A college girl finds herself skiing in the wrong place and wrong time in Vail's Back Bowls
|Kasey looked at the "Closed" sign at the top of Vail’s Sunrise Bowl. Next to it was another sign: “Avalanche Area.” She sneered. She could ski everything back home in Vermont.
“C’mon, Jessica! This will be awesome.” She looked at her college roommate, wisps of blonde hair escaping Jessica's black helmet.
Jessica peered over the edge. “Umm, think I’ll pass.”
“It’s fine. Really.” Kasey glanced back at the signs. “The stupid Ski Patrol puts those up so they can have the powder to themselves.”
“You go on. I’m getting tired. I’ll meet you back at the lodge, okay?”
“Wimp.” Kasey watched Jessica pole away and take an advanced groomed run. She returned her attention to the Bowl. There were hardly any trees here, thank goodness. Nothing to get in the way.
She looked up to clouds forming; a storm was coming. She looked down and noted about halfway, it looked a little foggy. Well, once I get there, I’ll be able to see. This’ll be quick. I should have told Jessica to order me a beer. She slipped under the rope and pushed off.
The snow blew against the only exposed area of skin, her freckled nose. A hat, goggles and neck gator covered the rest of her face, the latest Bogner ski suit, her body. The skis shushed through the foot of new powder and it blew by her hips. Her red pony tail bounced on her back with each turn.
A tree made a brief appearance in the blur and she skied to a stop just beyond it. Where did the other trees go? Or, anything else for that matter?
“White-out” was just a word to Kasey until now. She stood in a fog with white flakes whirring and looked down to where her skis were, buried in fresh powder. Only the tops of her white boots showed. She raised her eyes trying to separate the snow on the ground from the snow in the air and it wasn’t working.
Where is the line? Where does one begin and the other end? Her head felt light. Which way is down? Am I falling?
She turned back and looked at the tree. It suddenly righted itself in an unexpected position. This must be vertigo. She looked down the mountain and pointed her pole out. The tip wavered then disappeared in the fog.
A low rumble came from above, as though a dump truck dropped a load of boulders.
“Uh-oh,” she mumbled into her gator and looked that direction, seeing nothing. Take a deep breath. It’s a big area. If there’s an avalanche, it probably won’t be here. She remembered someone saying you can’t out-ski an avalanche. I'm not skiing anywhere in this muck.
She looked back at the tree. It was a mid-size pine, something like the firs in her Vermont backyard, big for a suburban house, small for a Colorado mountain.
The rumble grew louder and she side stepped her skis back up to the tree, reminding herself of the depression around a trunk in heavy snow. She sure didn’t want to fall in.
A lower branch looked available, about the thickness of her leg. Kasey reached up to touch it and heard a siren in the distance. What did that mean? All these years skiing, she’d never heard a siren. But then, she’d never skied in out West.
The rumble now sounded like the approach of a garbage truck.
Kasey pulled her hands out of the pole straps and dropped the poles in the snow. She reached up to the branch, grabbed it and promptly slipped off, her polyester gloves giving no grip. Her skis sunk lower with the falling weight.
“Shit,” she muttered. If she took her skis off, the snow would swallow her. She picked up her poles and side-stepped further up to the upper side of the tree, her heart pounding, her long underwear clinging with sweat in the ski clothes, her breath coming in deep gasps, fogging her goggles. She tasted blood from biting the inside of her lip.
Kasey looked up. One branch reached out and she raised her arm. It sat an inch above her fingertips.
The rumble was now a train. Golf ball size snow balls ran by and a chunk of hard snow hit Kasey’s right calf. She fell to the side. More snow balls tumbled as she struggled to stand, floundering in the powder. She finally pushed off her poles and wavered up. The skis sank, but not as far. The snowballs were larger, looking like white baseballs in a hurry to a game. The snow vibrated with anticipation.
Kasey reached up her gloves to the branch, but she couldn’t get a solid grip and the pole banged her in the face. She pulled off the gloves with her teeth, shook off the pole straps and tried again. The bark tore her palms, but she grasped the branch. Her feet, attached to the skis under the snow, resisted her pull.
The crack behind her sounded like the glaciers calving in Alaska. It was slow, yet distinct, a rupture in the ice, reaching the ear in increasing volume. She reacted with the strength of many gymnastic hours and pulled herself up. She groaned, then screamed with the effort. She bent her knees and lifted the skis out of the snow. She crossed hand over hand toward the tree trunk and maneuvered the skis onto a lower branch, inches above the running snow.
The noise was now a steady roar. She had to get the skis off and get further up the tree.
Kasey moved to an angle on the lower limb and stepped on the release behind her left boot with her right ski. It opened and she shook the ski off. It teetered for a moment, then ran stop-and-go down the mountain, the brake occasionally catching. She used her left boot to release her right ski and off it went.
She looked up. Now, how does one climb a tree in ski boots? Her hands were almost numb, scraped and bleeding. She wiped them on her powder blue suit, leaving red streaks on her hips.
The limb above was within reach. Snow ran against her boots on the limb below, the toes almost out of sight. Kasey pulled herself up and over the limb, dangling like a rag doll. She scrambled around, straddled the limb, then backed up to the trunk, pushing off with her hands, then lifting her butt.
Her breath came in ragged pants. A lump of fear squeezed in her chest and she swallowed it down. She unzipped her suit enough to wrap her freezing, bloody fingers around her neck. She leaned back against the trunk, pine needles from an overhead branch prickling her scalp.
The tree vibrated under the onslaught of snow and the white depth climbed inch by inch. More branches disappeared below, and Kasey now sat within two feet of the moving white carpet. She unzipped her suit more, moved her hands to her armpits, then looked up into the top branches. There was nothing available to support her weight.
With a moan, the tree leaned downhill, which took her further from the rising snow, but if the tree broke....
Kasey found herself looking at a “sucker hole,” a blue clearing circle in the sky. She looked down. The snow rose within inches of her branch; she could reach down and touch it if she wanted.
Without warning, it all stopped. Silence dropped on Sunrise Bowl like a flat iron. Frozen in place, Kasey debated what to do. Walking was out of the question. She looked back at the sun. Where were her gloves? Skis and poles were long gone. Not many choices.
The tree moaned again. Kasey pulled her hands out and grabbed the branch she sat on. Maybe it wasn’t over. She froze, willing herself to be part of the tree.
Her cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She inched her right hand to it, opened it, and pushed Talk, surprised there was coverage. She was afraid to raise it to her face, afraid to speak, afraid the smallest movement might prove too much for the tree.
“Kasey? This is Jessica. Are you all right?”
Kasey opened her mouth as the tree dipped another foot. “I…” was all she got out before the cell phone dropped out of her frozen fingers to the snow below. Kasey stared at it wide-eyed, sure it would set off another avalanche.
Another woman’s voice came on through phone, still flipped open in the snow. “This is the Ski Patrol. We have your coordinates. Don’t move.”
Kasey almost laughed, but buried it in her chest with a swallow and gripped the branch. From the base of the mountain she heard the whop-whop siren of a snow mobile.
Thank God for the stupid Ski Patrol.