On Tuesday, May 13, 2014, the day after I turned 55, I went for my annual high-alpine backcountry birthday ski sojourn. May is the ideal time to seek out big ski lines in Colorado. The dangerously layered continental snowpack of mid-winter has transformed into a deep blanket of ice crystals, decreasing the chance of an avalanche, especially early in the day when it’s frozen solid. Even better: if it snows overnight, there can be steep yet safe powder skiing – the holy grail of backcountry expeditions – on top of that stable base. And on that day, it had been raining but cool through the night in Boulder, so when I reached the parking lot of St. Mary’s glacier, high above Idaho Springs (it’s actually a snowfield, not a glacier, but who’s counting), it was snowing and I realized I might be a fortunate ski mountaineer. As I climbed through the old timber towards tree line, the new snow grew deeper and deeper, lighter and lighter, a trillion delicate crystals balanced on each other in silence and filled with air, and when I reached about 11,500′ the sun emerged in all its nuclear magnificence on about 18″ of it. Nothing was cracking and settling, sloughing or threatening to slough. When Colorado sunshine hits fresh snow at this time of year, it looks a bit like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy throws a bucket of water on the Wicked Witch of the West, so I quickly stripped the skins from my skis, locked back in, launched myself at the valley floor and became part of a naturally supernatural theophany, skiing deep, light powder snow alone in mid-May down a 40-degree pitch to a high, alpine lake on the edge of an enormous wilderness. As the snow paused before beginning to turn to slop and sag towards runoff, I snapped a photo of the lower part of the line under a cobalt sky and headed back to the car filled with as much joy and gratitude as anyone has any right to expect, ever.
When I began writing about skiing and mountain life more than 20 years ago, I was simply bringing together things that I loved: mountains and sentences. Over time, however, I realized that I had little desire to write more of what I generally read in the glossy ski journals. There were enough articles about technique, about gear, about travel, about competition, even about history, some of them quite good. What I wanted was the kind of poetry that I saw in the best writing about older environment sports such as sailing, mountaineering, surfing, and even golf. I wanted to find a way to write that revealed not just the sport, but the way of life that such a sport creates and implies, the world of joyous physicality on an unbounded field. After many years of thinking about it, I now realize that what I sought was an idiom, a characteristic mode of expression that would unlock the secrets of how those of us live who build at least part of our lives around the love of mountains, because, as the great skier, coach and Austrian expatriate Otto Schniebs once said, “Skiing is not a sport – it is a way of life.” I take an idiom to be more than a style, which is just a specific manner. An idiom is more specifically verbal, and I required a language that would recognize every and any thing about this life – the mud, the clothes, the way people talk, the hand gestures, the food, the joy, the sorrow, the laughter, the grief, the love, the friendship, the regret, the politics – all of it – as compellingly as possible. I wasn’t going to write a book about something that people love that seemed, oddly, to have no real people in it. It had to be a language that could accommodate not just skiing, but also sex, death, and God (and his absences). I worked at it and worked at it, and dude, I swear, I think I’ve found it. I’m not sure how, because these things happen slowly and mysteriously. But I do know that I no longer think, as I once did, that language and reality are ineluctably differentiated from each other. Instead, I now find that every event, every person, and every moment I spend in the mountains seems to suggest words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs – an idiom – which may be the crucial bridge from imagination to genre in the genesis of strong writing. This is what leads me to know, and to have some sense of how to convey, the calm, sensuous yet exalting joy I felt as, alone beneath that high alpine sun, I turned back to the lake, sensed the light texture of that new May snow high in the Colorado Rockies, dove in like a porpoise, and arced forty turns like verses, like steps in a dance, like the lines on this page, both through and with the world.
—David J. Rothman is a poet, essayist and teacher. His book Living the Life: Tales From America’s Mountains & Ski Towns was published last year, along with two new books of poetry, Part of the Darkness and The Book of Catapults. He is also a former NCAA Div. I alpine ski racer.