Mammoth Powder: A Short Story (part 2)

Read Mammoth Rental: A Short Story (Part 1) here


View from the top. The precipice at the top of Mammoth Mountain.

I was standing on a precipice 11,000 feet above sea level.
The temperature was nine below zero Farenheit with the wind gusting at 30-40 miles an hour. Below me, Mammoth Mountain peeled away at what looked suspiciously close to a vertical drop before “easing” into something closer to a 45 degree angle. Above me, the sky shone a brilliant azure such as you only tend to get at higher altitudes, when contrasted against a blanket of white. I was about to take a steeper, more serious descent down a ski mountain than I ever had before.

I stared into the Bowl, looking for an appropriate entrance. I know, from reading up rather than practice, that the best way to meet the challenge of a chute or cornice is to embrace it by launching directly into it, then make a series of quick turns to control speed and gain traction. The process sounds easy enough on paper, but fail to follow through in anything less than ideal conditions and it can be a dangerously fast route to hospital. I had on my feet my brand new vacuum-fitted Salomon boots with their mid-weight 100 flex rating, and underneath them a pair of relatively tame Volkl all-mountain demo skis that on a couple of test runs down single blacks and blues from lower altitude had acquitted themselves admirably.

Wind and cold aside (and they were mere inconveniences given that I was wrapped up in layers of ski clothes), the conditions could not have been better. The mountain, already coated by 230 inches of snow since November, had received a fresh layer of eight more inches that had arrived just as I’d pulled off the highway late the previous night, right at the point that signs flashing “Chains Required” had reminded me of the necessity of a strong vehicle to navigate the remaining 20-30 miles. My Thrifty Rep had been right after all: I most certainly had needed an SUV. Preferably one with snow tires, come to that, but the Jeep Liberty over which I’d argued so much at the rental office had pulled me up the last, wind-swept, ice-covered four miles and thousand foot elevation of road to the Mammoth Mountain Inn where compact cars ahead of me had pulled over and admitted defeat.

Summit meeting. Snowboarders and skiers admire the view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains from 11,000 feet high.

It had been a 22-hour day: I’d not only crossed a continent by jet but driven five hundred miles total in two opposite coastal States. As such, I had expected the sleep of the dead, but it hadn’t happened: I’d woken every hour, almost like clockwork, clearly not relaxed, finally surrendering and rising a few minutes ahead of the sun. I’d peeled back the curtains to examine the effects of the storm and the state of the ski mountain, and up through the top of the windows (the lower parts were obscured by snow-drifts), two thousand feet above me, the bowl and various peaks and valleys and glades and groomers positively glistened in powdery invitation. At that I had jumped into action. Nothing, I told myself, was going to prevent me from having fun: not the frustration of the delayed and canceled flights, not tiredness from the long evening drive (I’d found a phone charger at second attempt off the highway, though not before heading ten miles off my intended path), not jetlag nor lack of sleep. A positive attitude, I know, is half the battle: a blue sky and fresh powder pretty much takes care of the rest. I’d been training for this, I’d been saving up for this, I’d been abstaining for this and I’d been anticipating this, for days and weeks now. I was, in short, ready for this. A cup of bathroom comp coffee followed by a more thorough breakfast across the road from my hotel room at the Main Lodge’s new Green V Vegan café – a positive sign if ever there was one – and I’d been ready to hit up the Demo Shop. I loved the idea not only that I could test out different skis all three days long, not just that the rental would cost no more than the extra luggage fees of bringing my own, tired old Atomic Metrons, but that I didn’t even have to bring them back to my room at night.

The moment had arrived. I tipped my skis into the bowl. I wasn’t nervous, which both surprised and relieved me. I felt I had already gone about my morning much as the ski doctor would have ordered: slowly, surely, methodically, stocking up on fuel, testing out my skis, working my way up the mountain through blue and black runs until I’d caught the gondola to the summit. After all, what was the rush? It was a Thursday in January, barely ten in the morning, and though there was no room left at the Mammoth Mountain Inn, it wasn’t exactly hard for a thousand-odd skiers to lose each other across 3,500 acres. There were so many first tracks left to claim that it seemed almost unfair not to save them for the weekenders.

Without further thought, I pushed myself off the ledge. I knew all too well that base human survival instincts force a skier who is out of their comfort zone to lean back in defense, tightening the quadriceps as a braking mechanism, but that the surest way down is, counter-intuitively, to lean forward, as far as possible in fact, to take an aggressive pose and maximize control. I met the dilemma somewhere in the middle, staying over my skis without fully giving myself to the mountain. But it turned out to be no dilemma at all: the fresh powder was the perfect depth and consistency to provide a comfortable cushion in case of a fall, and just knowing as much ensured that I didn’t actually need it. Rather, I dug my skis in to the descent, then switched pressure on my shins against the tongue of my boots to make a sharp turn right, and felt the skis get a grip and then cut their way through the powder – not quite like the proverbial knife through hot butter, perhaps, but a damn sight more sweetly than anything I’d ever experienced before. The perfect powder day is not measured merely in inches of snowfall: unless you’re fortunate enough to be in Utah, where The Greatest Snow On Earth ™ is so full of air that you can almost float through it, three feet of fresh snow can prove cumbersome to cut through; a couple of inches disappears before lunch-time. Eight inches, though, is just about perfect. Throw in the clear blue sky, the beauty of my surroundings and the lack of crowds, and truly, I couldn’t ask for much more. As I zig-zagged gleefully through the bowl, picking out a powder path all my own thanks to an almost total lack of company, feeling the snow succumbing to my instructions and picking up speed and sureness in the process, easing into a more gradual but faster descent through the rest of the 2000 foot vertical drop, I just about let out a scream of affirmation:

Of course the trip was worth it!

View from within. Looking back over to the gondola from halfway down the bowl. Note the amount of unclaimed first tracks.

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January 2023