“It’s like skimming cream off the top of fresh milk,” J says. As he says this, he pivots on the balls of his feet, turning his heels from one side to the other, bending his knees with each turn and stabbing the floor with an imaginary ski pole in a perfect marching rhythm. On his face is this strange, faraway grin. He’s left the living room and is floating down a fresh powder slope, leaving a perfect single-helix trail in his wake. Laying trenches, the boys call it. They look at the snow forecast and giggle like school girls.
Powder skiing is what my friend Kirsten would call type-1 fun. Like dancing ’til dawn or playing with puppies or eating my dad’s pulled-pork barbecue, every moment of a type-1 fun activity is intensely pleasurable. Type-2 fun typically denotes things that you don’t necessarily enjoy in the moment, but that you can look back on and say, “Oh yeah, that was fun,” things like camping in torrential rain or traveling by bus in some parts of the developing world. (When googling the term I found a blog that put it succinctly: “When you engage in type-two fun, you’re investing in your future self.”) But powder skiing, once you learn to make even two or three turns without bailing, is addictive, hypnotic. The satiny float of your skis on the snow, the momentary weightlessness as you straighten your legs. You crave it. The dopamine levels in your brain rise just thinking about it. And you find yourself engaging in all kinds of type-2-fun activities just to experience it.
I took my first avalanche safety class last February, primarily because of a dawning awareness that I needed access to more powder skiing. An avalanche safety class, especially on a day when the dumping gray snow obscures the tops of trees and soaks through to your long johns, is definitely type-2 fun. But I was up for it. The year before, my roommates–the boys who had titled our wireless network “powderhounds”–had spent the winter sniffing out the fresh powder in the British Columbia backcountry, and now I wanted in.
Before I moved to BC, I hadn’t even considered that one could ski terrain that wasn’t reachable by chairlift. But this is probably because I’d grown up “skiing” in the “mountains” of North Carolina and West Virginia, where “powder” referred to the loose layer of machine-made “snow” that skidded around over an icy crust. On my first day of BC skiing it took only one moment–the moment between seeing my tips submarine in two feet of powder and landing face first on the snow–to realize that, though the vocabulary was the same, the experience could not have been more different.
Avalanche safety was not a part of my ski vocabulary in the Appalachian mountains. But it’s serious business here. And, at least initially, the prospect of being thrown down a mountain at over sixty miles an hour along with with hundreds of tons of snow, ice, trees and debris was so terrifying that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would risk it. But then I learned to ski powder.
Avalanches come second to earthquakes on the list of forces of nature I most fear. My dad might say, Mandy, it’s important to respect nature, not to fear it. But I’m no fool. I fear it. Earthquakes get top billing because, where I live, they seem the most certain and unavoidable. I am vulnerable even here, on my purple love seat with my dog snoring at my heels. With avalanches, though, I have a sense of calculated risk, or perhaps I have the perception of control. When the posted avalanche danger is particularly high, I don’t go out.
This is why we take the risk of skiing in the backcountry, we believe ourselves to understand enough about what triggers an avalanche to manage the risk. But what I’ve noticed among my friends who ski is an impulse to make avalanches narrative. When a big slide happens, we all go on the Canadian Avalanche Centre website and read about it. And some of these reports are truly harrowing. Together, we discuss the details, wondering about the conditions, the stability of the snowpack, the terrain they chose to ski. Yes, one reason to read avalanche reports is to learn from the mistakes of others. But sometimes, you read a report where those involved seemed to make smart decisions. They chose terrain cautiously. They responded quickly. But still there are injuries, or fatalities.
Most of us, I suspect, read avalanche reports because we believe that if we can create a narrative, a sense of cause and effect, we can reassure ourselves of our own safety. We are smarter, or more cautious, or more capable. If we can identify a sign they might’ve missed–the rising surface temperatures, the 38-degree slope, the skiers’ decisions to split up or stay together–if we can pinpoint a single over-looked risk, we can draw a line between us and them.
My last blog entry got more than double the views of anything I’d posted before. And I’ve got some theories about why. One is that my writing suddenly became amazing and everyone who read the post immediately forwarded it to three people. This theory, however, is less convincing than my other one: that we are compelled to read about breakups. Just as we are compelled to read about fatal avalanches. The instinct to know others’ stories is hardwired into our brains. It’s why we gossip. Love stories and avalanche stories alike allow us to believe that the world is ordered, predictable, safe. They allow us to keep falling in love or to keep skiing pristine, untracked powder, despite the apparent risks. But sometimes you can do everything right, in love or friendship or skiing, and still you do not guarantee your success. It’s incredibly uncomfortable to be left with a story that contains no moral. You’re forced to acknowledge that sometimes you must inhabit a disordered world.