A very special ski trip. A short-ish story that I hope you enjoy. Part 1
Gregory F. Reigel
Cliff Watson looked down the empty, almost pristine ski slope, its snow still looking inviting in the graying afternoon sky, and suddenly felt very much alone. Before him stretched a skier's dream; a deserted, moderately difficult slope with 12 inches of undisturbed powder covering a recently groomed base. And served by a chair lift, no less. Yet Cliff was getting increasingly apprehensive. He should not be alone on this slope.
To his left came the steady hum of the ski lift motor interrupted only by the soft clank of the endless parade of empty chairs marching up, swaying around the gigantic drive wheel, then strolling back down in a perfectly straight column. But there was no longer an operator manning the controls.
Cliff shook his head, adjusted his goggles on his dark brown, closely cropped hair, and started down, his tall, slim, muscular body moving easily to the rhythm of closely carved turns. Speed grew making each turn fluff up increasing plumbs of the light Andes snow momentarily covering his upper body, pleasantly stinging his cheeks. Turns of expert quality with no one to see them.
A half hour later even his powerful legs were screaming for mercy as he rushed down to the ski lift entrance immediately boarding a chair for the long, lonely journey up. Silently swaying in solitude Cliff began to get the first impressions that maybe this trip he won was not going to be free at all.
24 hours earlier
Snow bellowed around the landing pad, sparkling like a million tiny diamonds tumbling in the afternoon sun, blown up past the windows of the giant, two rotor helicopter, momentarily blocking Cliff's first view of the Nueve Especial, Special Snow in English, Ski Resort. In the cramped cabin he noticed that the five other passengers were also watching the brilliant display just as the craft gently set down.
"My, my," exclaimed Terry Butters, brushing back her long blond hair and turning to face Cliff across the narrow aisle. "I hope all the snow in Chili is as good as this. Hard to believe it is July but, just like you told me, it is the middle of winter here."
Cliff smiled back in polite reserve, but his heart beat wildly when their blue eyes met. He was fascinated, and a little worried, how quickly he had become interested in her considering that they had only known each other since leaving Chicago's O'Hare Airport earlier that morning. It was true that they were close in age, she probably 5 years younger than his 38, and both were considered attractive for their gender, but he still felt inwardly embarrassed about his feelings along with being a little irritated. Although he did not know why, he felt he was there for a purpose other than to flirt.
"It better be good," came the Texas drawl of Howard Styles, jarring Cliff's thoughts away from self evaluation, "cause we flew half was around the stinkin' planet to get here. If this wasn't a freebee, no way would I travel this far."
The comment surprised Cliff since, judging by his cloths, Howard was not hurting for money. Unlike Mr. Styles, Cliff was thankful that he had won a chance to ski at Nueve Especial Resort, nestled high in the Andes of Chili. Hardly open a week already it had gained a reputation as being only for the very rich and/or famous to ski secluded from the rest of the world. No need for them to worry about the poperatsi here for the only way up was by helicopter, and only the most powerful of these.
Similar to Black Tail Mountain in Montana the lodge was at the top of the resort with the slopes stringing down like spidery fingers. The lifts all converged around the lodge
fanning out to the bottom of their respective areas.
A blast of cold air struck Cliff immediately at the door from the still turning rotors as he, and the others instinctively lowered their heads while they moved quickly towards a large wood building.
The huge lodge looked like it had been transported from a rich ski resort in the Rockies, or even the Alps, and then altered to look even better. Built of massive, finished logs, stained a dark brown, that had been fitted together like a giant children's' toy, the place gave a solid, almost imposing look. Large windows, appearing to be made of many small glass panes, balanced the huge, solid wooden entrance doors they were moving towards.
It was not until he was inside that Cliff noticed just how recently the place had been built betrayed by the faint scent of sawdust and sap that seemed to rise up from the newly polished, shinny wooden floor that almost looked ready for a professional basketball game. The front room would have felt like a gymnasium had it not been for the carefully placed wood and leather furniture which divided the expanse into smaller, cozier sections.
What definitely dominated the room was a huge fireplace constructed from immense, closely fitted dark rocks that seem to have risen from the smooth, black slate hearth, which stretched out towards them from the burning logs like an evil tongue.
On the hearth, waiting for their small group stood Hector Lodillo, the owner, creator, and general manger of the resort, his gleaming eyes cheerfully watching Cliff and the others assembly in front of him. Though not quite as tall as Cliff, Hector was an imposing figure, nonetheless, his slim frame dressed in only the best casual winter wear. The dark, leather trimmed sweater matched nicely with his black hair, slicked back emphasizing his sharp widows peak. The lighter, loosely hanging, but perfectly ironed pants almost completely covered the soft, polished leather boots.
Hector smiled, his brilliant white teeth sparkling from the reflection of the flames, but it was his eyes that captured everyone's attention; yellow, almost like those of a tiger.
His slightly tinted skin and jet black hair would cause one to expect brown eyes, but instead a pair of bright yellow, almost glowing, orbs radiated a gaze that none could ignore.
