They rose before dawn and stepped out beneath a moonless sky aswarm with stars. Their breath made clouds of the chill air and their boots crunched on the congealed gravel of the motel parking lot. The old station wagon was the only car there, its roof and hood veneered with a dim refracting frost. The boy fixed their skis to the roof while his father stowed their packs then walked around to remove the newspaper pinned by the wipers to the windshield. It was stiff with ice and crackled in his hands as he balled it. Before they climbed into the car they lingered a moment, just stood there listening to the silence and gazing west at the mountains silhouetted by stars.
The little town had yet to wake and they drove quietly north along Main Street, past the courthouse and the gas station and the old movie theater, through pale pools of light cast by the street lamps, the car’s reflection gliding the darkened windows of the stores. And the sole witness to their leaving was a grizzled dog who stood watch at the edge of town, its head lowered, its eyes ghost-green in the headlights.
It was the last day of March and a vestige of plowed snow lay gray along the highway’s edge. Heading west across the plains the previous afternoon, there had been a first whisper of green among the bleached grass. Before sunset they had strolled out from the motel along a dirt road and heard a meadowlark whistling as if winter had gone for good.But beyond the rolling ranch land, the Rocky Mountain Front, a wall of ancient limestone a hundred miles long, was still encrusted with white and the boy’s father said they would surely still find good spring snow.
A mile north of town they branched left from the highway on a road that ran twenty more with barely a bend toward the Front. They saw mule deer and coyote and just as the road turned to gravel a great pale-winged owl swerved from the cottonwoods and glided low ahead of them as if piloting the beam of their lights. And all the while the mountain wall loomed larger, a shadowed, prescient blue, until it seemed to open itself and they found themselves traveling a twisting corridor where a creek of snowmelt tumbled through stands of bare aspen and willow with cliffs of pine and rock the color of bone rearing a thousand feet on either side.
The road was steeper now and when it became treacherous with hardpacked snow the boy’s father stopped so they could fit the chains. The air when they got out of the car was icy and windless and loud with the rush of the creek. They spread the chains on the snow in front of the rear wheels and his father climbed back into the driver’s seat and inched the car forward until the boy called for him to stop. While his father knelt to fasten the chains, the boy stamped his feet and blew on his hands to warm them.
“Look,” he said.
His father stood and did so, brushing the snow from his hands. Framed in the V of the valley walls, though far beyond, the peak of a vast snow-covered mountain had just been set ablaze by the first reach of the sun. Even as they watched, the shadow of night began to drain from its slopes below a deepening band of pink and gold and white.
They parked the car at the trailhead and they could see from the untracked snow that no one else had been there. They sat together beneath the tailgate and put on their boots. The owner of the motel had made sandwiches for them and they ate one apiece and drank steaming sweet coffee and watched the shadows around them slowly fill with light. The first few miles would be steep so they fitted skins to their skis to give them grip. The boy’s father checked the bindings and that their avalanche transceivers were working and when he was satisfied that all was in order they shouldered their packs and stepped into their skis.
“You lead,” his father said.
The journey they had planned for that day was a loop of some fifteen miles. They had made the same trip two years before and found some of the best skiing either had ever known. The first three hours were the hardest, a long climb through the forest then a perilous zigzag up the northeast side of a ridge. But it was worth it. The ridge’s south face was a perfect, treeless shoulder that dropped in three consecutive slopes into the next drainage. If all went well, by the time they reached the top, the sun would just have angled onto it, softening the top half-inch of snow while the base remained frozen and firm.
These backcountry ski trips had become their yearly ritual and the boy now looked forward to them as much as he knew his father did. His snowboarding friends back home in Great Falls thought he was crazy. If you wanted to ski, they said, why not go someplace where there’s a ski lift? And in truth, on their first trip four years ago in the Tetons, he feared they were right. To a twelve-year-old it had seemed like a lot of effort for precious little fun; too much up and not enough down. At times he had come close to tears. But he kept a brave face and the following year went again.
