Five o'clock on Friday in the middle of the first big storm cycle. Winter has engulfed the country, with Florida the only state on the white and pink map showing no areas of snowfall within its borders. A slippery, weary commute all that separates the workforce from its two-day respite while in northern New Mexico the minds and bodies of an intrepid subset are bent far from relaxation. Sixteen inches already this week, they collude in hushed tones, as if the internet were silent and their voices if raised would reach past the stateline to those looters from Colorado and spoil the secret. Two feet – could it be true? – still to come this weekend.
Flat, gray light waning as my loaded hatchback departs for the mountains. Sentinel ravens teeter in the chilling air like drunken specters in a world of slate. The week's heavy snows have forced the elk down from higher grounds and on the flats beneath the canyon a herd of fifty are a stone's throw and a barbed wire fence from the highway, their tawny hides clumped tight against the storm as two cows rear up magnificently equine to heights of ten feet at least and brandish front hooves at one another in agitation, as if the very beating heart of western wildness were pumping their thick crimson arteries.
I must temper forethought and footloose enthusiasm as I reach the slowly rising curves of the canyon, the road narrowing and its surface a steady progression of icy deathtraps. Snow now peppers the windshield with greater intensity, its vertiginous onslaught jarring my thoughts toward the reality that it is a year to the day since three young men from my alma mater, from the same ultimate frisbee community which cradled and challenged me, lost their lives on an icy road, on their way to a weekend of passionate recreation. Also arriving is the moment earlier this day when sorting through old paperwork I stumbled upon the name of a protege and friend of my own from a summer past who fell to his too-young death climbing in the Cascades. How insignificant our lifespans, how reckless and taunting of the world's destructive potential that we should choose these jagged and indifferent mountains, this wild season of icy abandon, as our playground.
The lump in my throat lends focus to the driving and I remember the words of an ex-teammate and budding novelist after the accident, his postulation that the afterlife might just as likely as anything else consist of a perpetual residence in the emotions and actions of our final earthly moments, and that in such a habitation those three boys were bound to all the zealous anticipation of vigorous and youthful exercise, the iron security and uplift of manly comradeship. I fish for a distant quote saying how we live each day is the truth of our existence and I realize that skiing may be trivial to the arc of nobility or justice but that it holds too those moments of urgent vitality which I cannot replicate elsewhere, that the pursuit of its mastery in the company of friends is as good a thing to love and chase as any.
It is fully dark by the time I creep up Palo Flechado Pass, the snow pelleted and insistent. I will not begin the winding descent I have been dreading yet – traffic is stopped and the creased friendly face under a ballcap and thick yellow slicker says through the icefall they're cleaning up a wreck at the first hairpin but it should only be a few minutes more. I sit in the carheat watching the flakes melt as they hit the defrosted windshield, the rivulets twisting downward like ski lines, like the unknowable pathways of life.
It is an easy descent once it begins, the slow procession of backed-up vehicles down the red-salted road an unforeseen gift of forced temperance. I reach Bill's just after the Santa Feans, their own travel a harrowing slog up the frozen curves of the Rio Grande Canyon. The abrazos are numerous and heartfelt, soon we're drinking beer and eating hot dogs, but there is a modest and urgent reverence among our company as we watch the snow pile outside and wonder incredulously at the forecast. A foot and a half already, and we're two thousand feet below the base of the mountain.
I haven't seen this in years, Bill says, and he means it. We might not see it again for even longer, Sam replies.
At 2:45 the air mattress is sagging and my mind is racing out of a canyon of icy dreams and into the dark living room. There is no logical reason why one experiences a soldier's insomnia the night before a powder day but it must be some torturous sign that skiing has invaded you to the core. I slide in and out of sleep for another three and a half hours before the alarms start sounding and we're up and out. Scant breakfast, slammed coffee, layers, hushed conversation and away. Climbing the canyon by 7:30, ahead of the crowds from points south. The envelope of cloud on mountain is absolute. It is as if we are entering a reality absolved from time and space where ravens, dark trees, snow and snow and snow have never ceased to exist and will not ever.
The throng awaiting first chair swells into the hundreds as eight approaches nine but we are near its front. Patrollers come down from invisible heights, their beards bombarded by ice and frost, like grave and haggard beasts returning to morning from the fathoms of endless night. The chairs will not all be running today, they tell us, but we will do our best. It's slow going up there. Finally the bell sounds as if to start a derby, cheers rise up from the congregated faithful, and we are carried foursome by foursome into the sea of cloud and snow. As we approach the first lift's terminus, four figures explode onto the steep run below us like superheroes of the populace, greeted by more cheers from every rider within view. Each of their turns pours a new cascade of snow downward and they are dolphins breaking the milky dormant surface, torchbearers for the devotees soon to follow their wake.
A quick and tantalizing groomer to the base of the next chair, a shorter wait, the ascent to the top, and then it begins.
