Tiny, weightless, perfectly singular snowflakes dive to the earth around me. Ahead the white curtain of a snowstorm has met the blanket of snow. From my eyes, the snow-sky transition is undetectable beyond the stands of frozen trees. These snow-covered green giants offer the only contrast to the fifty shades of white that obscure the world. Boughs droop down and in the next gust of wind snow whoomphs off the windward side of the tree, sending a cold, white cloud into my face. I turn my skis to snake around the next fir, passing it to the left. Pausing before starting out into the barren white sea of snow and wind, I look back. Thirteen college students are sliding, scooting forward into the blowing snow, learning what these firs know so well – the cold and harsh, but oh so quiet and peaceful kiss of a winter storm in the mountains. This last island of trees offers a moment of refuge. Protected by steady conical conifers I continue to pause for my students to too notice the moment of calm. Calm only created by the legacy of these trees – the Subalpine fir, Engelmann spruce, and the occasional Whitebark pine. These pines, they I worry for. It’s interesting contemplating a warming, changing climate in the midst of a deep winter storm. But it is happening as evidenced by the last, highest mountain pines trying, and struggling to inhabit the subalpine. Longer warm seasons promote bark beetle hatches and the multi-decadal mild winters fail to keep the beetles at bay. And so these alpine masters, trees that have out survived all the others for conditions like today – wind, blowing snow, sharp cold, are dying.
Today we want to see the sun. We haven’t seen the sun in a week, since leaving Arizona. I don’t think the sun will be shining through to our piece of winter world today. Maybe we’re better off for it. We’ll have to find the peace within this storm.
Everyone has entered the island of trees. Peering through the trunks I see the end of our 15-person line; they look relieved for a moment out of the wind. Those who have been standing, watching me stare at the trees, inspecting and stroking the soft needles of the fir in gratitude of the wind-block it has temporarily provided me, and many more to come, are starting to shift in and out of poses of cold. Arms are swinging, poles tucked and fingers retracted into fists deep within their gloves while chins burrow into layers. It’s time to continue on.
My ski tips push up through the snow, resuming their task, effortlessly floating over and into the fresh snow. I wonder about the internal dialogue of the 14 hearts and minds behind me. Is there questioning of the why? After all, there is a warm yurt behind us, further back with each step we take into the storm. But isn’t that the why? We’re stripped of effortless aliveness. Staying living, alive, right here, right now takes effort, and is a choice. Not unlike what those pines have done over time. Maybe this is why the story of the whitebark pine crushes my soul. Thousands of years they have perfected their willingness to survive. And right now, so few of us will choose to bear the wind, feel the stinging of rimed snow on our cheeks, the burn of legs sliding skis uphill, the tingling of cold fingers and discomfort of numb feet. For a moment my chest swells, angry, frustrated, disappointed by my species. When and where did we take the wrong turn and choose to return to the yurt, only to develop a preference for security, predictability, perceived safety and comfort?
Still gliding forward. Skis lift over the compressed snow my weight has created and slide over the untrammeled snow surface, a foot ahead of me. This is slow business. Reweight. I can feel my legs working – lifting, pushing, stabilizing over the snow. My ribcage expands into my pack and jackets as my lungs fill with cold, sharp air and I feel the heat of my muscles pooling in the cavity of my low back as I exhale warm breath into my frosty buff. A rogue strand of hair has escaped the gates of my seven hoods. It’s glittering in rime, resembling more white than red. I won’t tuck it back, for that would require exposing a bare hand to the air. Instead I admire the whiteness out of the corner of my eye and look forward to when I can listen to the intuition and wisdom of the grey haired me.
I check my trailing line of skiers. We’ve spaced out. Breathing and moving outside is not for cramped lines. Space to see the snow in front of our skis, move our legs with our breath and notice the intricacies of our conditions – both inside and out – this is how we should move among mountains.
We’re approaching our high point. From there we’ll transition modes to go down. All this effort to turn and go down… I know why I’ll ski down. My mind can’t, shouldn’t wander. I’ll free my body from the chatter of my mind, and the tune of my heart and my body will release to gravity, plunging, turning, my skis to bound through the snow. The movement feels natural but not effortless. My legs will quiver, heart will pump, and my mind will finally quiet to focus on the subtle snow surface, the fall line, and how my body and skis will dance down the slope. My heart will sing in this moment of flow through finding grace and bliss in powder skiing. Maybe not yet from graceful turning, I know my students will also experience flow. In moments of appropriate challenge and movement our minds are pushed to focus. In focusing on the movement, the dance with the mountain, we let go of thought and in turn step into the present. In this way, traveling through mountains is a moving meditation. What greater of a gift than to step into the world the rest of the environment is living in – that of the present, however fleeting time it takes to ski a short slope? And for those moments we are feeling and breathing how the firs and the pines do – without regard for anything but living right now.