Story and Photo by Ron Cram
The recent snow had thawed and refrozen several times, and now resembled finely crushed glass. Almost frictionless, the glittering cover cascaded past me with each deliberate blow of the ice-axe. Only 70 feet remained to the top of the glacier-like snowfield. I grasped the axe with both hands and kicked fiercely with my crampons to penetrate the icy sheath. Before skiing down this remnant ice patch, I wanted to peer over the edge, just to see how deep the snowpack was this last week of September.
Near the top, by the rock cliff, more caution was due; an inhospitable cavern, melted by the rock's radiant heat, lurked on the other side. Though everything felt solid, the large slab near the top could break off with little warning.
I pulled my upper body up to the edge and craned my neck to look; I panicked. The suspected cavern eyed me in the face, but it was larger than expected. I was perched on a thin flake of ice, less than two feet thick. The distance to the rocks below was about roof height on a house.
Mustering only slight icy breaths, I didn't dare move. If the edge broke, I would be injured, trapped, and no one even knew where I was skiing today. Ah yes, a fine sport skiing. That's what put me in this predicament in the first place; my fanciful idea of a year-round ski season. Of the 52 weeks of possible skiing in a year, this was to be number 49 of begging, buying, scamming, and stealing turns. It started almost a year ago on artificial snow at Park City. Would I end it here in a hypothermic heap high above Little Cottonwood Canyon as valley-dwellers basked in the late summer sun?
It had been such a good ski year, too! Two-mile runs at Mt. Hood on Labor Day weekend. "Gunsight Chute" at Alta in September. Little Cloud Bowl in August. Great Scott and Dalton's Draw in July. Chairlifts to perfect corn snow in June. 170" base in May. Weeks of bliss after most skiers had exchanged their boards for other toys just because of the calendar.
But for some, two planks and a slope and we're talking mania. My wife said I am dysfunctional, and that she'd leave if I didn't stop skiing. I told her I would miss her. But maybe she knows about these things. Maybe I had gotten away with this endless season largely unnoticed by unseen forces. But now, had the meterman of fun read my dial and called me in?
Dangling pronated above the abyss (it seemed to grow larger while I contemplated my demise), things that really matter yo-yoed in and out of my mind. I had to get out of there! Hooking the axe on the icy edge, I loosened my toes from the ice and distributed my weight by extending my legs. Spread-eagle, with my forehead on the ice, I dug in while unhooking the axe. Now, kicking-in lightly every few inches, I maneuvered backwards until well below the danger zone. Relief came in a wave. I weakly fumbled with my gear, mulling over the averted consequences.
Back on the skis, I enjoyed the freedom and ecstasy of a new run. This time with more purpose and gratitude. There's nothing like a good scare to help prioritize your life. I smiled, and thought of the three remaining weeks until the new season. When I got down I'd call Powder Mountain and Park City to see who would be open first.
Editor--Author Ron Cram is recognizable by the skis in his ski rack throughout the tough months of skiing.