Why I’m still alive today

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I was ten in 1966. My Uncle Ian took me skiing, which was about as close to religion as we got. Every weekend all winter long we drove up from Bearsville to Belleayre, which had, and still has, the best beginner’s slopes anywhere around.

Sure, I learned to snowplow. Then promptly forgot. I remember looking down on the one steep section from the slow-grinding chairlift, craning my neck and planning my attack. With idiots falling all over and between the moguls, you had to have a couple of different strategies and be ready to switch them around fast. One reason I never skied in a racer’s tuck was that it didn’t allow for readjustment. Further, it advertised an addiction to speed for which Ian would smack me on the back of my head. So​​? I stopped skiing with him.

The sight of any steep slope made me nauseous, a fear-laced excitement I didn’t talk to anyone about. As I got older I eventually experienced a version of it known as stage fright. Stage fright felt like it could kill you.

The desire to ski faster would never kill me, I knew. It could only make me truly alive, and it would never hurt me — or at least not beyond my ability to heal.

The following year I was taken to the mid-station. Here you skied down off the chairlift (which moved a whole lot faster than the chairlift serving the novice slope) from what was called the mid-station mound. You were nervous and might drop a pole getting ready. A lot of people fell skiing off the chair from mid-station — especially, for some reason, on really cold days. When the chair would stop, you’d ask yourself how long you could sit there before your toes froze or your nose got frostbite from the wind. You wondered whether you could jump from the chair without breaking a leg.

By the time I’d mastered the top of the mountain, I did stuff like that. Jumped right off the chair into a pile of powder as a distant ski patrolman yelled, “Hey, you! Stop!” And then? Sure. Game on.

By now I was a nut job. I skied in a World War One flying ace helmet and was known as The Mad Bomber. If they caught you taking a jump off the mid-station mound or skiing down a closed trail, it was said that they’d take your season’s pass away. That’s what they said.

I didn’t believe it. For one thing, I had a reversible parka that was red on one side and blue on the other, and I could always find a place to hide out, stuff my helmet in a pouch, and switch sides of the coat. For another thing, there was no way a ski patrolman would ever catch me. They just wouldn’t hang it out over the edge as far as I would.

Once you’d memorized all these little exits and entrances from one slope to another, you became the phantom of the mountain. You could get around without anyone ever really spotting you for more than that 20-second burst. You’d break out down the lift-line and hear the chair go silent and feel every eye on you, just waiting for you to wipe out. Once in a while you’d make that long arcing stop and throw a pile of snow, just to prove to those above that — of course! — you could stop any time you wanted.

But who’d ever want to? Instead you’d slip into one of those phantom trails slicing diagonally through the trees. They’d get coated with ice, these trails, and they’d have these monster bumps at the end that no adult in pursuit could ever handle like a kid did. Just couldn’t be done.

Watch this.

You’re thrown up six or eight feet in a short, fast burst, so you do a spread-eagle to get your balance back, but you’ve been tossed way out — 15 feet or more out into the middle of the trail, usually smack on top of another particularly huge mogul. Coming down off of that would increase your speed to the limit. By now you’re skiing too fast to fall, because if you fall now crazy shit’ll happen. You’ll hit a tree or fly face-first into an icebox. You’ll hear one last sound — your skull cracking into concussion. Or you’ll put a tooth through your lip or rip out a nostril.

A couple of times I jumped over some idiot. And yeah, there was probably one occasion I took somebody out. Maybe two. Actually, make that three.

One time a guy actually came after me with a ski pole trying to skewer me like a piece of meat on a shish-kabob. I think I laughed at him, as I bounced back up like a lightweight before the ref could even count to one.

My crowning glory however came after a monster dump of over two feet. The zig-zag track over which the Snow Cats diagonally make their way up the very steepest section to the top would get these crazy high walls. I even required an accomplice to pull off the stunt. If you didn’t have another hot-shot spot for you, somebody could actually could get killed. It would never be me, mind you. But “somebody” getting killed wasn’t cool. There were limits, okay? We may have been nuts, but we weren’t crazy.

The new chair–called that even a decade after it was built–ran up and down between the edge of this zig-zag track and about as treacherous a slope as Belleayre offered. It was steep, narrow, and often incredibly icy. The moguls on it got about as monstrous as anywhere on the mountain. But with two feet of fresh powder I figured I could land any jump anywhere. Even if I wiped out, the profound depth of snow would prevent serious injury. Of course, landing in Eastern Powder is pretty hairy, because it tends to be heavy and wet.

Never mind that for now. The coolest jump on the mountain, naturally, would come off the last of the zig-zag’s crazy walls created by the monster snow and the Snow Cats powering up and down. Coming off that largest wall would put you up so high you’d need to negotiate the chairs going up the mountain and those coming down. To pull off the stunt was like the guy diving off the monster cliff at Acapulco, you had to initiate it the very moment your conscious mind told you, “This is certain death.” In the diver’s case, that moment came with the rocks fully exposed as the big wave is winding up and getting ready to spill up the beach. In my case, the moment came as I hit the jump like I was aiming straight at an oncoming chair.

A kid named Odie spotted for me the day I sailed off the biggest wall of the zig-zag. All he had to do was perch himself at the top of that monster and assure me there was no one coming from above, down the main trail, just the other side. The fact that he was perched there, spotting for me, meant that I couldn’t back out of the stunt. Except that jump didn’t exist yet as a stunt. I’d made it up myself.

Year after year I’d puzzled it out, over hundreds of passes on the new chair, with me craning my neck just like when I was ten and planning out my attack of the one steep section on the novice slope. But this wasn’t a novice slope any more. This was no man’s land. One winter into the next, I assured myself it could be done. Before talking myself out of it again, only to re-convince myself. It could be done. It had to be done. At least once. And that once had to be now.

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