Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Another Learning Experience in the Ravine

Random dredging in the journal turns up this one from April 1992:

Wayne and I got a late start because he had a dentist appointment, so we didn't leave his house until about 10:45. At Pinkham, the sun was shining and the snow was starting to soften.

Wayne forgot his climbing skins, so we hiked the Tuckerman Ravine Trail instead of skinning up the Sherburne. Running off at the mouth the way we do, it wasn't too tedious.

We stopped for lunch about two thirds of the way up at a sunny bridge. Old ski tracks ran down the river beneath it. We poked the snow. It seemed to be softening even that high up the mountain. With hopes intact, we continued up to Hojos (Hermit Lake caretaker cabin).

Three other pinheads lounged in the sun. We scanned the snowy heights. Wayne raved about the amount of snow.

The sun gleamed off of crust. Only Hillman's Highway showed many ski tracks. We could see isolated tracks from traverses and explorations around the Little Headwall, but the cold weather had prevented avalanches from stabilizing the upper slopes.

After boot and clothing adjustments and a quick visit to The Incredibly Stinky Outhouse, we started hiking up Hillman's with Wayne well ahead.

The snow was like concrete. The tracks of past skiers were frozen solid, waiting to trap anyone who could not jump out of their grasp. But first we had to climb up if we were going to ski down.

The higher I climbed up, the less I wanted to ski down. The wind howled up the slope behind us. A continuous avalanche of mostly pea-sized ice pellets pelted down on us.

Some alpine skiers had been on the Highway since before we arrived, and now began their last run down. Their metal ski edges rasped over the solid ice of the trail.

Wayne said he didn't want to go any higher about 300 feet above the point where I'd already left my balls behind. He perched beside the broad expanse of trail. I joined him.

With friendly greetings, the alpiners scraped by, jump-turning down to where the trail entered the trees. The windswept, icy ravine walls towered above us. The wind buffetted us as clouds surged across the headwall and blocked the sun. I looked down and felt only fear.

I got my right ski on. I'd had to remove my pack to get the skis off it. Perched on the slope with almost no purchase on the porcelain, I wondered if I would be able to get my left ski and my pack on before I fell down the hill. I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew. I wondered if it would chew me.

Teetering on my skis, I hoisted my pack and settled it on my hips and shoulders, adjusting the various straps and buckles as the wind punched at me. Satisfied my pack was snug, I bent to pick up my poles and felt the suspenders pop off the back of my trousers and shoot up inside the back of my jacket to make an uncomfortable lump.

I wasn't about to doff my pack, so now I was about to try to ski the most extreme terrain I had ever faced, with the crotch of my wind pants sagging halfway to my knees. This would at least insure a close lateral stance, as the textbooks advise.

I began to traverse to the left, sank down, planted my poles and launched.

Boom. I landed it, traversed, sank down, launched, landed, sank down, traversed, launched and fell. I wasn't going fast, so I didn't slide far, only smashed my right hip and elbow. I rose again, cleared my head and launched. I managed three or four turns between crashes and did a lot of plain sideslipping. Wayne watched, cheering and critiquing my efforts. I could barely hear him with the wind.

As a developing student skier, regardless of my advanced age, I figured my first objective was to come out on my own feet, not a Stokes litter. That I achieved. And a handful of years later I was jumping merrily down the upper reaches of Raymond Cataract and getting happily lost in the woods in search of glades no one else knows. And few people still do. So keep practicing. Eventually it falls into place. Or you get yourself killed. Either way, problem solved. The fascination no longer rules your every waking minute and lucid dream.

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