White and Blue

Small slab I undercut on Coalpit Headwall.

2010-2011. It started to snow in early October and did not cease until the following summer; the storms were relentless and were drawn to the Wasatch mountains in Utah from the Southwest, from the Northwest. At this point in my life I did very little other than ski; I spent five or six days a week working as a ski patroller and every other moment I could in the backcountry of the Cottonwood Canyons. I skied all but a few days between Halloween and Easter, trying to take advantage of a once in a lifetime winter.DSC01609 The amount of snow that fell can be quantified in the number of cups of coffee that I drank per day, which topped out at roughly 12 before I decided that I had a problem. I would wake up before 5am for both avalanche control and days in the backcountry; I tried to keep going, always knowing that it was bound to stop at some point. But there were so many lines and chutes that I had been lustfully eyeing for years, waiting for the right moment to approach.

DSC01852Monte Cristo, The Hypodermic Needle, Mount Dromedary, Thunder Bowl, lines off Mount Superior; memories of deep powder shimmering under a blue sky, of hours of trailbreaking, of stable conditions, of standing atop monochrome monoliths remain as pleasant, but hazy recollections.  Although there is one foray into the backcountry that has endured as it is of a different character; it has a tinge of danger and disaster. The mind understandably works this way; its self preservation instinct is better served by searing threats to life and limb into the memory than the tranquil and pleasant.

pfeiffphoto1msrkrThe Northwest Couloir of the Pfeifferhorn. Steep. Narrow. Classic. An hourglass shape, the upper end of which feeds you into a constriction that terminates with a cliff, typically requiring a rappel, before opening into a vertiginous apron. The line consists of a 1000 foot descent with an average pitch of 50 degrees. The approach to the remote 11,326 foot peak is long and committing. The couloir itself is noted for its often treacherous conditions, something that I hoped to avoid by skiing it after the right storm.

In the middle of February a storm was approaching that promised to drop a significant amount of snow on top of what was a stable snowpack. My friend Joel and I had decided that we were going to make an attempt on the Pfeifferhorn the following day; for me this meant calling in sick to work, something that I didn’t lose any sleep over. Joel and I had undertaken a few different adventures together and our demeanors were well matched. Joel has a love of skiing that is matched with fearlessness and intelligence, despite his Australian origin. His ability to carefully navigate the perilous backcountry with savvy can lead to nothing other than thoughts of a snowbound version of Mick Dundee.

Pfeifferhorn in the background.

I woke in the morning darkness to take a look at the weather stations around the Wasatch and the avalanche report; it looked like it was going to be a perfect day. The Northwest flow had dropped a foot of snow without any terrifying wind or other irregularities from what we could gather.

We parked in Little Cottonwood Canyon and started skinning towards Red Pine Lake in the predawn glow, slowly making our way upwards with our headlamps aglow. We broke trail through the fresh light snow, sweating despite the morning chill. The surface began to shimmer as the sun broke over the crest of the range, the pristine blanket covering every surface took on a blinding pure whiteness. We assessed the conditions perpetually; everything seemed stable and lacking in spatial variability. The peak was within sight, intimidatingly looming over us, growing with each lunge forward.

Looking at Mount Dromedary

Touring in the Wasatch gives me a feeling of remoteness and peril despite the hum of cars in the canyon below and the thunder of Howitzer artillery up the canyon. It is a different world beyond the road; it is harsh and unforgiving.

There is a very little that I remember from the approach despite the many hours that elapsed; I often go into a strange meditative state as I step and breathe. We bootpacked the shoulder before standing on top and peering out upon the rugged and serene landscape as a gentle wind swept over and chilled us. It was noon. We put on our harnesses. I prepped my daisy chains to clip into the anchors, and checked the rope.

‘Do you feel good about it?’ I asked Joel as we looked over the seemingly vertical precipice that lay in front of us.

‘It looks a little icy and scoured, but I feel good about it. You?’

‘Yeah, it just looks like the entrance to any couloir.’

‘Who is going first?’ Joel asked me.

‘Uhhhmm….I’ll go? I’ll back off if it gets sketchy.’ These moments are always strange. You are putting yourself up against your own judgments about the conditions. The first person is the canary.