The terrain of Taos Ski Valley is a connoisseur’s delight, a Stravinsky in a world of wheezing compositions. The mountain easily boasts two dozen expert runs the steepness and technicality of which can be approached only by a single pitch or two at nearly all other North American resorts. Many a brilliant skier from across the world has pilgrimed to Taos, and many have never left afterward. One is Alain Veth, former slalom and giant slalom champion of France, who is now raising a family of skiers while owning a quaint tune shop on the mountain. At eight this morning, I picked up my skis from Alain after their midseason checkup and discussing the snowfall the rapid excitement in his accent was more schoolboy than Olympian. Standing now atop Upper Pollux, gazing down at a line of deep, tight turns between aspens and snow-saddled firs, it strikes that I'm about to ski as majestic a run as any slope in the world could offer at this moment. But there is no time for sentiment at the drop-in.
I have skied deep snow before and turned my way down many a steep aspect on just the right side of control, but such a combination of pitch and powder I have never known. Turn after bottomless turn erupts beneath my skis, the trees a passing rush in the breeze, the midweight snow a tumbling pillow beneath like falling through a white dreamworld of deadened gravity. Now Sam and I are hugging and high-fiving at the bottom of the glade like giddy Christmas morning siblings and the day becomes a blur of adrenaline joy. Pipeline, Lorelei, Edelweiss. Werner's, Longhorn, Jean's. One after another, our skis pour down familiar runs with unfamiliar grace. It is the harmony of mind and body and equipment with the ancient landscape, the momentary inclusion in the nameless truth of the mountain. And it is fleeting and nearly untenable like all of the world's most pure things.
There is terrain which remains unexplored through the morning: the Highline Ridge and the West Basin, accessed only by hiking up from the topmost lift. With the highs of Taos' extreme slopes come the sobering reality of their destructive potential, never more grave than after a massive and sudden storm like this. Since dawn, patrollers have been testing the terrain, the echoing crashes of their grenades periodic through the day as they seek to trigger loose snow from the hidden empty faces. With our season passes, we have bought the peace of mind that anywhere we ski has been deemed safe. For their paychecks, the patrollers battle the haunting and capricious monster of the avalanche.
The unequaled rock-strewn chutes of the West Basin will remain closed through this storm, along with the sprawling face of Kachina Peak and its new summit-reaching chairlift, a poetic mockery by nature of the ski industry's best laid plans. By midday the Highline Ridge has been cleared however and we embark on the climb with the unfortunate haste of children rushing toward a plate with not enough cookies for everyone. There's a saying for it – no friends on a powder day. The race for first tracks seems churlish, infantile even, to the onlooker who has not been hooked by the lure of untouched descent. But the rush of anticipation has us motoring our boots upward with doubled effort, bent on finding that immaculate line.
Eclipsing treeline, all forethought ceases. We hit the ridge and an assault of wind and precipitation renders visibility and hearing near naught. The conditions on the resort below seem a plaything – ice and snow lambast from all angles like the million daggers of some Norse necromancer or crooked deity of violence and frigidity. I lose sight of the path and stumble into a chest-high drift of snow, all of a sudden swimming alone in this mad white world, legs and feet and skis fighting to slog through the weight of the misstep. Out of the drift finally, there's a quick uptick in visibility and it's just me and the ridge. Sam, the only one ahead, must have already dropped down into his line. I reach a good spot on the envisioned cornice and it's now or never. I launch forward and land eight feet down like lovers on a feather bed. One, two, five swooping and unforgettable turns have me down the first wall. A hundred-foot traverse and I'm in the shelter of the trees. Cutting left from the few tracks ahead of me, I drop into an unchristened line through a favorite stretch of glade, the turns flowing by effortlessly, the mind emptied, time an alien thing. When the run drains out onto the trafficked resort, it comes as a jarring surprise, as if the raw new world above were made to extend infinitely. But there's Sam, beaming and telling me without hint of hyperbole that was the greatest ski run of his life and me staring at my skis, at the snow, at my friend, without breath or cause to refute.
The afternoon winds its way on like the second act of a winter ballet. We ski hard until the end, catching our last chair at 3:57 for a victory lap with Bill. With the snow continuing, an evening of exhaustion and exultation finds us asleep by ten and collective soreness makes for a slower morning as we wind back up the canyon in an ant-like parade of trucks and Subarus. The word must have gotten out. But it is the mountain and not the people which will have the final dictum on Sunday. A big slide in the West Basin overnight has shut down one side of the resort, while the entire Kachina drainage is too unpredictable for opening. Skiing will be bottlenecked to the lower front side for the morning if not the entire day, the resulting lift lines bringing anxious visions of Summit County to many. But Taos has a final gift amid the turbulence as we watch patrol drop the rope and the season's first skiers traverse into North American, a steep glade which twists 1,500 vertical feet down the resort's front side, culminating in two narrow chokes requiring current snow depths for safety. By the time we're off the lift and reach the top of it, we are hardly the first to enter, but the snow remains pillowed between the naked aspens and the crowd inside whooping like questers in a revival tent. Delving into some inner reserve, the legs gather strength for a last hurrah. They pump like pistons once more as I charge down through the great grove, washed with gratitude, and maybe it's just my imagination but the sky seems a tick brighter as I course into the turns below.