“What did you forget this time,” said Karen, responding to a familiar tone in my voice.
“My phone,” I answered, tightening my grip on the steering wheel.
“Well, I’ve got mine, she said, reassuring us both that we would not be completely off the grid of modern life during the next few days.
It was 2009 and having celebrated our recent retirements with season ski passes to Mammoth Mountain Resort, we relished the concept of mid-week skiing and the availability of a nearby cabin, courtesy of friends, Cindy and Ross. For us, the season passes were a metaphor for our new-found freedom and the ability to be spontaneous, to load the car on a whim and, within hours, be on a sparsely populated mountain. Cautiously dipping our toes in the sea of invincibility that once dominated our early lives, we were happy, healthy and wanted to remain as young as we could for as long as we could.
Our plan was to ski Wednesday through Friday noon, have a quick lunch, then get out of Dodge before the weekenders arrived. Today, there would be no standing in line to buy a lift ticket. They were already around our necks, with photos, encased in plastic. Season passes make you feel élite and special.
It had been awhile since Karen skied Mammoth and I was anxious to show her some new runs that I had discovered in a recent trip with some colleagues from work.
“Ross recommended a great warm-up run for me. It’s called Mambo,” I said as we put on our ski’s at the bottom of Stump Alley.
Karen answered, “Sounds good, as long as they have already groomed it.” To find her “ski legs,” she preferred that the first few runs of the day be free of moguls, chunky snow or ice. Mambo is a series of plateaus, creating alternating degrees of steepness from the top to the bottom before merging with Escape, a chute that allowed us to build up enough speed to make it back to the Stump Alley Express Chair. From there, we did it again, and once more until we realized we were falling into our comfort zones. A very nice, cozy comfort zone where the challenge of the slope fluidly matched the skill level of the skier. Feeling more confident, we were ready to push ourselves.
“Let’s go higher,” Karen said.
So we did. We ascended the mountain, Stump Alley to Chair #3 to a higher ridge line.
“This chute feeds into St Anton, follow me,” I pointed down the slope. From the back side, we could ski the St. Anton run which provided access to numerous opportunities on the northern side of the mountain. There we were, me in my helmet and goggles and Karen, sporting a cute beret and designer shades, embracing the sense of freedom and euphoria that the mountain gave us.
On Thursday, I suggested we explore it’s back side. The old two-person Chair #9 had been replaced with the new six-person Cloud Nine Express Chair which made many more skiers aware of these once-remote runs. Off the chair to the right, Goldhill could be intimidating, but soon merged with great runs like Haven’t The Foggiest and Quicksilver. The calmness of this area, with the muted sun, struggling to penetrated the thick, grey-rust sky, painted a very heavenly portrait. Nearly Nirvana but for the packs of helter-skelter snowboarders, passing through the silence like some Mad Max movie.
“Karen, do you remember Face of Five? I inquired. “We’ve skied it several times together.”
“Tell me about it,” she asked, signaling that her memory of it was, at best, foggy.
“The face is steep, right off the chair, sometimes chunky in the morning,” I said, “but it soon becomes Solitude, which you loved.”
“Where is it?” expressing due diligence on my recommendation.
“Actually, it’s just around this ridge, follow me,” I responded. And she did.
We skied Face of Five many times, benefitting by another new express chair until our legs began to tire. On our last run, we would stay on Solitude, past the express chair, to connect with lower trails that would eventually bring us back to Stump Alley, where a beverage of our choice was waiting. During this last run, it was important that we stay together. My intelligent, educated wife is severely directionally challenged and I would like to think that she needs me to get down the hill. Honestly, if we got separated, she would probably flag down a skier and ask directions.
We decided to spend our last morning on the back side, continuing to relish the challenge. Skiing better than we had on our first day, we wanted more, but the early weekenders were arriving and clearly visible against the backdrop of the white snow.
“Let’s do one more, then go in,” Karen said, as noon was approaching.
Pointing to a narrow trail, I said, “This will take us back to Face Of Five and we can go down from there.”
“Great.” There was an enthusiast tone to her voice. She was feeling good and we would probably boast to each other throughout the drive home.
The trail merged directly into the traffic on Face of Five. We pulled up to get our bearings and discuss a plan for the last descent. Suggesting our usual route, I said, “Ski down to the sign, we can meet up there and then go down the rest of the way together.”
The sign is a large billboard-sized ski trail map that is located at the apex of the lower and upper slopes. All the primary chair lifts coming from the various lodges dump skiers nearby and it is highly recognizable and helpful to those without pocket maps.
“You go first and I’ll meet you at the sign,” said Karen.
So I did. I set the edges of my ski’s into the snow and stopped at the base of the gigantic trail map, listening to what my thighs were telling me. I kept close watch for my partner for the next several minutes. She didn’t come. After another fifteen minutes, I became worried. At the least, she had taken a wrong turn, descended to another area and, without my phone, it could take hours for us to connect. This was the option that I was hoping for.
Polling slowly, I made my way back to the chair lift and rode to the top of Face of Five, looking off for signs of her. I skied back down and still saw none. Beginning to feel helpless, I decided to ski down to Stump Alley, near where our car was parked. Again, I waited and paced. My mind was running out of good scenario’s and I decided to check the places that I was avoiding.
Neither of the two emergency first aids stations reported an accident involving a woman. They recommended I check back later. Thinking that Karen may have called the cabin land-line, I drove there and found Ross, an early weekender, just arriving. He is part of the volunteer ski patrol and has contacts and can ski areas most people can’t. Before immediately leaving for the mountain, Ross gave me his phone. I called Karen’s phone and, for the first time in hours, heard her voice.
“Hi, you’ve reached Karen’s cell. Your call is important to me, at the beep….”
Another hour passed and I found myself driving back to the places where she might be, including both first aid stations. At 3:30 PM, the phone rang.
“Hello, Ross James please,” the voice on the line said.
“This is Ross’ phone, but my name is Lyle Norton,” I answered.
“Oh, Mr. Norton, the voice answered back, “you’re the person I am trying to contact. This is Dr. Siena at Mammoth Community Hospital.”
The scratches along the right side of her face and the broken clavicle would heal soon, but they were mostly concerned about the concussion. Karen was resting, not so comfortably. Dr. Siena explained that she had arrived in an ambulance sometime after 12:30 PM in a semi-conscious state. She later regained full consciousness and he had spoken to her. She recalled from an instant glimpse before the collision that it was a skier wearing a helmet. She remembered parts of a bumpy, headfirst basket ride down the slope, briefly worrying about throwing up, then actually doing so as she was being placed in the ambulance.
Within seconds after I started down the slope, she was hit. I was probably no more than fifty yards away and heard nothing. Ironically, although it was a tragic event in our lives, neither of us have any recollection of what really happened or witnessed it. The resort accident report that I requested revealed nothing: “woman found unconscious on Face of Five, evacuated at 12:18 PM and transported to Community Hospital. No witnesses.” The other skier apparently fled the scene and she was discovered, lying alone in the snow. You really do ski at your own risk and radio communication between those on the mountain and the first aid centers is not always reliable.
Karen continued to rest. After a few weeks, the facial scratches were gone and the fog in her brain was beginning to lift. In April, two months from the accident, she was much better and, feeling the need to “get back on the horse,” we returned to Mammoth to finish the run on Face Of Five. We skied for two days, mostly the back side (a reprise on Haven’t The Foggiest). We were back, both skiing with helmets, one a bit worn and the other, new and shiny, still living the dream, day-by-day, acutely aware of our mortality.