Joel turned on his helmet cam and I cautiously stepped into the couloir. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, a temperamental chemical that can either go the way of fear or focus; I channeled it as I moved out towards the right shoulder of the couloir to check its condition. The sound of my edges grinding against the icy surface filled the air as I cut across; it was slightly terrifying. I stopped to take a deep breath at the shoulder, which held some snow, but I decided to traverse back and forth across the couloir rather than trying to make turns. There was nothing that a normal human being would identify as skiing yet.

The slope got steeper and the walls began to close in. The couloir at this point consisted of nothing but sheer ice, something that is typical in the upper end of couloirs. I meticulously worked my edges on the surface; I tried my best to keep my doubts and concerns at bay. The anchors were within sight, as was the powder field below. The cliff did not look substantial and a fall, as long as I didn’t hit any rocks, would mean nothing but landing in the soft cushion of fresh snow that covered the lower end.

I worked my way down into the choke point, moving with slow deliberateness. I muttered gratefully about how sharp my skis were and yelled my plan up to Joel. As I neared the choke point my ability to hold an edge was progressively compromised by its concave shape, I was only holding an edge with my tips and tails.  I committed too far before realizing that I was precariously balanced above a cliff on ice, unprepared to take a fall. Moments slipped away as I held my edges at a ridiculous angle perpendicular to the 50 degree slope and stared at the anchors that were several feet beyond my grasp, with a rope someone had left behind strung through. My legs started to burn and quiver as I schemed to get out of this predicament. There was no boot packing or side stepping back up; the ice  and shape of the surface made these options out of the question. The cliff was just an icy ten foot waterfall and there should be perfect snow below. There seemed to be only one option; I quickly thrust my hand out for the rappel anchors and rope, hoping to quickly clip my harness in after I got a grip. Ice is best understood from a tipping point perspective, you have purchase until you don’t; it isn’t something that is gradual or forgiving. I felt the tails of my skis give out as I reached forward over the tips of the skis. The rope was doubled over through the anchors. I only managed to grab one end.

I didn’t have enough time to fully appreciate what was happening or I was simply to disoriented by the way in which it happened. As my tails lost their edge I fell backwards, meaning I was on my back with my head downslope as I went over the icy, rocky chokepoint. My arm ricocheted off of several rocks as I tumbled and gained speed. The whiteness that I had appraised from above as comforting, soft snow received me with the harsh thud of blue ice. I began to gain speed, feeling the irregular surface of the ice below me grating against my back. I tried to stop myself with my skis, tried to catch an edge, but they simply exploded off my feet. My head remained downslope; I starfished outwards, swinging my arms and legs wildly in an effort to create friction.

I tilted my head backwards and saw myself headed towards rocks at a speed that I would place at around 30 miles per hour. My mind didn’t panic as there wasn’t time. Huuuuuuuuuuu Ahhhhhhhhhhhh Huh huh Huh Oh I remember making some guttural animal sounds as I continued futilely flailing.  Everything unfolded rapidly, but with an intense and clear focus. The last thought I remember: I never thought I would actually see my own death or that it would be so easy. The rocks came near, but contour of the couloir cradled me, carrying me safely past. As soon as this disaster was averted I found myself rotating through the air, white, blue, white blue. I hit a wind lip built up on a minor fork in the lower portion of the apron headfirst. I cartwheeled nearly to the bottom of the ski line before stopping. I remember having some sort of strange moment as absolute silence enveloped me; the world had stopped turning. I slowly stood up and looked in fascination at the hundreds of feet that I had descended in seconds. There were no alarm signals yet, just shock. I looked down to see red slowly spattering the snow below me; blood was running off of my arm that stilled griped the rope that I pulled through the anchors.

I didn’t have time to look at where the blood was coming from before the panic set in. Joel! The shape of the couloir meant that he was only able to watch me disappear over the lip from his vantage. I needed to get within ear shot of him; I needed to let him know I was alright and that he shouldn’t descend. I was gasping, fighting to get enough air as I kicked my boots into the ice, adrenaline pushing me upwards.

I caught sight of him standing at the choke point; he had gotten ahold of the anchors. We shouted back and forth, although I don’t think we were close enough to understand one another. Suddenly he jumped off the lip of the cliff and hit the sheet of ice. He had a Black Diamond Whippet Self-Arrest ski pole that he drove into the ice with his weight until it was ripped from his hands. I stared on in silent horror as I watched him gain speed, taking the same ride that I had just miraculously survived, and pass within a few feet of me at incredible speed. There was no sound other than the roar of his synthetic ski gear over the ice.