His father was away from home on business much of the time and there weren’t many things they ever got to do together, just the two of them. Sometimes the boy felt they barely knew each other. Neither of them was much of a talker. But there was something about traveling together through these wild and remote places that seemed to bind them closer than words ever could. And little by little he had come to understand why his father enjoyed the uphill as much as the down. It was a curious formula of physical and mental energy, as if the burning of one fueled the other. The endless rhythmic repetition, sliding one ski past the other, could send you into a kind of trance. And the thrill andsense of achievement when you reached that faraway summit and saw a slope of virgin spring snow reveal itself below could be close to overwhelming.
Perhaps he came to feel this way simply because each year he had grown stronger. He was taller than his father now and certainly fitter. And though not yet as wise in his mountaincraft, he had probably become the better skier. Perhaps that was why today, for the first time, his father was letting him lead.
For the first hour the trail was darkly walled with lodgepole pine and Douglas fir as it rose ever higher along the southern side of the winding canyon. Even though they were still in shadow, the climb soon had them sweating and when they paused to gather breath or to drink or to shed another layer of clothing, they could hear the muted roar of the creek far below. Once they heard the crashing of some large creature somewhere in the timber above them.
“What do you think that was?” the boy said.
“Deer. Moose, maybe.”
“Would the bears be waking up yet?”
His father took a drink from his canteen then wiped his mouth with the back of his glove. This was prime grizzly country and they both knew it.
“Guess so. Days have been warm enough this past week.”
An hour later they had stepped out of the trees and into the sunlight and were picking their way across a gully filled with the crazed debris of an avalanche, jagged lumps of frozen snow and rock skewered with trees sundered from their roots.
They reached the ridge a little before ten and stood side by side surveying in silence all that unfolded below and around them, mountain and forest quilted with snow and the flaxen plains beyond. The boy felt that if he squinted hard enough he might even defy science and all the world’s horizons and see the backs of their own two selves, tiny figures on some distant snowy peak.
The shoulder below them looked as good as they had hoped. The sun was just upon it and it glistened like white velvet strewn with sequins. They took off their skis and unhitched the skins from which they carefully brushed the snow before stowing them in their packs. There was a cold breeze up here and they put on their jackets then sat on a bench of rock and drank coffee and ate the last of the sandwiches while a pair of ravens swirled and called above them against the lazuline sky.
“So what do you think?” his father asked.
“Looks pretty good.”
“I’d say this is about as close to heaven as a man can get.”
As he spoke one of the ravens banked before them, its shadow passing across his face. It landed a few yards from them along the ridge and the boy tossed a crust of bread toward it which made the bird flutter and lift again, but only for a moment. It resettled and with a cocked head inspected the crust then the boy then the crust again. It seemed almost to have summoned the courage to take it when its mate swooped in and snatched it instead. The first bird gave a raucous call and lifted off in pursuit and the boy and his father laughed and watched them tumble and swerve and squawk their way down into the valley.
As with the climb, the boy led the descent. The snow felt as good beneath his skis as it had looked. The sun had melted the surface just enough to give purchase and he quickly found his rhythm. He spread his arms and opened his chest to the slope below as if he would embrace it, savoring the blissful swish of each turn. His father was right. It was as near to heaven as you could get.
At the foot of the first of the three slopes, where the gradient leveled a little, the boy stopped and looked back to admire his tracks. His father was already skiing down beside them, carefully duplicating each curve, keeping close and precisely parallel, until he arrived alongside and the two of them whooped and slapped each other’s upheld palms.
“Yours are coming along too.”
His father laughed and said he would ski the next slope first and that when he got to the next level he would take some photographs of the boy’s descent. So the boy watched him ski down and waited for the call and when it came he launched himself into the sunlit air, giving all he had for the camera.
From where they stood next, at the foot of the second slope, they could see all the way down into the drainage, where the sun had yet to seep. They knew from the last time they had skied here that the creek that ran along the bottom was a series of pools and steep waterfalls. It had been warmer then and there had been a lot less snow and, except for some crusted ice at the pool edges, the running water had been exposed. Now, however, it lay buried beneath all the heaped snow that had funneled into the creek and all they could see were contours and ominous striations.
His father looked at his watch then shielded his eyes to peer at the sun. The boy knew what he was thinking. Half the slope below them was still in shadow. The air down there would be colder and the snow not yet transformed. Maybe they should wait awhile.
“Looks a little icy,” his father said.
“It’ll be okay. But if you’re feeling chicken let’s wait.”
His father looked at him over his sunglasses and smiled.
