(LivingtheDream.org welcomes Nathan Senge, submitting his first piece for the site. Writers can send us their work at LTDdotorg@gmail.com)
Morning in Alaska
They had been dropped off on the knife-edge and it was growing quiet. There was a feather-toss of snow crystals that flaked against the sunlight as they watched the helicopter clip into the distance. They walked to the edge of the north face of the mountain, their skis on their shoulders, to peer over the hanging cornice wall of wind-drawn snow.
Alex Candle approached the wall first, stepping carefully towards the edge and stabbing it repeatedly with his ski pole as he approached.
“How’s it look?” Craig Hattress asked, standing a few yards behind him.
“Sure we’re in the right spot?”
Alex picked up his radio and opened the channel to Greg McCormick, who was spinning about in the far-off helicopter.
“We’re looking over the cornice on the north face and it’s pretty blind,” he said. “Can’t see past the roll-over just beneath it.”
There was a release of static in the speaker and then a voice broke through the mesh of it.
“Okay. Looking at the pictures now. Past the roll-over it opens up and you’ve got a choice of those three chutes you could see from the approach that thread into the cliff-band.”
“The skier’s left chute has the most exposure?”
“Sixty to eighty feet, depending on how fast you take it.”
“And the other two?”
“I’d say about forty for the middle one and twenty to thirty for the skier’s right.”
He looked over at Craig, who was watching him intently.
“Also,” the voice returned over the speaker. “I wouldn’t both of you ski it. The first ski cut beneath the roll-over is going to set off a wave of slough and will probably wash out the chutes as you’re going through. The skier’s left chute is going to get the most of it.”
“Which one will look best for the shot?”
There was a pause before the voice came back.
“Well, you already know that,” the voice said, and Alex could see Mark grinning as he clicked off his end of the radio.
“Alright, I’m going to make one sweeping cut to the right just under the roll-over to distance myself from the slough and get some speed up and then cut back hard left into the skier’s left chute at high speed and try to beat the slough out the bottom.”
“Are you sure?” the voice quavered. “You may be launching the air in the middle of a waterfall.”
“Won’t be the first time.”
Another pause, before the voice returned, laughing heartily.
“Crazy son-of-a-bitch, Alex. Ok. We’ll move into position and give you a count.”
Alex stepped back from the edge and took three even and slow-drawn breaths.
“What’s the deal?” Craig said, still standing behind.
“Three chutes,” Alex responded, looking over the edge of the roll-over into open air. “Skier’s left has the biggest air and a lot of slough potential. It lessens as you work your way over to the skier’s right.”
“I bet Greg’s worried you’re going to slough out all three.”
“That’s okay. I’ve got a line on the south face I can ski.”
“You’re okay with that?”
“Send the fucker.”
Alex nodded and began compressing his legs to stretch his hamstrings, which had grown tight in the helicopter cabin. He was performing quick squats when he heard the deep wurble-hum of the helicopter growing louder.
The radio crackled.
“Should be there in thirty seconds,” Greg said evenly.
He saw the helicopter sweep around the right side of the mountain and he edged back up to the cornice wall, beyond which the mountain fell away sharply. He slid the tips of his skis over the break of the wall and went quiet and looked down.
“Okay, this is Alex-,” came the voice over the radio. “Three, two, one-”
Alex dropped in. The snow was velvet. Good Alaskan velvet that swept upwards like cold smoke behind the skis. He made a slow turn, checked his speed, approached the roll-over, and swept a second turn over the lip. The mountain fell away fast and went steep like a drop and he could see the three chutes set up below him in their walls of rock. He made his first high-speed right cut into the steepness and felt the slough go. The mountain began to move. The surf took off behind him and he knew it was thick and fast enough to knock him over and sweep him down and bury him. He lengthened his long turn to get away from it, the mountain peeling away behind him, and at the last moment before being funneled into the skier’s right chute, through which he could see the cliff-break and the white apron of snow stretching out into the basin far below, he cut back hard left into blindness and leaned into the mountain, his left elbow tracing fast through the surface, and he could hear and feel the slough booming down on top of him. He glanced right and saw the walls of the middle chute pass quickly underneath and then he saw the opening of the rock-wall into the skier’s left chute and he turned hard and fast into it and let his skis run straight as he bent low to the ground and it all went to blur. The rocks rushed by and he saw the edge, bent his knees, and exploded upward off the lip. The air hung quietly about him as the cloud of snow moved in all around and it all went white and he heard nothing but the
He slammed into the ground and it came before he expected because he could see nothing. He had no time to get his legs out in front of him so he tried to take the compression to his knees but the force was enormous and he felt his knees slam into his chin and his head go wurbly and his vision patched for a moment before flickering back on and the snow was good, dense, moist Alaskan champagne-powder and it bumped him back onto his feet and he came barreling out of the cratered landing and into the apron through the cloud-thinning of the white as the great apron fell away to the break of the glacier and the basin beyond and the wind roared and he flashed like a rocket-shot into the flats.
“Jesus fucking christ! Jesus fucking christ! Jesus fucking christ!” the voice came screaming and yelling uncontrollably over the radio.
Alex felt his body release and breathe and return as he began to slow down and the roar of the wind faded.
He picked up his radio receiver.
“Copy,” Alex said softly.
“Alex! You goddamn nut! Are you alright? You took it to the knees off a ninety-footer in a goddamn waterfall! We lost sight of you completely and then you were out of it like a missile! We thought you had been crushed! Are you alright?”
“I’m alright,” he said as he loosened about the legs and coasted down to the plateau.
“That’s the shot of the trip, Alex,” Greg said evenly, “maybe the year. Congrats, buddy. We’re going to swing around and film Craig taking a fast, easy line on the south face and then we’ll be back to get you. Sure you’re alright? You sound stunned.”
“You need us to get you now?”
“No. No. I’m okay. See you soon.”
“Okay, see you soon,” and the radio went off.
Alex breathed slowly as he drifted to a stop in the flats and heard the helicopter fly off and disappear behind the back of the mountain. He looked up and saw the great peaks standing shoulder-to-shoulder before him, an endless serration of white and rock enfolded in blue.