I found myself running down back towards the same point where I had found repose. Joel had managed to pass another 20 feet beyond my mark and lay in a heap with his avalanche airbag deployed.

‘Are you alright?’ I shouted down.

‘You need to go get my ski.’

‘Where is it?’

‘It is stuck in the choke point.’

I accepted this gravely and started upwards without asking any other questions. My arm began to stiffen and get cold from the blood that ran down it. My lungs and legs burned as I tried to work quickly under the assumption that Joel had probably sustained some kind of injury. I was running on nothing but adrenaline at this point, although I started to shake with a freshly conditioned Pavlovian fear  as I approached the cliff once more, carefully toe pointing as I went. I grabbed Joel’s whippet that had been ripped from his hands and then began ascending the blue ice below the cliff.

I saw the ski jutting out from a crack in the rock above my head and understood why Joel jumped. I kicked out and carved handholds to ascend the final icy pitch to the ski. I carved out a sturdy handhold as I stood perched over the icy abyss and began to swing the ski pole at the ski to try and dislodge the ski. On my third strike it broke loose and began a chattering bouncing ride downwards towards Joel. I yelled in vain with the hope that it would miss Joel.

I began my descent, working my way across slope to recover poles and skis that were incredibly separated by hundreds of feet. One of my skis had come down vertical and with such force, that only a few inches protruded from the snow and ice. I eventually reached Joel again and collapse into the snow next to him.

‘Holy shit! Are you alright? What’s going on?’ I let out in release.

‘I am good, but I am not sure if I can move my knee, I think I tore something. We need to get out of here though, get me that ski and we will see what I can do.’

I finally looked at my arm. It had swollen to what seemed like twice its normal size and had a significant injury exposed at the elbow from hitting rocks that managed to rip through three layers of clothing. I was convinced it was broken, but accepted it with calm resignation. Everything was not all seriousness though; we were laughing hysterically within minutes, lost in shock and adrenaline.

‘I cannot believe we are alive. Did that really just fucking happen? To both of us?’

‘Are you jealous that I made it further than you?’

A significant amount of time had elapsed in this whole episode; we were well into the afternoon. We still had a run out down Maybird Gulch that was not short or simple. Joel tried moving his knee and had some range of motion and not too much instability. I helped him into his skis and watched in gratitude as he was able to carefully begin working his way downwards. An inability to ski would have likely meant spending an evening out.

Joel, with an injured knee, skied with skill that left me astonished. We reached the car in the twilight, both shivering and drained, mentally and physically. I took off my gloves and looked on in horror at my bloody hand and the pinky finger that was completely black and waxen with frostbite.

‘Whoops!’ I hold out the claw to Joel and start laughing.

We descended the canyon and recounted our respective stories over a pitcher of beer, looking haggard and talking manically, oblivious to the other people in the bar. We realized what had been our undoing: the storm system had arrived from the Northwest, the direction that the couloir faces. It had come in slightly warm with brief rain that had served to bond the fresh snow to the existing snowpack everywhere else. In the Northwest Couloir it had frozen rapidly, due to the direction of the couloir and the wind, and merely created a sheet of ice that attracted no snow. Joel clarified another part of the story, he had lost one of his skis as he tried to kick his ski into the sheet of ice to get purchased; it chattered down the couloir and became lodged in a crack midway through the cliff. Joel decided to jump and try to dislodge it with his ski pole before taking his downward journey. He realized that we needed that ski to get out of the backcountry and there simply was no decent way of getting it.

Joel had to go to the hospital the next day and found out that he had indeed torn a ligament in his knee. I returned to work and tried to continue on like nothing had happened despite my inability to move my elbow joint. I had no insurance, so going to the hospital had to be avoided. I hid my broken wing out of fear of getting caught in my lie and out of a certain degree of shame over what had happened.  I did not want to recount the tale, but after a few questions from people on my patrol team, I spun the tale with a grin. Stories eventually just become a piece of you, telling them helps the process along.

I have since developed a deep seated fear of slippery surfaces above precipices; a fear that I find to be completely rational. I have been on an endless summer since that winter finished. Joel has gone on to more ridiculous feats, including supporting his ski habits through the practice of law.