“Okay, hotshot. Better show me the way then.”
He handed the boy the camera.
“Make sure you get some good ones.”
“They’ll only be as good as your skiing. Wait till I holler.”
He put the camera in his jacket pocket and grinned at his father as he moved off. The snow for the first few hundred feet was still good. But as he came closer to the rim of the sunlight, he felt the surface harden. When he turned there was almost no grip and no swishing sound, only the rasp of ice against the steel edges of his skis. He stopped where the sun met the shadow and looked up the slope where his father stood against the sky.
“How is it?” his father called.
“Kind of skiddy. It’s okay.”
“Wait there. I’m coming.”
The boy took off his gloves and pulled the camera from his pocket. He managed to get a couple of shots with the zoom as his father skied down toward him. The third picture he took would later show the exact moment that things began to go wrong.
His father was starting a right turn and as he transferred his weight the edge of his left ski failed to bite and slipped sharply downhill. He tried to correct himself but in the process stepped too hard on his uphill ski and it skidded from under him. His body lurched, his arms and ski poles scything the air as he tried to recapture his balance. He was sliding now and had twisted around so that he was facing up the slope. For a moment he looked almost comical, as if he were pretending to ski uphill. Then he jerked and flipped backward and fell with a thump onto his back and at once began to gather speed.
It briefly occurred to the boy that he might try to block his father’s slide, or at least check or slow it, by skiing into his path, but even as he thought it, he realized that the impact would surely knock him over and that he too would be carried down the slope. In any case, it was already too late. His father was accelerating so fast there would be no time to reach him. One ski had already come off and was torpedoing away down the mountain and now the other one came off and the boy moved quickly and reached out with a pole, almost losing his balance. He managed to touch the ski but it was traveling too fast and rocketed past him.
“Stand up!” he yelled. “Try and stand up!”
It was what his father had once called to him when he was falling. He hadn’t managed to stand and neither could his father now. As he careered past, facedown now and spread-eagled on the ice, his sunglasses scuttling alongside like an inquisitive crab, he shouted something but the boy couldn’t make it out. The father’s ski poles, one of them badly bent, were still looped to his wrists and trailed above him, flailing and bouncing on the ice. And still he was gaining speed.
The boy began to ski down after him. And though he was shaky with shock and could feel his heart thumping as if it would break loose from its roots, he knew how vital it was not to fall too. He kept telling himself to stay calm and tried to summon all the technique he had ever learned. Trust the downhill ski, even though it slips. Angulate. Chest away from the mountain, not into it. Finish each turn. Angulate, angulate! Look ahead, you idiot, not down at the ice, not down at your skis.
There was no grip at all now, but after a few first tentative turns he found he could control the slide of his skis and his confidence began to return. Mesmerized, he watched the dark and diminishing figure sliding away and down into the shadow of the valley. Just before he disappeared from view, his father cried out one last time. And the sound was high-pitched and chilling, like an animal frightened for its life.
The boy slithered to a halt. He was breathing hard and his legs were shaking. He knew it was important to remember the exact point at which his father had vanished, though why he had vanished, he couldn’t yet figure out. Maybe there was some sudden drop you couldn’t see from above. He tried to picture the last time they had skied the slope but couldn’t recall whether the lower part of the drainage grew steeper or leveled out. And he couldn’t help thinking about what might happen when his father hit the bottom. Would the snow heaped in the creek bed cushion his fall or would it be frozen like rock and break every bone in his body? In all his fretting, the boy had already lost the mental note he had made of precisely where his father had disappeared. In the shadow below everything looked the same. Maybe there were some marks on the ice that might lead him to the place. He took a deep breath and eased himself forward.
On the very first turn his downhill ski skidded badly and he almost fell. His knees were like jelly and the rest of him was locked with tension and it took him some time to trust himself to move again. Then, a few yards down the slope ahead of him, he saw a dark streak maybe six inches long on the ice. In a barely controlled side-slip he made his way toward it.
It was blood. And farther down the slope there was more. There were scuff marks in the ice too, probably where his father had tried to kick a grip with the toes of his boots.
Had the boy been able to ski this same slope in good snow, it would have taken him no more than four or five minutes. But on sheet ice with legs atremble, all he could manage was a side-slip so tense and fearful that it took the best part of half an hour. So slow was his descent that the sun overtook him and he watched the band of shadow retreat below him and the trail of blood turn vivid on the pristine snow.
