Are You an Expert Skier?
Ron Karpinski ©1996
Few other sports can match the thrill of skiing. Imagine yourself, edging over a seemingly sheer cliff and plowing to the bottom in a series of tight, twisting turns waist deep in virgin powder snow. It is a modern approach to an age-old theme: man's quest to conquer the mountain.
Western Europe boasts some of the greatest ski resorts in the world. Austria is renowned for Ischgl, Lech, St. Johaan, Innsbruck, and Zürs. Switzerland offers Davos, Engelberg, St. Moritz, Verbier, and Zermatt; and France has Chamonix.
In February 1994, a trip to Chamonix taught me what skiing is all about. Prior to that experience, all had been but a mere prelude to the real thing.
* * * * *
The charming old village of Chamonix rests high in the French Alps. Much of the day, it falls under the shadow of Mount Blanc, Europe's tallest mountain. The city itself lies at 3,389 feet; but, to reach the ski slopes higher up, one must take a cable car.
The top ski station rests at 12,486 feet. At that height, ice cold mountain air stings the lungs, and the view is regal. Steep powder-strewn slopes beckon the purest among skiers.
Stepping off the cable car, Scott, and I moved to the edge of the railing and paused to adjust a few straps. Dry, frigid air nipped at cheeks and chin. One could almost reach out and touch the sky, a deep velvet blue.
In the distance, the curvature of the earth shone along the horizon. Scattered snow capped mountain peaks poked up through a broad blanket of puffy gray clouds.
* * * * *
Riding a chair lift midway up the Le Brévent ski area, Scott grabbed my arm. "Ron, look over there," he said. "It's the perfect ski run!"
A hundred yards to the left lay a nearly vertical chute in a narrow rocky gorge. A mere cleft in the granite, it dropped thirty yards straight down the face of the mountain and then opened onto a broad mogul field that stretched to the floor of a small valley.
Covered in thick drifts of pure white snow, the tight hang offered the ideal steep-and-deep challenge. Two sets of tracks led down to it, proving that others had gone before.
Again and again, we rode the chair lift to the top, trying to discover what route the others had taken to reach the gorge. Nestled between two marked ski trails, it lay almost beyond view. Finally, at one o'clock, the route to the gorge became clear.
Leaving the groomed piste behind, we traversed two hundred yards across the face of a broad, steep slope. Beyond that, a narrow gully stood in the way of a steep mogul field. Crossing the gully, we gently picked our way down to the precipice.
What had looked so inviting from the chair lift now sent chills down my spine. The sun had partially melted and softened the snow. Prior skiers had scraped most of it off, leaving large patches of bald ice.
The single path leading down through the gorge dropped thirty yards through an icy chute six yards wide with steep rock walls. There would be no going back. Peering down from the rim, prospects did not look good for going forward, either.
At that precise moment, Scott pushed over the edge and began his descent.
* * * * *
Scott once mentioned a sign he had seen at the top of a ski slope in Colorado. It warned, "Are you an expert skier? You'd BETTER be!" That same sign belonged here.
* * * * *
Disregarding the fear in the pit of my stomach, I swallowed hard and followed Scott into that first turn. In our skiing partnership, Scott always went first. I observed, learned from his moves, and then followed. Scott played the master and I the pupil.
Each man made a hop-turn, one after the other. Twisting at the waist, shoulders squared to the fall line, our upper bodies leaned downhill, far out over the skis. Knees bent inward toward the mountain, almost touching the slope.
Thus, in perfect balance, sharp metal ski edges could dig into the ice. Slowly, they grabbed hold, and each of us scraped to a safe stop. So far, so good.
Scott landed a few feet lower and faced me from the opposite side of the gorge. Below where he stood, the gorge widened, and the ice gave way to slightly softer snow. "If you can get over to here," he said, "we can make it down okay the rest of the way."
A perilous, steep and icy grade lay between. To complicate matters, my last turn had been too wide, landing me in a narrow saddle atop a spiny ridge between our gorge and the next one. I now faced in the wrong direction, and the tight fit left little room in which to turn around.
Scott suggested a back-turn. A back-turn is a tricky little double-jointed maneuver that most good skiers perform with ease. A back-turn would have faced me in the proper direction.
To perform a back-turn, plant your right ski pole firmly in the snow behind your hip, then lean back and place your weight on it. Next, lift your right leg and plant the tail of your right ski in the snow. Then, twist one hundred and eighty degrees to the right and rear, while stepping into the right ski.