All photos and the video are credited to Joel.

Preflightal Cortex

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

I don’t even know where to begin with this day, somehow the idea of flying back to America has produced a fight or flight response; it seems as if I have already chosen flight once. So this story is about flight, through and through. I am going to be honest about my life: it hasn’t been normal for a long time, if ever. I don’t have any identifiable career path. I don’t have health insurance. I don’t have any money saved for the future. I have paid rent for a total of ten months in the past six years; I have essentially lived out of my backpack and car. I have been flying for a long time. I set off into the Sonoran desert two years ago by myself with a backpack. I felt like I needed to experience the world, to countenance the world as my bare self. I am not sure if I can explain this impulse to anyone who has never had it.  I came home to Utah after six and a half months, worked for six months and then I found myself crossing the border ten months ago into the unknown, or at this point, slightly familiar on a bicycle.

I am not actually coming back to America yet, just visiting for a month, but I feel like a dog when it sees suitcases sitting by the door. The pacing and salivating start as synaptic maps light up in recognition of similar circumstances, physical stress manifests with an unclear referent. All signs point to change, point to uncertainty. Is the kennel going to come out?

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

The kennel? What is this all about? When I think about America, it evokes images of frantic energy, flashing lights, insufficient time and people that seem lost. I like tranquility and having time to do read, write, relax, meditate, converse, hike, run, ride my bike, cook. I like being challenged, physically, mentally, culturally, linguistically. The concept of America is somehow synonymous with a kennel that will deprive me of the freedom to do these things and losing the ability to do what I love obviously worries me. It is the time demand, time that seems invaluable to me, time that is finite and all that I have, flowing past continually.

When I think about all of this and it is like when the kennel is brought out, suddenly the whining and panting begin, the urge to urinate on expensive rugs rises quickly. I want to run out of the house, into the street, into the unknown.

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

I wake up to swim, sip coffee, meditate, take an excessively long hot shower, and ruminate on the banks of the emerald expanse of the lake. I watch all of the advancing and dispersing waves from the water taxis ripple the surface, they wink at me when they meet, the sunlight glancing off the shifting angle of their surface. I rudely appraise them as the mug touches my lips.

I am languidly sipping my coffee with subtle alarms going off in the depths of my mind telling me to get it together, but I literally think like this: You are being irrationally anxious Alex. It will all work out, don’t stress out. If you act patient, calm and tranquil, then everything will be fine.

This works until I nonchalantly check my email and see that my flight leaves two hours earlier than I thought. The alarms are bellowing and my adrenaline is spiking, yet I casually pack my things despite the sweat pouring down my body.

I glide across the lake in a water taxi; I look outward, wishing all of the stunning scenery would pass by faster as it assails me with its resplendent beauty. I speed walk towards the bus stop, peeing on a fence that lines the road. The driver of the next bus mashes the pedal to build momentum for steep climbs, bracing himself against the window for the sinuous sections.

Buses in San Marcos
Buses in San Marcos

The ayudante is in a perpetual state of manic motion, scrambling on the exterior and swinging through the interior; I can only liken it to how Curious George would behave if the man in the yellow hat had given him several grams of cocaine before putting him in the cage and loading him on a bus, but Curious had courageously chewed his way through the steel bars and begun to frantically evade hallucinated men in yellow hats pursuing him.

There is still plenty of time. OH MY GOD THERE IS DEFINITELY NOT PLENTY OF TIME. I keep telling myself that it will be alright, that I am being irrationally anxious to fret each time the driver stops to pick up a

Hood ornament on a different bus.
Hood ornament on a different bus.

person that materializes out of a cornfield or slows down to send a text message. An hour before the flight takes off, 22km outside the city the police decide to stop the bus and have a roadside discussion with the driver. Be calm. Be calm. BE CALM? The fucking $800 international flight leaves in an hour. I was supposed to be there, what, five hours before to have x-rays taken of my genitals? To be asked asinine questions and have my pathetic possessions pawed by the prying fingers of the ever expanding surveillance state? To….AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH……

No, I don’t want your charity cookies or any of those fucking ice cream cones that somehow never melt and always look perfect! Aguas? Jugos? Frutas? No. Aguas? Jugos? Frutas? NO! STILL NO!

