Saturday, January 19, 2008


Tea break in the Octagon on the top of Mount Mansfield, Stowe, Vermont: the sun blazes to the West over the Nosedive; evening comes on fast from the East across the far fields and distant mountains. The table is full of flushed faces. Voices glad-mouth over a cup of Lipton's and a Milky Way bar, all cares care-less while the boots are still buckled on those nearly-exhausted-but-ready-to-crank-one-more-time-muscles.
The last run. Time to go.
The whir of the chair nearby spins off its riders, two by two, swoosh. The bindings are cocked, the skis dropped: left boot connects and locks, the right clicks in right beside. Squat to tie up the straps, flex and stretch the muscles limber. Rub those deep down gloves once together, slide them through the straps, grip the poles.
And look to the others. Big smiles all around. We're ready to go.
We're off.
Slide snowplow easy down the alley, dip down right, under the chairs, skating for speed and relaxation. Let the skis taste the snow down the Main Highway, skipping with little exaggerated frolics of a two-step turn, the hips thrown out.
Pull up short at the start of the National. It's time to get serious, buried VWs are soon to be thrown in the way. The gang assembles, lined up like an instructor's class, only there is no one to lead or teach: we're just together, taking turns to say the Way.
One starts off through the opening, not terribly steep here, but the moguls run long and the valleys deep so you get stuck in the line, twist-twist, going fast, and have to bail out 100 feet down just where it drops off steep to the bottom. The panic is on: this bump is no place to stop as the next skier funnels headfirst for it. Push off, hug the left for three pairs of hip-grinding, mother lode sweeping turns. Cut across two bumps, take the next mogul straight, a jump of about 15 feet to quick-turn and rest on the road which cuts through (affectionately known as Panic Alley) on its way to the Liftline.
Aaaah, sweet luxury of a resting place! There's not another until the Birch tree (no longer standing tall save by reputation) way down about two football fields' worth of mean bumps away. Skiers standing nearby wonder whether to hazard the ice over to the more gentle but still ferocious Liftline, or stick with the sheer drop of the National. Expressions on faces run from cool tameness to utter wobbly-kneed panic. But even in the eyes of the most accomplished there lurks a spot of churning respect, like a fore-boding, for the path which must be negotiated before life may continue.

Sharp intake of breath, like a private dare, and shove off. Slip-slide through the gate of rocks (one crunches delight of a solid bite of tender ski-bottom) and suddenly it's oh my God here comethemoguls. Too steep to stop and too fast to breathe, the world becomes a whirlwind tunnel of action and reaction, a stab of the pole right, hiptwist, knees crash, float through the absolute silence of pure air, crash back to the Maelstrom, knees hitting chest, stab left, then left again, right…down…on…through….
About 100 yards into furious heaven, the slope slows into the Cross-over, merge of traffic left, the double chair overhead, duck under the single, and it's the left side again. Hug the woods, sometimes into the woods and quickly back out (flash of thought: "no, no, not smart!"), still on the left and moving oh so fast, twisting and turning oh so hard, the last few screaming so with exhaustion and pain and ecstasy they're hardly turns at all but a racing, contorted, desperate sliiide to the Birch tree.
Piles of people gather here. Fifty-year-old corporate executive of a family man stands next to twenty years of golden locks on a ski-bum. No prejudice, nor envy besmirch the Birch where all who reach this spot have had to travel the same heavenly trial of a trail.

The Middle National slides into a dance, a waltzy tango with the snow for a partner, the music of poetic motion scattering notes of snowflakes. The rhythm rocks even and steady, swish--swish--swish--swish, down to the final plunge, head-spinning rush of steep turns, fifteen twists and a roll to arc one long final ride of a turn to wait panting at the Park Bench for the pals to gather and bid back-slapping adieus.
From here Downhill Madness wreaks its havoc. Push off with a skate and come tightly into a tuck, head rolled down, eyes strained to tears from the speed. A straight-away rolling down, a slight turn right, dips deep and rolls away left--ears roaring, body flung out from going too fast--straighten and grip tight to nothing and everything through the ripples of bumps down another dip right. Hang just inside over the roots of the woods, straighten and jump the bump, landing to ride out the slope with thighs tuck-tired, screaming to quit around large flat turn left and another 100 feet to open onto the parking lot and the day being done.
On the way home along the Mountain Road, one drop in a stream of tired, aching and exhilarated skiers, slowing down and speeding up as cars stop at the Matterhorn (first bar off the Mountain), or their motels (signs bright against the New England graying light)--riding home after a fine time of such skier's delight, there is not a thing could be said, not a thought or feeling, to dampen the unbounded joy of such glorious sport.

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