The eyes made Cliff remember the first, and only other time he had met Hector, when he had gone to pick up the tickets that a formal letter had told him of having won. The whole affair had left Cliff curious because he did not even remember entering such a contest, and suspicious because he had always found the old adage true that you don't get nothing for nothing. Yet Hector explained that the resort was offering this purely for promotional reasons and that there were almost no conditions to the trip except the departure date which was non-negotiable.
"Welcome, welcome," Hector's voice boomed out echoing across the huge room. "I'm glad all of you could make the trip here to be one of the first at our brand new resort. It may seem somewhat empty now but soon this place will be alive from all the other souls who, unlike you, will have to pay for the privilege of being here.
"This resort was created for a special class of skier," Hector went on. "One that enjoys skiing above all else. As you have already noticed, we are alone on top of this mountain with no one to interfere with our pleasure. The only way to get here is by helicopter; there are no roads. All the people, all the food has to be flown in to preserve our isolation from outside pressures. The nearest village is 50 kilometers away through forbidding terrain. We create our own power with big diesel generators so we have a pretty much self sufficient skiing community here."
A dull growing roar from outside interrupted followed by the thumping sound of helicopter blades slashing through the air.
"Hey, I didn't get my skies yet!" Terry yelled bolting towards the door.
"Neither did I," exclaimed another man moving his large body after Terry.
"No need to worry," Hector spoke loudly, verbally stopping both of them. "Your equipment and luggage have already been taken to your rooms."
"But I haven't seen any people to move luggage. In fact, I haven't seen any help at all," chimed in Dorthy Collins, a woman Cliff guessed to be in her early forties, as her very blue eyes looked around the room searching for agreement.
"Nor will you, at least not very often," Hector smiled showing off his shinny teeth. "You are here to ski, not watch other people doing their jobs. We try to keep them as inconspicuous as possible and your statement shows just how well they are doing their jobs."
A frown on his face, while the others nodded their praise, showed that Cliff did not like what he heard, although he could not put his finger on just why. While he pondered the negative feelings, his eyes met Hector's and the sharp stare he got back was no longer friendly, but rather that from a lion studying an adversary.
"Did you see his eyes? Creepy," Dorthy said to the group while they waited for the waitress to bring their drink order. All six of them sat at a round table near the bar, a rectangular affair with the narrower back opening to an aisle running along the wall to the kitchen. As usual, shelves with liquor and clear glasses ran around the area with a large television hanging down in the back corner.
For the first time since arriving the skiers had found someplace where employees of the resort could actually be seen, all of them apparently being of Spanish/Indian blood common to Chili. There was a young man with a full black mustache behind the bar, at least two waitresses, although only one was needed, and the group could hear activity behind the door to the kitchen. Also there were perhaps another half dozen patrons scattered about the large, dimly lit room.
Next to Dorthy sat John McLean, the heavier person that had been quick to follow Terry in the lodge earlier that afternoon. The gentlemen on Dorthy's other side was Wayne Nelson, the oldest of the group, a slight, quiet man who Cliff had already found out was a professor at some college or university. Terry sat next to Cliff with Howard rounding out the group. After the drinks arrived it was Howard who addressed the party of six standing up and raising his glass.
"I would like to propose a toast to our lucky little ski group. Let's go out there tomorrow and ski like hell!"
"Sounds good to me," McLean said with just a slight hint of a slur. Cliff noticed him stagger slightly when John shifted his weight to sit down. He was definitely taking full advantage of the bar's happy hour.
"So Cliff, what do you do?" Howard asked to keep the conversation going.
"Construction. Contractor for Plumb Bob Builders out in Elburn, Illinois. It helps that my dad owns the company. How about you?"
"Printing. Owner and CEO of Tall Web Graphics."
"Sales," John chimed in. "Ridgeway Tech..."
John stopped in mid sentence and grabbed the table. For just an instant Cliff thought maybe John had one beer too many when he also felt the floor start to move. Glasses hanging by the bar started to clink and a hanging light over the cash register started a gentle sway.
"What in the world," Wayne Nelson quietly muttered while the floor trembled.
Within a few seconds the vibration faded away and the bartender calmly picked up a towel for washing out glasses.
"Cliff, what was that?" Terry asked wide-eyed.
"Obviously, an earth quake, but it certainly didn't seem to upset him, pointing at the bartender. Cliff turned in his chair until he was facing the bartender. "Habla English?"
"Si, senor. Almost everyone in our town younger than 50 can speak a little; they teach it in school."
"My name's Cliff, and you are?"
"Ernesto, didn't you feel the earthquake? Doesn't look like it bothered you."
"Happens all the time, senor, especially lately. Some say Volcan Llaima is waking up after over a century quiet."
"Say, what?" John McLean blurted out. "What's this volcano business? This place gets rattled around like that all the time, you say? Not with me, good buddy. I want out of here and fast."
"Sorry, senor, but the next flight out is not until late tomorrow morning. No need to worry, it has been happening for years. This mountain is an old volcano," Ernesto shrugged in a matter-of-fact way before turning away from them to fill a drink order.
