Skiing by Heart

by K.A. Peterson

I reign in my skis and with a 90 degree kick-turn leave the track. Twisting my upper body around I look once again toward Round Top and Elephant's Back across Hope Valley. Blowing snow swirls and dances over the summits glaring incandescent under piercing sunlight in front of a rising wall of pewter gray. The image sinks into my chest like a great sigh and leaves a vague longing in my heart. Trees overhead tremble with a gust of wind exploring the stillness of the leeward shelter of Thompson Peak. Something else stirs inside, an instinctive warning--Stand alert: Something comes.

The first of the main group clears the trees about 150 meters back along the track. The command, "Heel," keeps my dog, Ursa, sitting agitatedly close by. Looking alternately at me, the approaching group, and in the direction of the half-dozen skiers who have already vanished up the track, my "Heel" command contradicts Ursa's genetic programming telling her to stay with the point. I believe certain skis possess a similar programming--start moving as soon as you are clamped to boots. That is precisely what happened at the trailhead, a small percentage of the group found ourselves being dragged up the hill, victims of overzealous skis, before the leaders and the slower members of the group were ready. My skis involuntarily kick back into the track. Ursa takes my move as a cancellation of "Heel" and disappears up the track and over the rise toward the vanished skiers. My skis follow.

I eaves-drop on fragments of conversation from the large group, searching for a common-ground to join into, but the conversations I overhear seem alien and strange. I fear my reasons and motivations for skiing have drifted far from the standard. My companions talk about the newest ski equipment and ideal snow. When they do talk about other trips, the comments focus on how well the equipment performed or how miserably it failed. I gather the impression that this day, with its worrisome wind and hardened snow, is a bother, a distraction which falls between anxiously awaited powder-perfect telemark runs. For me the privilege to witness the colossal clash of the Sierra Crest and an approaching Pacific storm has already made the day. The remaining wonders this day holds will only be a gift. I take one more look back at the Round Top Crest before following the track down to Willow Creek crossing.

At lunch we re-group briefly before splintering again, this time with permission of the leaders. Tattered clouds rip free of the rising western wall and bring gusting wind and chill with their shadows. After lunch Ursa and I push further up the track. I watch the clouds alternately hide, then reveal Freel Peak and Job's Sister. Ursa explores frozen scents hiding beneath the snow. After half a mile we leave the track, striking out through the forest, the long way back to Willow Creek crossing. I watch the terrain across the canyon until we are above our lunch spot, push through the snow a little further until the slope steepens, then point my skis down hill.

I first saw a telemark turn while a friend and I were on an overnight ski tour into Lake Aloha late winter, 1981. After crossing Echo Lake we began the long climb toward Haypress Meadow. Halfway up, a lone skier emerged from the woods on the south facing slope above us. Kneeling on his long, skinny skis, the skier began connecting one long graceful turn after another. We stopped and watched with our hearts in our throats, not out of fear or excitement but with the heart stopping awe discovered in a moment when the beauty of the high mountains, the high spirits of the day, and the artistry of a human intermesh to create a unique synthesis of wonder--an experience to be breathed in, savored, then released--an overwhelming encounter known in my mystic phase as "a spirit gift." 500 feet below the skier ended his turns with a long run that seamlessly integrated into a willowy diagonal stride launching him across upper Echo Lake. I carry the memory of that experience each time I ski, not as a "Someday-I'm-going-to-ski-like-that" challenge to be lived up to but as part of my emotional landscape. The feeling I experienced looking up at those elegant series of flattened-S turns painted on the south-facing slope above Upper Echo Lake brushes a delightful effervescent wash over every ski trip I've taken since.

I finish my turns and nearly "face-plant" when an edge unexpectedly snags on the icy snow as I rejoin the track. Ursa plows chest-deep through the snow, straight down the hill forging the signature of my telemarks into dollar signs.

We overtake the trailing end of the group by the time we reach the ridge overlooking Hope Valley. The wind blasts the exposed ridge sending fingers of blowing snow scurrying around my skis and ruffling Ursa's fur. The rising storm in the west continues to whip a froth of blowing snow over Round Top. The track back to the cars descends fast and icy. I alternate between hard snow plows and turns out of the track and up the hill side to control my speed. Ursa, follows rather than leads.

Too soon the trip is over. On the long drive back to Reno with Ursa curled up behind the back seat, I have too much time to think. I realize that I ski to exercise my heart--not my heart as a muscle, (although the benefits of such exercise cannot be overstated). I ski to exercise my heart as a perceptual organ, the sixth sense with which we discern the soul, the soul of a coyote, the soul of a tree, the soul of a mountain, the soul of the wind. I believe the heart is the channel of insight, the most profound of human perceptions and nature is the well of perception.

The traffic of Reno shakes me from my reverie. I exit the freeway and stop at a mountain shop to pick up a replacement pair of socks for the holely pair I put on this morning. Curiosity coaxes me toward the new skis. Shocked, I find only two styles of cross-country skis in the rack, all the rest are stubby, fat and heavy "downhill" skis. I ask the young saleswoman why the store doesn't carry more cross-country skis. She assures me they have the largest selection in the area. Standing before the "downhill" skis she begins explaining about the difference between telemark skis and back-country skis, shows me bulky, blister-raising plastic boots, and stresses the need for skins for climbing mountains. When she asks what type of skiing I will be doing, I'm left stuttering for words--climb mountains... trail... backcountry... telemark... snowcamp. She is not happy with my answer and we stand for a moment in uncomfortable silence. I break the stalemate by picking out a pair of long, skinny Europa '99s with the latest graphics but virtually unchanged from the skis I've climbed mountains with, followed trails on, backcountry skied in, telemarked on, and snow camped with for the last 12 years. What about these--I ask? She tells me they are for flat ground skiing only, adding--You certainly can't telemark with them. Oh--I say handing her the socks. The rising storm of technological recreation. I leave taking with me the decision to mend my socks, stick with my skinny skis, and continue skiing by heart.