As your body weight shifts onto the right foot, lift your left leg and swing that ski around in a wide, following arc. If done correctly, and you don't twist your right knee out of its socket, the whole thing looks like a ballet movement. In the end, you face to the rear and are in a perfect position to ski again.
"I haven't done a back-turn in five years," I announced, "and this is no time to practice." Instead of a back-turn, I opted for a hop-turn.
Inching slowly to the rear, I pulled my ski tips almost clear of the saddle. Then, planting my right pole slightly downhill, I bent at the knees and took a deep breath.
From this coiled position, I sprang into the air. The idea had been to jump, clear the saddle, spin one hundred and eighty degrees to the right, and then land in the opposite direction, level with the fall line.
That had been the plan; but it did not turn out that way. To begin with, I managed only one hundred and ten degrees in the air, which landed me on the steepest, baldest, and iciest section of the gorge. Five feet, ten feet, straight downhill I shot, out of control and gaining speed.
I dug in hard with the inside edge of my left ski, trying to turn right toward Scott. The effort sent me sideways, straight at him. It took only a millisecond to realize, at that speed, my edges would not hold. That left three choices: collide with Scott, turn left below him, or turn right and aim above him.
Turning left would have pointed me downhill and increased my speed even more. Doing nothing meant plowing right into Scott. So, I aimed uphill, above him.
Bottoming out between two moguls, I flew to the right, bypassing Scott, and headed straight for a small ledge about three feet high. All options ended with the ledge.
I rammed headlong into the ledge. Both skis bowed sharply from the impact but did not break. Compressing my body absorbed most of the shock. Forward momentum, however, threw me to the left, and my skis caught in a groove at the base of the ledge.
Locked in the groove, I rode it out six or eight feet until it ended. Then I hit the side of the gorge, running another five feet up the steep wall before stopping. At that point, my center of gravity shifted to the rear, downhill, and my skis shot straight into the air.
Hanging in midair, time stood still. It is remarkable how much information the brain can process in just a flicker of a second. An entire range of new options flashed forth.
First, my inner self denied that this had happened. Then, he conceded, "Okay it did happen, but maybe we can get out of this somehow." Finally, he observed dryly, "Forget it, we are about to crash."
All systems shut down in preparation for impact. The eyes closed tight, and the brain went numb. I floated, like a leaf on a gentle breeze, down toward the hard packed ice.
Thump! The ground jumped up and smacked me hard, square between the shoulder blades, sucking the wind out. At that point, my descent down the gorge began in earnest.
Gravity pressed me flat on my back. Unseen forces pushed from behind. Head pointed straight downhill, I took off like a rocket sled on the ride of my life.
* * * * *
A white blur streaked past the corners of both eyes. A howling wind deafened the ears. I strained upwards to keep from hitting my head.
The left ski popped off. Well, at least the bindings worked. I tried to roll over.
Adjusting my weight seemed to take forever, but at last I gained more or less an upright position. My left leg bent at the knee and tucked underneath, while the remaining ski on my right leg extended downhill, parallel to the fall line.
Pressing hard into my right boot, I dug the inside edge of the ski into the slope; but too much speed ripped that ski off, too. Momentum catapulted me forward over the loose ski, and I landed flat on my back again, head pointed downhill, just as before.
After an eternity, I managed to pivot again, this time assuming the classic luge position: flat on my back, arms pinned at my sides, feet together, boots pointed straight downhill, gouging a deep furrow into the hard packed snow.
Just as the view to the front began to clear, Mother Nature ripped off my dark sunglasses, flooding the hillside in a blinding white light. I squinted and tried to focus.
The gorge lay far behind now. Directly ahead, the slope spread into a wide apron, and the sharp drop leveled off somewhat. I spotted a small mound of snow and aimed for it.
Slamming to a halt, the freefall finally came to an end. The mountains spun round and round. Stars danced and blinked before my eyes.
* * * * *
How wonderful it felt to sit in the snow, absolutely still. A strange quiet filled the air.
Scott hadn't moved since our near miss, still perched high in the middle of the gorge. At least one hundred and fifty yards of hillside separated the two of us.
He hollered down, "That was a legitimate ten! I see two skis, two poles, and a pair of sunglasses on the slope. Are you missing anything else?"
"No," I shouted back, "all body parts intact!" Hearing that, he zigzagged slowly down the hill, pausing along the way to retrieve my scattered equipment.
After delivering the lost gear, Scott continued down to the base of the slope. I struggled to my feet and donned skis. A bit shaken, but otherwise okay, I pushed off after him.
High above, in the rocks and ice of the unforgiving gorge, the outline of a wry grin seemed to be taunting me. Shaking a gloved fist, I swore to return one day and even the score.