Inside a Chicken Bus

All of the chi infused into my 12 chakras by bathing myself in the healing and tranquil energy portal that is Lago de Atitlan has precipitated into fulminating anxiety when mixed with the reagent reality. We drop into the smog and traffic of Guatemala City and I get off the bus in front of a Walmart where I hail a cab. I manually force my charkas into order and calmly tell the driver that my flight leaves in 45 minutes and that I am therefore in a slight hurry.

He whistles. ‘Do you lose your ticket if you don’t make it?’

‘I am not sure.’ I sit thinking for a minute as he weaves through traffic.

‘I think I will make the flight as Guatemalans are friendlier, more helpful people than Americans.’ I am definitely trying to convince myself here, while offering a compliment.

I run out of the cab, thrusting sweaty money that I had been palming for the past 15 minutes into his hand. There is no one at the ticketing desks, although the screens still flash information regarding my flight that leaves in 30 minutes. I find out where the United Airline’s offices are located, run there, run past the door, run back and burst in amidst frantic gesticulations and panicked Spanish, likely conveying a level of urgency that would be expected of someone transporting a freshly harvested organ. After trying to persuade me to take a flight the following day, he accepts that I am not going to leave him alone unless I try to make this flight.

‘Can you carry those bags onto the plane?’ He asks quickly as we both look towards my massive bag stuffed with two handmade wool blankets and a kilogram of mole negro. I feel like this is a question that he should answer, not me, but I am definitely not going to say no.

‘Uh.. Yeah.’ I say this with one eyebrow raised and my head tilted.

‘Do you have any liquids in your bag?’

‘Uh…No.’ The  mole negro is somewhere between a liquid and a solid.

‘Okay, let’s go get you checked in.’

We run downstairs and he frantically pushes buttons. I get to security and there is almost no line, I fill out my documentation haphazardly and approach the desk. The customs official calmly scans my passport and glances at my documentation. I see a red popup box start flashing on her computer screen that says something about ‘Illegal Resident Alien.’ My hear drops, but she closes the popup and slams down the stamp. I am sent on my way.

I load my bags onto the conveyor belt and step through the metal detector. I watch the face on the woman monitoring the screen as my bags pass through. Come on, come on, come on. She halts the belt. She calls someone else over. Both of my bags are seized and pulled off to the side.

‘Are these your bags?’


‘Can I see your passport and ticket please?’

Fuck! 20 minutes. The mole! The waterbottle! All of the strange shit that I am carrying back!

After glancing at my ticket she looks up with a shocked expression on her face.

‘Sir! Your flight leaves in just a few minutes! You need to go! Run!’ She hands me my bags and sends me running. I want to kiss her and the ground of this amazing country.

I run through the tile floored terminal, my cowboy boots clomping and echoing through a place that is already not Guatemala. I already had my documents checked to make sure I was acceptable to enter this organized, capitalized, surveilled, clean, hierarchical world. I am not even the last person to board. I stare out the window as the smog and disorganized sprawl disappear as we ascend into the clouds.

There are TVs on every seat now, 100 channels of satellite TV that you can pay for with a credit card. It glares in my face. I resist looking at it, but it will not let me turn it off. Insurance, resorts, things, services. I briefly think about how one day they might just figure out that they should charge you to turn it off, to make the commercials stop, to have peace and quiet in your mind.

The ground is visible; there is something wild about this, something that alters perspective, not just visually. There was a time not very long ago when humanity had never looked down upon itself from planes, from space. Nobody had seen the earth from this vantage. It looks like an outpost destined to be reclaimed as nature patiently bides its time against the impudent intrusion. Everything in Houston, Texas glimmers with steel and glass. There are tall buildings at the center, where it is the most dense and the least green, before gradually becoming less dense along the spokes of concrete that radiate out from the center. These arteries are flowing with cars, but occasionally clot with traffic, flowing away from the heart, the pulse and flow will shift the following morning. In, out, in, out.

The identical houses on the outskirts remind me of a kindergarten project where we made a big model of a town and all of the houses and buildings were milk cartons. An empire boldly built out of milk cartons, one that lasts just until someone realizes that plastic bags or tetra packs are superior. It was just a project, just something that we had to do so that we could learn, but it held no importance beyond that, just a phase. Look what we can do! It was destroyed at the end of the year as we had no use for it anymore; we all moved on to do something else, we grew up and did something a little less crude, a little better, something with more meaning and more permanence.

