Statement of intent:
This text is about an old, experienced ski mountaineer who, over the years, has lost respect for the mountains. A perspective change occurs when he has a near-fatal avalanche encounter and is reminded of his insignificance within this environment. He realises how little control or power he has over his mortality and how lucky he is to be alive.
Ten more steps and I’m at the top once again. Over 25 years ago, it was a bluebird powder day and all of us “punters” decided to hike from the top of the teebar and have a look over the backside. The awe, the complete lack of comprehension as to how one could ski these peaks; and the size, the utter scale of the landscape left me speechless. I felt small, miniscule, insignificant within the towering peaks, deep canyons, and jagged rocks.
Again, 27 years later, looking from the same point. The same trusty old Rossignol telemarks and leather boots under me, faded but still going strong. Now, this place is my home. On this crisp August morning, a foot of glistening powder covers the landscape. Up here, I am king. The ruler of this alpine paradise. Valleys and peaks that I know like the back of my hand spread three hundred and sixty degrees around me; frozen tarns, nothing but puddles, creeks and rivers lengths of twine connecting them. I have skied every face, climbed every peak, and explored every gully. From here everything is small, but I am large, all seeing, elevated from what goes on in the valleys. Up here, I am untouchable, god-like, separated from humanity and mortality.
I drop in, tracing my way down the ridgeline with picture perfect turns, snow blowing up in my face, knee dropped in the style of my era. Hares and chemmy dart away like peasants making way for their leader as I glide effortlessly down the face. Suddenly I have the agility of a man half my age; I am utterly in control, and then, just as suddenly, I am not. I feel my legs slip out from underneath as a rumble behind grows louder and louder. The noise engulfs me in a roaring thunderclap as I am tossed and turned, tumble dried, and then nothing. Confined, suffocated, trapped in black space. I feel myself slip out of consciousness…
“The idiot must’ve thought he was invincible. No avalanche or safety gear at all, no radio, SAT phone, not even emergency food supplies. The old bugger was beyond lucky that those kids saw him and dug him up so quick, a minute longer and he’d be dead as a doorknob”. On the bed in front of the three ski patrollers is an old man, lying unconscious after a near-fatal avalanche encounter. The man is rugged-looking from years in the mountains. Wrinkle lines from the relentless southern sun webbed across his face, sinewy neck and shoulder muscles with a wiry strength; achievable only from years of heavy backpacks. The expression on the man’s face speaks a thousand words. Eyes wide, shocked, betrayed, as though someone or something he has underestimated and lost respect for has come with a vengeance and reminded him who is boss. The ski patrollers struggle to feel sorry for the man; the cockiness apparent from his lack of equipment and disregard for the “buddy rule” means they know he got what was coming. If he survives, he will either learn to respect this mighty landscape, as the death of countless colleagues and friends has taught them to, or he will die a pointless death in proud stupidity.
And here I am again. Hiking to the summit. Despite advice from the doctors, I knew from the moment I woke that I needed to get up here again. A concussion and a sprained shoulder are nothing to a determined mind. The hike up is tough; out of breath, head spinning and shoulder aching, teeth gritted, tenaciously working up the ridge. The familiar fresh crispness of the mountain air hits me like a drug, stimulating, driving me to push upwards. Reaching the top, however, I see a view that is entirely different to the one I saw two weeks ago; I am surrounded by a foreign landscape once again. Looking out upon the mighty peaks of the southern alps, I feel just as much a punter as I did 27 years ago, just as frightened by the towering peaks that looming above.
How could I have ever thought I had any control up here? Roaring, gushing rivers connect deep, mysterious mountain lakes like an unbreakable chain of crystal clear glacial water, enticing yet terrifying. Even on top of a mighty palisade, the immensity of the sharp, rugged rocks, deep blue seracs and crevasses, and towering spires belittle all else. A human life is nothing to these mountains. Within this landscape, I am an ant underneath a shoe. Giant icy cathedrals, millions of years old, they are all powerful, they are untouchable, they are gods, they are separated from mortality.
Transceivers, shovels, probes, avalanche airbags, it’s all making sense to me now. Tools made not for “pussies” or people with “all the gear and no idea”, but for sensible minds with an understanding of this landscape that experience failed to teach me. Stories come back to me, of lost loved ones to the mountains, of freak accidents snuffing out inspirational athletes in seconds. Stories that I shrugged off in my proud state of ignorance. An avoidable, selfish death almost took me. Fortune chose me over hundreds of unfortunate souls, the wrath of the mountains unleashed on them despite years of love and respect.
They deserved to live, I do not; in these strangers’ memory, I will not lose sight of respect again.