hillside. A wood-burning stove counteracted the cold seeping through the single pane glass and under the door. But wait! Where was the bathroom?

Trudging back through the snow to the registration desk, we found out that the facilities were “communal.” Although separated into men and women’s areas, each restroom was, in fact, a five-seater. No stalls, just a plank of wood with five holes. As I opened the door, the woman sitting furthest to the right interrupted her conversation with the woman next to her to say, “Come on in! The toilet paper is over there.” Uhhhhh…OK. This was my first hint that our adventure might not be business as usual.

Skiing at Last

The following day was beautiful and sunny with a cloudless, brilliant-blue sky as high as it was wide. We spent the day snow-shoeing around the meadow; we would ski the following day. As we went to dinner that evening, snow was beginning to fall, and we noticed huge, dark clouds moving in as the tree branches began to sway in the wind.

After dinner, the Camp Director told us to stay for a mandatory meeting. “There’s a big storm on the way,” he said, “and we need to get you out of here tomorrow. I want you in the dining room at 8:00 AM sharp to load up. We’re in avalanche country, so tonight, we’ll watch a safety film so you’ll know what to watch out for and what to do if you encounter one.”

Avalanche Conditions

Avalanche? I guess you can find dealing with an avalanche filed under “hardy mountain spirit.” They didn’t say anything about five-hole toilets and they certainly didn’t say anything about an avalanche.

More than six feet of powder fell overnight, and with this recent storm, snow was piled nearly to the roof of some of the cabins. At breakfast, the Camp Director let us know that the SnoCat would take our luggage; we would need to ski the eight miles down the mountain. That’s down the mountain on cross-county skis!

cabin

We would be on our own, the ski instructors having gone to the other side of the mountain to ski down snow so it didn’t build up to avalanche proportions near a big resort. We were told to follow the summer road which ran in a pass between two mountains. “Just be sure to watch the top of the mountain carefully,” the Director said. As we learned in the movie the previous night, if snow started blowing off the top of the mountain in a certain pattern, the possibility of an avalanche was high.

We all gathered in the meadow and chatted freely amid laughter, expecting an easy trip out. Oh! Did I mention I wasn’t a skier? And that I didn’t have the proper clothes for this type of activity?

I fell frequently, but it was fun landing in that beautiful, pristine powder. Until the fifth, sixth, seventh time. By then I was wet and cold and not having fun at all. But on I went. No choice. Snow was falling much harder and it seemed prudent to get down the mountain as quickly as possible.

Strung Out

After an hour or so, people were strung out in groups of two or three all along the route. Conditions were growing worse. It was getting difficult to see more than a few meters ahead.

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After not seeing anyone else for awhile, my friend Kathy and I came across two women shivering in the cold. We asked them if they were okay. One woman said, “We’re not sure we’re going the right way so we sent my son back to check.” We had met them at dinner the night before. The son was only about ten years old and, we thought, too young to send off on his own.

Kathy and I felt we were on the right path, so we continued on, Kathy out ahead, as I continued to fall frequently. As we got lower, the air would clear a bit from time to time. When it did, we could just see the mountain tops—with snow blowing off them in that special avalanche pattern, just like we saw in the video.

About two-and-a-half hours into this adventure, I fell for what I was sure would be the last time. I tried to push myself up with my pole, but the powder was so dry I couldn’t find anything hard to push against. I tried and tried  and tried again, and finally lay back exhausted. I looked for Kathy, but couldn’t see her ahead in the near white-out conditions. I called out, but she couldn’t hear me. As I lay there, I could see how people gave up and died in the snow; I just wanted to go to sleep. Although dying wasn’t an option for me, it was clear I couldn’t expend any more energy falling.

My Inner Olympian Comes to the Fore

At that exact moment, the picture of an Olympic downhill skier popped into my head. I could see this athlete schusshing down the mountain, knees bent as shock absorbers, poles used as guidance rather than support. Maybe I could do that, too. I rested a bit more, visualizing myself making it all the way down the mountain. I tried again to get up and this time managed to find some hard pack to push myself up against.

Once up, I bent my knees, breathed in the confidence of an Olympic skier, and made it the rest of the way down the mountain without falling once. I was totally present in the moment: no mind, just body on skis. As I got further down the mountain, the snow lessened, the visibility improved, and I rejoined Kathy.

Close to three hours after starting, we finally made it to the bottom where we collected our luggage from the SnoCat and headed home, happy to be alive.

Act as if . . .

I know now that the adage, “Act as if…” is a great one for travelers to employ in various situations. Act as if you’re an Olympic skier. Act as if you know where you’re going. Act as if you’re not afraid. Act as if you love the food. Act as if you’re not shy.

What’s your “Act as if?” and if you decided to embrace it, how do you think your experience might change?



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