Traveling lifts you out of the routine into the completely novel; everything is vivid, sounds are louder, smells are stronger, light is more beautiful. I marvel at the people, the fashion, the seriousness, the technology, the opulence. The smell of cookies and perfume pervades throughout.

Going through customs to enter the United States is one of my most outwardly despised, but inwardly relished activities. I make up my flight number on the entry form as I can’t find my ticket. As I wait in line I hear a security official speaking aggressively to someone. I look over to see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab being singled out and escorted away. She follows obediently, but her four year old son is not compliant. He is at the perfect height to run under all the elastic line dividers, laughing and dancing as he goes. The government official sternly orders him around to no avail, the mother looks on with indifference. He paces and tries to maintain his cool as the kid taunts him from just beyond his reach. This goes on for several minutes, the kid oblivious to all of the cold technology watching him, to the global inequalities, problems, terrorism, security, bureaucracy, religions… They finally corral him and then they are led away. He is wearing a diaper that I imagine to be full of feces that he similarly accepts with utter indifference.

I reach the customs official, he has a shaved head and greets me with stern formality. This conversation is authentic and occurred in front of a massive line of people, but seems like a hilarious parody of many that I have had previously.

‘What were you doing in Mexico and Guatemala?’

‘Riding my bicycle South.’

‘What do you have some sort of goal or mission? Are you out to prove something?’

‘Nope, just riding my bicycle because I like to ride.’

‘Yeah sure. That is cool and all. Yeah. Maybe you will have some story to tell your grand kids if you make it, if you don’t die. You need to start thinking though, you need to think about safety, you only get one life and you need to be careful, be careful with it.’

‘Yeah, but if we only get one life, then we need to live it, right? We only get one shot, one experience. I want to make it a good one.’

‘None of it matters if you are dead.’

‘Hmmm…..’ I figure I will be the one to end the discussion, better not to escalate.

‘Just be careful. You are all set.’

Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City

Many people feel the need to comment on my lifestyle in inappropriate contexts, as if they are threatened by it. This man and I view life as incredibly important, but reach different conclusions given this premise. This man concludes that he should avoid risks and sit behind a desk, calling it a life lived. I think that I do need to slow down, find peace and contentedness in a more stable life; I feel some exhaustion, some wear and tear, but my philosophy will never be shared with this man. I think about the neatly groomed dog in the SkyMall catalogue wearing a ThunderVest that ‘eliminates 90% of house pet anxiety,’ that looks like its eyes are bulging out as the vest forcefully constricts its breathing to calm it.

What is a life lived? It sounds like me and this guy are both suffering from the same delusion: that any of it matters. You can fight it until the bitter end, you can give in early, you can cryogenically freeze yourself, you can make monuments in your honor, you can leave a prodigious brood, you can write incessantly, you can just float along. Embrace the cage, howl at the moon, eat Alpo, eat butcher shop scraps, get neutered, chase bitches in heat, have a huge litter, hump a table leg, chase rodents, bark at the television, get rabies, get fleas, get groomed, stick your head out the car window, get put down by the man you worship or get hit by a car.

Salt Lake City

I refuse to live a story that has already been written, a story that is not my own and has a dubious ending. I think that life, that our one chance to live an incredible life, to sculpt our experience like a piece of art is bewildering, but it is the gift I have been given.

Then I land and it is turbulent; I am a mess of anxiety and indecision. What the fuck am I doing with my life? Does everyone here know something that I don’t? What am I going to do in the future? How will I afford to live? Why do all of these people have so many shiny things than me? I have no plan. Where am I going to live? Are all of these people just going to laugh at my dreaming, at my sincerity as some type naivety? Does anything that I have done matter? What is wrong with me? I am as lost as ever. I cannot believe all of the specious bullshit that I pontificate from a cloud pulpit that disperses as soon as the wind blows. I make choices and then get unhappy with the results? Anxiety about things you cannot change? What am I, a child?

I fight for a while, until I accept it all and let it go. We ultimately have the choice of how we perceive everything, of how we react. The mind can make hell out of paradise and find light on the darkest of nights. Life is a free gift that we should gratefully accept and do whatever we want with.

