As the Wednesday morning management meeting was breaking up and, after determining that there was no further business, Jim inquired, “Any stories from our little snow bunnies?” He was referring to Dennis and I, who had just returned from a four-day ski trip at Mammoth Mountain with some colleagues from other parts of the state. Sunburned faces after a two-day absence from the grind always left the door open to facetious references like “snow bunny.” Amid the noise of rustling papers and squeaky chairs as people transitioned out of the room, Dennis proclaimed, “Well, Lyle got chased by a coyote and he has witnesses.” Laughter ensued and chairs began to squeak once again, this time from returning butts, waiting for a juicy story.
Our ski trip to Mammoth Mountain resort had become an annual event and, over a ten-year span beginning in the 1990s, had grown to six skiers. George, most active in keeping it going year to year, knew the mountain well and was always looking for an excuse to be out of the office. He and a few others in the group wanted to be on the mountain early each morning when the lifts start running and used their late afternoon shut down as the only reason to stop. I preferred the 10:00am to 3:00pm window but my legs were strong and I felt up to the task.
After a twenty-minute lunch break, we exited Mid-Chalet to put on our skis and traverse to Chair Three. George wanted to show us some new runs that we could access from the top. They were called “Critters” and “New Critters” which, within the hour, would be the irony of the day. Assembling at the top of Chair Three, we started down the backside of St. Anton where we could pick up enough speed to traverse past Bristlecone to the top of the new runs that would ultimately provide a long path down to Chair One. George’s plan connected many runs to give us one very long one, interrupted only by our need to catch a breath. Somewhere near the top of Bristlecone, Gary caught an edge and fell, landing softly onto the new snow. While the others kept going, worried about having enough speed to finish the traverse without excessive poling, I stopped to make sure that Gary was OK. “I’m fine, dammit,” he snorted, so I left, reminding him that we were all meeting at the bottom of Critters.
Poling, a consequence of not having enough speed, is defined by burning arm muscles and lack of rhythm, not the true exhilaration of skiing. Relieved to reach the top, I turned right and began my descent down the hill. Moving fluidly, I was relaxed, letting my ski’s do the work just before the chaos began. Suddenly, through my tinted goggles, I saw movement flash by, peripherally, on my right side. Within an instant I realized that it wasn’t another skier or snowboarder because it was staying with me.
Still startled, I planted my pole for a sharp left turn and it followed, head down, like its nose was glued to my boot, fortunately made of hard composite material. Planting my pole, I thrust my knees quickly to the right and glanced down to see breath streaming through its nostrils. I was not only trying to shed the beast but concentrate on getting to the bottom without falling. Another quick turn to the left, then to the right and I could sense the commotion stop. Needing to regain my balance and composure, I forced my knees, once again into the slope and, quickly stopped, pushing up a small trail of snow. My heart was still pounding when I looked up and tried to make some sense of what just happened.
Fifteen feet up this slope named “Critter,” stood a large, skinny coyote with a long pink tongue drooping below its jowl. We shared a terse stare before he turned and loped through the white snow to some nearby bushes. Turning toward the bottom of the hill I gazed at my friends. Still attached to their ski’s, they were rolling in the snow, consumed with belly laughter. Then Gary came over the horizon and pulled up, “What’s going on?” Not certain how to answer his question, I just said, “I’ll tell you when we get to the bottom.” His questions continued after he looked down the hill, inquiring, “What’s up with them?” I left without responding, ready to confront my audience.
Theories abounded at the bottom of the hill, each attempting to justify what occurred. Dennis surmised, “I think he’s been waiting all day and he finally found the weak one of the herd.” I reminded him that the coyote was still hungry and I was at the bottom of the hill. “Ya’know, in my old neighborhood,” George chimed in, “there was this dog, I think it was a black lab, who chased everything that moved, cars, motorcycles, even bicycles. He never hurt anyone, he just loved to run after moving things. This coyote was the same as that dog, except this neighborhood has skiers instead of cars.” Gary, who missed it all, added his opinion. “Maybe he’s rabid, we should report him to the lodge. Don’t these things hibernate?”
Coyotes do not hibernate or migrate during the winter. They survive on berries, bushes and very rare natural prey, a segue way to my theory. For my canid friend to be competitive for the occasional meaty morsels, he must stay in shape and maintain his edge. Like duck hunters who hone their skills during the off-season by shooting at clay pigeons, this coyote used me and, maybe others, to exercise his instincts and remain sharp. It was a collaboration. I was pushed, through fear, to turn my ski’s as crisply and quickly as I had in years while the coyote worked on his cardio and learned to anticipate the moves of another frightened creature.
As we gathered to ski down to Chair One, George, pointing up the slope, yelled, “Look!” There was a female skier with a coyote’s snout at the back of her boot. Suddenly she fell and he immediately retreated into his hiding spot, presumingly feeling bad about being too aggressive. We checked in on the latest victim. “I’m okay,” she responded, “did you guys see that?” I yelled back, “Know him well.”
Months later at a conference, I joined a friend and some of his colleagues for coffee. After being introduced, one of them said, “Your name sounds familiar, did you once get chased by a coyotes while skiing?” “That was me,” I nodded. The diverse demographics of our ski group had taken the story statewide. I have fond memories and feel fortunate to have been chased by a coyote. Only a handful of people, skiing this small area of Mammoth Mountain on this cold, white February day, will have a great tale to tell for the rest of their lives.