Now, in the glare, he could see that the trail disappeared over a sudden rim and that there was something lying there. And drawing closer, he saw his father’s sunglasses, perched on the edge of a last steep section of mountain, as if they had stopped to watch the climax of the show. The boy stopped and picked them up. One of the lenses was cracked and an arm was missing. He put them in his pocket.
The slope below him fell sharply some two hundred feet into the valley bottom which even as he watched was filling with sunlight. He peered down, expecting to see the crumpled form of his father. But there was no sign of him nor sound. Just a dazzling white silence.
Even the trail of blood and scuffing had vanished. There was a sudden rushing of air and the pair of ravens swooped low over his head and down toward the creek, squawking as if they would show him the way. And as the boy watched their shadows cross the creek he saw one of his father’s skis and a dark hole in the rumpled blanket of snow.
Five minutes later he was down there. There was a crater, some ten or twelve feet across, its edges jagged where the frozen snow had cracked and given way. He wasn’t yet close enough to see into it.
There was no answer. All he could hear was a faint trickle of water somewhere below him. Cautiously, he maneuvered his skis sideways, testing the snow with each small step, expecting that at any moment it might collapse and swallow him. It seemed firm. Then he remembered his avalanche transceiver. This was exactly what it was for, to help you locate someone buried in the snow. He took off his gloves and unzipped his jacket and pulled the transceiver out and started fiddling with the knobs. But his hand was shaking and his head so blurred with panic that he couldn’t remember how the damn thing worked.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!”
“Here! I’m here!”
The boy’s heart lurched.
“Dad? Are you okay?”
“Yeah. Be careful.”
“I saw blood.”
“I cut my face. I’m okay. Don’t come too near the edge.”
But it was too late. There was a deep cracking sound and the boy felt the snow tilt beneath his skis and in the next instant he was falling. He caught a brief glimpse of his father’s bloodied face staring up at him as the lip of the crater crumbled and then he saw nothing but the white of the snow cascading with him.
The next thing he knew, his father was hauling him out of the wreckage, asking him if he was hurt. At first the boy didn’t know the answer but he said he didn’t think so. His father grinned.
“Good job, son. You just made us a way out.”
He nodded and the boy turned and saw what he meant. The collapse had created a kind of ramp for them to climb. They sat staring at each other, his father still grinning and dabbing his cheek with a bloody handkerchief. There was a long gash but it didn’t look deep and the bleeding had almost stopped. The boy shook his head.
“Didn’t think I’d find you alive.”
“Hope you got that picture.”
“Wow, Dad. That was some fall.”
The walls of the hole in which they sat were layered with shelves of bluish-white ice, which their two falls had shattered. It was like being in the cross section of some giant frosted wasp nest. The floor felt firm and when the boy brushed away the snow he saw they were on solid ice. His skis had come off when he fell and lay partly buried in the snow. He stood and gathered them up. His father slowly stood too, wincing a little as he did so. The sun was just creeping in on them.
“I guess we ought to have a look for my skis,” he said.
His pack was lying on the ice just next to where the boy had brushed away the snow. A shaft of sun was angling onto it. The boy stooped to pick up the pack and as he did so, something caught his eye, a pale shape in the translucent blue of the ice. His father saw him hesitate.
“What is it?”
“Look. Down here.”
They both kneeled and peered into the ice.
“Jesus,” his father said quietly.
It was a human hand. The fingers were splayed, the palm upturned. The boy’s father paused a moment then brushed away a little more snow until they saw the underside of an arm. They looked at each other. Then, without a word, they got to work, brushing and scraping and pushing away the snow, creating a window of ice through which, with every stroke of their gloves, they could see more of what lay encased.
Tucked beneath the upper arm, half-concealed by a naked shoulder and peering shyly up at them with one blank eye, they now could see a face. From the swirl of hair, captured as if in a photograph, it looked like a young woman. She lay at an angle, her legs askew and slanting away into the darker ice below. She was wearing some kind of crimson top or jacket that was rucked and twisted and seemed to have torn away from her arm and shoulder. The fabric trailed from her as if she had been frozen in the act of shedding it. Her flesh was the color of parchment.