Salt Lake City

America is clean, safe, violent, opulent, unequal, prepackaged, natural, processed, beautiful, frantic, serene, creative, homogenized, paved, wild, free, a prison, corrupt, stable, transparent, a monster, a beacon of hope, growing, faltering, surveilling, protecting, bellicose, racist, integrated, religious, materialistic. America is a concept that emerges from the people who live here, it is all of these things.

Everything, all of it fades when I am immersed in the love of my friends and family. After all of this I am slightly less domesticated, a little more wise and none the richer.

Until The Day It Stops

This scene, this day, has run through my head thousands of times. Over and over again, every action, every moment, trying to understand it all. It is one of those moments that unexpectedly and indelibly changes your life. It fades though, for better and worse, like any other event in one’s life. It seems important to me to write this down, for both personal catharsis and remembrance.

South towards Cottonwoods, 2011.
South towards Cottonwoods, 2011.

March in the Wasatch Mountains is invariably perfect; the mountains are either being blanketed in fluffy powder by heavy spring storms or bathing in the spring sunshine. I worked as a ski patroller for several years Park City, Utah and always looked forward to March, a month that arrives like dawn after the gloomy frigid night that is February. Work starts picking up, but everyone’s mind is on summer and the levity of silly season builds.

I ended up doing this job as a result of a strange series of events, but in hindsight it seems like something that had to happen; how could I not have worked a job that involved throwing dynamite to set off avalanches with the sunrise, getting paid to ski, and helping people under physically challenging conditions? I got an EMT certification in college on a whim and it became the credential that helped me get every job that I had after college for several years as I was unwilling to go into the mundane grind with obeisance.

Park City, Utah 2011
Park City, Utah 2011

The people that I worked with ski patrolling will never be far from my mind, as they were some of the best people I have ever met, especially the team that I worked with for my first year. We maintained a perfect balance between getting our work done safely and efficiently, freezing our faces in grinning rictuses with the fine spray of S-turns made through  untracked champagne powder, barbequing, and witty banter while sipping coffee.

March 12th, 2010 was a Friday, the end of the work week for my team. The sun broke on a high pressure day with no fresh snow, a cold morning under a deep blue sky. I rode up the chair in the morning to the station where I was working, eying up the overnight grooming job and feeling the sting of the mountain air on my face. The main run descending from our shack had been groomed and glistened in the morning sun; it is a steep straight shot that doglegs to the right near the bottom. From our shack I could look out onto the rest of the Wasatch range, over into the Cottonwood canyons and into Park City itself. There is a ritual each and every day: each day we all arrived at the shack an hour before any customers rode up the chair and dispersed to check our area at face numbing speeds. We followed up with coffee time in the shack, a time of discourse on subjects ranging from relationships, to bicycles, to This American Life, to backcountry skiing, to summer jobs, to who brought what food to cook for the day. This is the most tranquil time of the day.

We alternated taking laps through our area during the day, but everything had been idyllic all week, no accidents. Spring was in full effect; the restaurant deck was full of people lazing in Adirondack chairs with layers of clothing draped nearby, sipping beers and reveling in the sun. We fired up our barbeque and sat outside our shack maintaining a running commentary regarding every person who stepped off the chair lift as we ate tubular meat products of uncertain origin. Life as a ski patroller is challenging, a blase attitude towards everything is created by the universally acknowledged reality amongst every individual patroller that nobody, including coworkers, is as cool or righteous as you are. There is nowhere to go from here; it can paralyze you unless you arduously keep this insidious attitude at bay, as relationships with other human beings become nearly impossible. After eating and ruminating deeply on this concept,  I decided to take a few laps with another patroller named Mike R. before we finished out the day.

Wasatch Mountains, Utah 2011
Wasatch Mountains, Utah 2011

We were hiking up a nearby ridge discussing where we should drop into the trees for a session of combat skiing, a form of ski destroying, sadistic skiing under bad conditions that becomes a weird fetish for anyone required to ski under any and all conditions. I let my skis hang over the edge, ready to drop in when a call came in over the radio from a patroller, Mike T., notifying us that he had just witnessed an accident on a nearby run. The call seemed routine and there were a few other people who were in position to second respond to the call, but we decided nonetheless to wait and see what resources were needed before dropping off the ridge.

A moment later a panic tinged call came in for every resource that we had available, except for a defibrillator. Mike R., and I chattered our skis down the irregular and hard ridge as quickly as possible. I arrived at the shack first, in perfect time to grab some of the equipment that the other patrollers were unloading out of the shack and begin descending. My heart was already pounding; something was very wrong.

