Unwrapping Powder

It snows for the first two days and is sunny for the next three. Red Mountain, in Rossland, British Colombia, is renowned for heavy snowfall and the winding unplowed roads that make access difficult. Joss and I drive from Port Townsend: ten road hours through empty Eastern Washington and gritty Spokane, northward on below freezing asphalt tributaries, across the border at night. We reach the condo amid flurries of almost-snow that turns to honest rain as we begin unloading the car. Graham, Kathy, Murray and Eric are already there—uncle, aunt, nephews. The evening freezes, making the rain revert to snow. Flakes accumulate, swelling the rime-laden trees that surround the house. There is no better Christmas present than a powder day, except maybe two in a row.

Powder is an entirely different medium than packed snow. Carving through trees, I realize how much harder I’m working to turn. I’m half jumping to avoid trunks. My legs burn, probably because my form is terrible. I make it down though, albeit in a series of near collisions, barely avoided catastrophes. The empty lift rushes towards me through the mist regardless of how many times I tumble into drifts and lose my skis. The ride back up is a mercy worth savoring; my legs get a moment to rest.

However, there is no view to savor because the snow is so wet that it cakes to my goggles. As I’m skiing, I have to stop every so often to wipe the lenses clean before continuing. This reminds me of Mt. Baker and the snow locals call “Cascade concrete.” My skis aren’t heavy or wide enough to coast through powder furrows without occasionally getting caught. When this happens, I tumble head over heels, to the delight of the folks watching from the lift, and a safety net of powder catches me. Still, I stay upright more than I tumble, and soon, a jumpy rhythm evolves. It courses through my muscles like morse code occasionally broken by the silence of the lift ride, the powder diluting my awkwardness.

Murray, 16, hurt his knee playing football a few months ago and can’t ski as a result, but Eric is healthy and, as Joss and I learn one afternoon, he is one hell of a skier, especially for a 14-year-old. Joss and I try to keep up with him and we do, barely, but my legs feel consecutively weaker and weaker at the culmination of each run. Eric’s hip, non-chalant style contrasts starkly with the fogy-like turns Joss and I piece together. I have to yell at him even when he’s skiing right next to me because his iPod is blasting death-metal in his ears. He’s a different sort of skier, but I appreciate it and, I think, he appreciates us.

After a few days of heavy precipitation—one morning we had 18in of fresh powder—the sky clears up. Mom and Dad come skiing with us. Dad’s ticket is free because he’s over 75—way over—but the lift operators still give him skeptical looks as they scan the ticket. His skiing doesn’t belie his age. Joss and I lead him down a steep black groomer and he links sharp turns. It’s been years since we skied together. Seeing him cut balanced tracks with ever growing confidence, knowing his titanium knees must be aching—he had them replaced a few years ago—and watching him relish every moment, is better than any present I might find under the tree.

Making this present even more special, my half brother, Bobby, arrives one night and infuses the condo with his nasal laughter. We have never skied together, the two of us, and it has been years since I’ve even seen him. On the slopes the next day, he joins our bloodknit crew and when Graham and Kathy add their forces to our ranks, we absolutely dominate the hill with our lanky, goofy forms. We surround Dad like bodyguards, hip checking children out of his path and melting bumps flat with our long boards. Women gawk lustily, children cry, men feel oddly inadequate, at least in my imagination. There is no hill that can contain us. We, the heirs of the oldest man on the mountain, have no barriers. We have no wrapping.

When coffee aroma breaks early morning dreams on Christmas, I’m hardly excited. I feel like I’ve already opened all my presents. Hell, my presents didn’t even require opening; they required experiencing. Gazing out the window, I notice a fresh dusting of feather-light powder on the porch railing. I know the mountain will be deserted today; everyone will be enjoying Christmas together. My favorite present is perched on the railing in plain view, and it remains, for the moment, completely untouched.

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