• Otter Views: Chair Lifts and Alpengow

    A recent Monterey Herald article lamented that Tahoe residents who normally ski right off their back porches had to drive to Washington and Idaho this month to find good snow.

    The story made me sad for Tahoe, because that was where I first really enjoyed skiing. I had tried the sport in the 1960s in New England but didn’t last long. Back there, dismal little mountains offered iron gray skies, sub-zero temperatures, icy slopes and machete winds.

    Twenty years later I was back in Hawaii. My brother Mike called from California to say he had rented a cabin at Donner Lake, a mere snowball’s throw from several fine ski areas. Would I like to go skiing?

    “Would I like to slap a pit bull?” I replied. “I’ve tried skiing. The discomfort level is too high, and my pain threshold is too low. Drop me a card from the ICU.”

    Of course I ended up coming over here. It was fun.

    The most fun was riding in the chair lifts. The ones I remember sat two or three skiers abreast in upholstered comfort and clanked along at a pleasant pace high above the ground. From that lofty van- tage, we could see snow-flocked forests, granite crags and the piercing blue of the high Sierra sky.

    “When do the little oxygen masks drop down?” I asked.

    “Relax, we’re not even at 10,000 feet,” Mike said. “Look behind.” Turning in the chair, I beheld Lake Tahoe, a flawless tourmaline set in a ring of shining mountains. “How beautiful,” I murmured. I was still murmuring when a wooden structure appeared up ahead of us.

    “That’s the lift station where we get off,” Mike explained. “Raise you ski tips and lean forward. When we’re on the ramp, stand up.”

    The next thing I knew, our skis bumped up onto a narrow, snow-covered platform which soon began falling away. “Now!” Mike urged. Pushing himself up off the seat, he glided easily down the ramp. I gulped, hesitated, and lunged forward.

    Like a crippled imperial walker from “Star Wars,” I helicoptered wildly for a moment, grabbed at a railing and went down, skis and poles clashing metallically. I tumbled to a stop just as the next two skiers ejected from their chair. They were on me in a flash, and soon three of us were thrashing in the snow, skis entangled.

    “Stay down!” Mike shouted as the second chair whipped past, inches from my head. I glanced back up the ramp in time to see two more bodies hurtling toward the pile-up. Someone shrieked. There was impact and cursing. Things were getting out of control.

    The lift operator stopped the chairs and came out of her little house to sort through the rubble. With her help, we finally gained our feet and moved off, the others glaring at me over their shoulders.

    “Nice work,” Mike grinned. “And that was only the ramp. I can’t wait to see you out on the hill.”

    “Hill” is not the word I would have used to describe the thing we now stood on the brink of. Hills are round, friendly little places suitable for picnics and kite flying. This was a death chute.

    “I’m riding back down in the chair,” I said, bending to unlatch my bindings. “I’ll see you at the chalet.”

    “Nice try,” he said. “You can only ride the chair down if you’re hurt.”

    It was a classic Catch-22. If I skied down, I’d be killed, but my remains could ride down in the chair. I was pondering this when I felt a gloved hand push me forward. “Heeeeeere we go!” Mike said.

    Down the white death chute we flew. As my skis hissed over the snow, I tried to recall the formula for acceleration. Was it mass times velocity? If so, I was in trouble, for I had eaten well that morning. Western omelet, blueberry pancakes, hash browns, sausages. Lots of mass.

    Things were happening quickly. Other skiers flashed past, looking relaxed and confident. A row of trees flashed past, looking big and solid. The piney air stung my cheeks like after shave. Further downslope, Mike slalomed from side to side, planting his poles and turning smoothly around them. Body erect, knees slightly bent, he was a marvel of speed and snake-hipped agility. After 15 years of skiing, he had become “one with the mountain.”

    I, too, became one with the mountain, but it only took me 15 seconds. I remember a fleeting glimpse of the distant lake, a quick pan of the sky, a close-up of one ski tip crossing the other. Then everything went white. There was a blissful moment of free fall, followed by impact as I reentered Earth’s gravitational field . . . .

    (Next time: The Valley Run)

    posted to Cedar Street Times on February 13, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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