I took the fast groomed run down from our shack as quick as I possibly could while carrying a backboard and a trauma pack; I fought to maintain control as the backboard jerked me from side to side as it caught wind with each turn. I was worried that I would overshoot the spot where the accident was, as it was called run left, in the trees. There was no missing it though; I saw a few people standing on the side of the run, popped off my skis and launched down into the trees where a young man looked up at me with blank eyes, copious amounts of blood staining his face and the snow around him. He had lost control near the start of the dogleg and collided with a tree. EMT training is about teaching you routine, as you need the ingrained steps to be able to approach a situation like this. Mike T. and I haltingly ran through a rapid, adrenaline spiking assessment; there was something resembling breath, a very faint wheezing and a weak, virtually nonexistent pulse. He had severe blunt force trauma to his head and chest. I remember thinking that this can’t be happening, this isn’t happening. I remained surprisingly calm in a detached way, watching myself go through the motions.

We called in a code red; patrol’s signal for anyone in respiratory or cardiac distress. We began CPR. Claire, someone who was accustomed to situations like this, had arrived with a defibrillator, quickly followed by Mike R. and Randy with a toboggan. Claire took charge of the situation and everyone quickly integrated themselves, continuing CPR, as I fumbled with the defibrillator. With shaking hands I attached the electrodes of the defibrillator, which mechanically announced in a neutral voice ‘No shock advised.’ I futilely pressed the little button with a lightning bolt several more times. It all seemed like it was happening slowly and through a lens smeared with Vaseline.

We alternated giving CPR, breath and compressions; I looked down into the pale face of someone who looked just like me, my same age, before giving each breathe, felt the laterally unequal response from his ribs with each compression, only pausing when  surprised by the quick arrival of the helicopter. Amidst much yelling and exertion, postholed up to our hips, the five of us lifted him onto a backboard – he was incredibly heavy in a way that seems inexplicable – and out of the tree well. We loaded him into a toboggan with Claire kneeling over him continuing CPR. I frantically dug the toes of my boots in, running alongside and giving Mike R. an unnecessary push downslope towards the helicopter and more advanced care.

Then it was completely quiet. I looked around for the first time and immediately realized that the group gathered was his ski buddies. I shifted my gaze down to the snow, I didn’t say anything, couldn’t say anything, in the end nobody did.  Randy, Mike T. and I started picking up all of the equipment that was scattered about, aimlessly moving it from place to place in transfixed shock. I looked at my hands, my fingers wore ripped rubber gloves coated in blood, they seemed suddenly frozen with cold. I became needlessly preoccupied with the loss of my work gloves, aimlessly searching, ultimately to no avail. We slowly skied down the run without saying anything; as if we wouldn’t have to deal with what lay at the bottom if the run never ended.

We came across the helicopter in the middle of a run and looked on momentarily as the flight medic and nurse worked diligently, using last ditch efforts as a few patrollers assisted. It set in at that moment; I took off my skis, turned my back, and began walking up the run towards the chairlift, to get back to the shack and finish the menial tasks that mark the end of each day; there was nothing else left to do. I seemed to be in some sort of postictal state; everything seemed surreal and obscenely lit by the afternoon sun.

Randy, Mike and I rode the chair back to the shack together. I looked over at them and then tears ran down my face for the rest of the ride up. I began shivering, the cold cutting to my core. It began, the unrest, the replaying, the constant oscillation between many different thoughts; trying to grasp it all; trying to convince myself that I, that we, had done the best we could; pitying him, me, us all; images painfully bursting forth, provoking unrest.  For a long time I just wanted it all to stop, but it comes from somewhere deep, like the tears, somewhere so deep that it isn’t controllable; it just washes over, completely taking over.

Death is there like the sun, taken for granted, ignored, but occasionally we become aware,  forced to acknowledge its blinding brightness, its ubiquity; in these moments it passes through the temporal, transparent pettiness that characterizes our lives, to illuminate more profound, substantive truths about existence. It transmutes our perception as we watch its light suffuse everything that abounds. It is what defines life; it is the very fountain of beauty and love.

When we cry about death it seems to be equally about those who remain as those who were lost; none of us truly understand it. There might be something to learn from it though.

Until the day it stops.