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Did I just Ride off a Cliff?
Balancing the uncertainty, danger, and excitement of making your own way
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Powder Day, Underway
When you need to measure fresh snow in feet, not inches, you know you’re in for an incredible day on the mountain.
“I’ve never seen so much snow in my life,” says my new friend, sitting beside me on the chairlift. He leans over the safety bar for a better look at the untouched run. The expanse is untracked, pristine powder.
“What do you want to hit first?”
“Let’s just ride this,” I gesture to the land beneath us. “No need to go anywhere crazy when the good stuff is right here.”
I’m a firm believer in the notion that good powder under your board, is better than theoretical powder on the next peak over — the mountain equivalent of “a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”
We glide off the ski lift into a massive snowdrift. I used my board to tamp down a space where I can actually sit and strap in. I tug my lowlight goggles over my eyes, stand, and jet off onto the untouched trail.
I squat down onto my back leg, raising the nose of my board out of the snow like a boat planning on glassy water. After a few glorious laps, our previously private run gets a bit more crowded. I decide to take a trip up the T-bar lift to the summit.
Snowmass is quite a prominent1 mountain: so, despite relatively good visibility on the lower runs, the peak remains encased in clouds.
I skate into line at the Cirque lift — a surface pull that drags the rider along the ground — and look uphill. I can make out two lift towers. Beyond that, the cables fade into a white void.
My turn comes, and I skate into the loading zone beside a waist-high traffic light. A red bulb shines bright against the snow.
The lift operator hands me the bar, which I hook around my lead leg. “Where are you dropping?” he asks.
I shrug. “Not sure. Wherever looks good.”
He laughs. “Good luck.”
The light switches to green as the tow pull clamps onto the cable, and I’m yanked up the mountain. I turn back down to watch the lift operator and the loading zone fade to white.
Visibility on the way up is so low, I can barely make out the rider in front of me. The ground and sky blend into the same shade of gray. A dim light seems to emanate from everything, but it’s more blinding than helpful.
Skiers materialize ahead of me as they come zipping through the powder, only to dematerialize just as fast. As the tow pull bears me along through the Aether, I realize how ridiculous my plan had been.
How can you pick the path that looks best, when you can’t see a foot in front of your face?
From my position, I can make out a few lollipop2 hazard markers poking out of the snow. Just to my left, I know there should be trail signs marking the different drop-in locations. But I can’t see them.
If I squint, I can barely make out the rope fences preventing skiers and boarders from blindly riding off cliffs. I try counting the number on lift poles — just about the only thing I can make out — but I can’t remember how far along my favorite drop area is.
No matter my choice, it’s impossible to see where the trail will take me.
I let go when the moment feels right, and skate out of the tow path in the direction of the cornice.
After some shimmying through deep snow, I come to a sharp drop-off.
I peer over the edge and catch a glimpse of— well, nothing. The same airy clouds fill the glacial valley before me, making it impossible to even see the bottom of the headwall.
We’ll just take it slow; I tell myself, stay in control.
I point the tip of my snowboard downhill and commit myself to the unknown.
The lighting is flat, meaning the shadows offer very little contrast to the bumps and topography of the slope. I can only feel the swells and dips of the mountain, diverted back into my knees.
One moment I’m slashing my way through the snow across the headwall. The next, I’m free-falling. The drop is long enough for me to wonder: Did I just ride over a cliff?
Thankfully, ski patrol had marked off the major hazards; I’d just hit a natural bump/drop combo large enough to get airborne.
I fall through nothingness for what feels like eternity before the powdery ground rises up to meet my legs. I splash down like a swimmer cannonballing off the high dive.
When the resulting cloud of powder settles, I gasp. I’ve gone far enough to drop beneath the foggy ceiling hindering my visibility. I can see.
A beautiful, gently sloping forest unfolds before me. Trees poke up through the rolling blankets of powder. Gentle flurries drift down. I am one of the first people here.
Even though I can see a bit farther ahead, I still don’t really know where I’m going, and there’s no path set by anyone else for me to follow. I just have to go the way that feels right and enjoy the ride.
Each turn I make kicks up huge walls of fine snow. I inhale deeply as I surf the mountainside, breathing in the flakes as I go. The sharp sensation of cold both in and out of my body roots me in the moment with unblinking concentration.
Reflecting back on my trip, I think about the morning drop into the unknown. Working through the whiteout to get to an untouched forest was a humbling experience.
Life off the mountain is a lot like that tow pull: sometimes we expect clear, easy to read signs. We want to be able to peer over that ledge and see what awaits us if we decide to drop in.
Rarely do we get to know what the end of our path looks like. We’ll just have to discover the twists, turns, and bumps as we go.
Topographical prominence is, in layman’s terms, how tall a mountain is compared to the surrounding terrain, not sea level.
A red or orange circle roughly the size of a dinner plate, fastened to a long pole, giving the appearance of a giant lollipop. These are used to catch a rider’s attention and mark off hazards that would otherwise be impossible to see from uphill.