Cliff was up early that morning, hours before everyone else who had stayed longer at the bar than he. Probably because of the anticipation of skiing, he felt good, inspite of the restless night's sleep caused by the altitude. His hiking boots thumped loudly across the wooden floor of the main room as he headed to the bar and grill to get some breakfast.
The bar area looked different, smaller, with the morning sun beaming in the large windows that Cliff had not even noticed the night before. Thoughts of Hector's statement about not seeing the lodge's staff ran through his mind when he saw four of them clustered beneath the television mounted high behind the bar. On the screen was what appeared to be amateur filming of armored tanks, followed by running troops, rolling through a village. The lighting was poor, having probably been shot either at dusk or just before dawn, and at some distance away looking slightly down at the action.
Suddenly there was an explosion and the infantry ran for cover while the lead tank turret turned in the general direction of the camera and fired, with shouting replacing the quiet monologue that had been in the background. The video ended abruptly and an excited news commentator appeared giving more details in Spanish.
Cliff slowly moved past empty tables towards the small group until they heard him shuffle a chair to get a better view. Suddenly four pairs of worried eyes turned towards him and the television immediately when dark. A young lady rushed over to show him to a table.
"Good morning, senor, can I get you...some coffee?" she stammered trying to hide her obvious excitement.
"Yes please, black. Say, what were you all were watching over there?"
"Ah...well...I will get your coffee right away," and she darted away not wanting to continue the conversation. The other people dispersed leaving him alone to contemplate her action.
Despite his polite, but continued questions to the waitress he knew nothing more when he left, but soon forgot about that once he was again in the main lobby. To his right was the massive fireplace, with a much more subdued fire on the grates, but, for the first time he noticed a large, somewhat unattractive sign attached high where the rocks started to taper to the chimney. Painted white with black and red letters, the sign laid out the rules for skiing.
Was that there when they came in yesterday? Did he miss it when he had crossed the lobby to eat breakfast?
Cliff pondered the sign for just a moment before noticing John McLean at the front desk with his luggage and skies at his side. Cliff chuckled that last evening tremors had really shaken John up.
"What do you mean, the morning flight is full; there aren't enough people on this pile of subterranean ashes yet to fill that noisy eggbeater of yours."
"The computer says the flight is full with a waiting list. Perhaps the afternoon flight?" the young lady behind the counter stated in a sweet but definite tone.
"Yes, yes, okay. Get me on the afternoon flight. I want off this rock as soon as possible. Your place and your boss are starting to give me the creeps."
Not a true skier Cliff thought heading up to his room to get ready. It would still be a few hours before he would realize that McLean had the right idea.
The mid morning sun reflected brilliantly off the fresh powder that had collected on the slopes sometime during the night. Five of the six contest winners formed a loose line across the top of a moderate slope for the first run of the day.
"Beat you down!" Terry yelled at Cliff and started slicing through the soft snow with him following just a short way back. He knew he could easily pass her but he rather enjoyed watching her blond hair flowing over a dark gray one-piece ski outfit. Behind them came Howard, Dorthy and Wayne each comfortable on the slope. Only John was missing and Cliff presumed he was still busy trying to get off the mountain.
They were better than half way down the 2-kilometer run when, suddenly Terry did a face plant sending up a white column of powder. Bindings popped off, leaving the skies in the snow, as Terry's momentum propelled her another 50 feet down on her stomach. Finally she stopped with Cliff immediately at her side.
"I'd better not do that again or I'll eat half the snow on the mountain," she chuckled spitting out soggy white flakes. "I think my bindings came off my skies. Making a turn and, pow, my boot is in the air without a ski."
"She okay?" Howard yelled down from where he stopped further up the slope.
"No problem," Cliff responded with a smile. "She was just giving the snow her reliable taste test."
"Needs a bit more pepper," Terry chimed in.
Howard laughed and grabbed her skies before coming down. Wayne arrived about then with her poles.
"Thank you," Terry smiled at both Howard and Wayne before examining her right ski. "Look, the binding did come off, at least part way," and she trust the ski to Cliff in a see-I-told-you-so manner.
Cliff immediately saw that a screw holding the heel section was missing making so that the boot could force the binding to move. "You are right and I never doubted you. Whew, we still have a good way to go to get to the lift."
The remainder of that run was slow and tedious with Cliff and Terry having to make frequent stops to put her boot back into the ever-loosening binding. Once back at the top she retreated back to the lodge leaving Cliff with the other three skiers.
And ski they did, but only for a short while for the next run down Howard fell with his chin getting badly cut by the sharp edge of his ski. When getting on the chair lift Wayne caught a tip in such an unlikely way that it put a stress fracture in the ski near the binding forcing him in.
While on their way up the air became alive with the thumping sound of a helicopter passing overhead. It was only visible for a second as it flashed over them in the graying sky but Cliff swore he saw a shape on one of the landing supports.
"That's enough for me," Dorthy said shaking her head. "Three out of five having an accident; no thank you," and she followed the other two to the lodge leaving Cliff alone on the slope. That was when he noticed just how alone he was.