First Descent in the Tetons: Elevator Shaft

Why am I doing this? What am I looking for? Why am I here?

The couloir snakes downward below my skis, dropping precipitously. I know from having studied the photographs what lies at the end: a cliff. Is the cliff 300 feet high? 500 feet? Does it matter?

It doesn’t. Were you to fall, you’d pinball down the slot, ricochet off the wind-hammered snowpatch at the bottom, then air it out. What would you think about in those last few moments of weightlessness, before the hard part of the fall kicked in? I can hear Jarad and Brandon just behind me, but my goggles form blinders. All I can see is the couloir, and the walls enclosing either side.

I’ve been here before, sort of. Every weekend I go in search of something like this: a moment of anticipation, a falling away of everything else. Being with my daughter is like this. Meditating is like this. The chatter fades, and for one clear moment, there is nothing else.

Samsara. Nirvana. Quiet. I jump. My edges catch the chalky snow perfectly, providing purchase, holding me up. I turn again, and drop half a meter. A shark’s fin of rock juts out to the right. Another jump. Dropping. Blood pounds through my ears. I can hear it abstractly—like listening to your heartbeat on a hospital monitor. Like it belongs to someone else.

Again and again I come back to these mountains. Sometimes I can’t remember why I’m getting up in the dark, why I’m sneaking out of a warm bed, why I’m leaving the car when it’s so far below zero. And then the shark’s fin catches the tails of my skis, and I feel a tremor. Skis connect to bindings connect to boots connect to skin and flesh and bones connect to mountain.

The drop at the bottom of the couloir has a presence. My friends behind me have a presence. I can’t see either one. But I can feel them. The cliff gives me focus. My friends give me courage. Both are necessary. In this moment, I get it: I am here to experience loss. The loss of me. The loss of self. The tips of my skis scrape the lefthand edge of the wall. We are subsumed by this line etched on this mountainside protruding like a mole from the surface of the earth.

I wrench a turn that starts at my core and spirals into a twist and drop a meter. The snow catches me like a net, and I remember why I’m here.