Whiteout

What has happened down here is the wind has changed
Clouds rolled in from the north and it start to rain

"Louisiana 1927"
Randy Newman

I was starting to believe I was in Mammoth in June, skiing in the summer. And then, around noon yesterday, clouds started sneaking in through the peaks. It was like a change of scenery on a Hollywood set. It was as if some grips had rolled in a whole new atmosphere.

Rather than eat at the top of the Plateau, at the outside restaurant known as Tio Bob’s, we went back to the hotel, to change from sunglasses to goggles. And when we went back out, the light was curiously flat.

After a few runs Felice said she’d had enough, she couldn’t see the slope, she went in. All the way in Portillo, I decided to continue on with our new friends Luis and Steve. But when I finally bagged it, a hundred yards from the hotel, I hit an invisible dip and my knee twisted in that way that you know you’ve barely dodged a bullet and I thought of all the last run wisdom of the ages, as in don’t make it, I should have gone in with Felice.

And then it started to snow. Centimeters started to pile up on the railings. In a matter of hours, the weather had changed back to its natural season, the end of February up north. Looking out the window you’d swear you were in a Jack London novel.

And when we woke up this morning, you couldn’t see a thing. And the debate began, do we go out?

I quizzed everybody in the dining room. The twentysomethings from New Zealand said no way, and they’re truly hard core. But the father and daughter team from Philadelphia asked why not. When I explained there were no trees for definition, you could see the light bulb turn on over their heads. Now they weren’t so sure.

And on our way out, we encountered Rick Silverman. So I quizzed him too. He’d been out. He didn’t plan to enter the weather again. Visibility was just too poor.

So we ended up spending two hours getting to know Rick.

Until recently, Rick Silverman ran Mountainfilm in Telluride. But he still heads the board, and takes films on tour. The night before he’d shown us a bunch. The most chilling an Antarctic adventure on a twenty seven foot boat by an unskilled Norwegian and his newfound slacker American friend. The only reason you knew they didn’t die was because you were watching the film. They even got locked in the ice like Shackleton. Talk about bad judgment.

And Rick turned out to be a fascinating character. He’d escaped to Telluride in the wake of the turmoil ripping apart the fabric of the United States known as the Vietnam War. He was there before the ski area. When there weren’t even a thousand people in residence, never mind Oprah Winfrey.

Portillo is like a combination of "Downhill Racer" and "The Love Boat". We all come because of our passion for sliding down slopes, but then we end up bonding like those on a cruise ship. And over the course of two hours, I felt closer to Rick than I do to most people I know in L.A. Down here in Chile one isn’t protecting one’s image, the wrapping is peeled off, you’re just yourself. And it’s funny how much human beings have in common. How honesty will bond you.

And then the clouds lifted. You could see the top of the lifts. There was scurrying in the drawing room. The Canadian ski team wasn’t going back out, but their amateur brethren, who weren’t in it for the money, just the experience, returned to their rooms to bundle up, to journey outside.

As did I.

Felice wasn’t so sure.

But it got brighter and brighter. I told her she’d regret not going out. That spending all day inside would get to her.

So she threw on her clothes too. And we went out into an uninhabited winter wonderland.

They stopped the lift to clear the chair of snow. We rode up in the flurries. And when we got off, our skis barely moved on the new-fallen snow, and visibility was…let’s just say far less than stellar.

I told Felice we were going to go down David’s Run, which we had skied many times before.

I journeyed onto the slope. There was much more fresh than I’d anticipated, but when I turned, I found myself in contact with the ice underneath.

And then I turned around to find that Felice had fallen.

I asked her if she was hurt.

And she said yes.

This is your worst nightmare. You’ve got to be calm and collected, you’ve got to take it seriously, but you also want to say OH FUCK!

I climbed up. I thought it was her leg, or her knee. After all, her skis were crossed.

But that wasn’t it. She complained of a pain in her shoulder.

Skiing is a dangerous sport. Accidents do happen. I’m aware of this. I’ve broken my leg. But the risk is the price we pay for the enjoyment, the thrill. Sitting on the couch, in front of the computer, you’re alive but not living. But nothing consequential happens when you’re ensconced inside a building, nothing that will take six weeks to heal.

I asked if I should call the ski patrol. Wondering exactly how that would be done in these conditions in a foreign country.

But Felice said to hold off.

I tried to diagnose the injury. Knowing that if you’re really hurt, you shouldn’t move at all. But then it occurred to me. What might be damaged most was Felice’s pride. Felice treasures her competence. She needs to be a burden upon no one. To perform less than perfectly, to impinge on another’s good time, is anathema nonpareil to her.

Figuring this, I decided to have her move. Slowly.

I got her skis uncrossed. Asked her to try and stand up, since she said she had no sharp pain.

And when she finally arose, her complaint was not of injury but how in the hell she would get down.

I was starting to believe I was in the clear. I can get anybody down anything. I told her we would sidestep. It really wasn’t that far.

But upon complaining of the distance remaining, I green-lit a turn. But told her to HOLD HER EDGES!

There was no problem.

Then another turn. And another. And suddenly, Felice was at the bottom of the slope, seeming to get in line for the ride back up.

I insisted we take the baby poma. To rebuild her confidence.

Felice scoffed at the flat slope. And executed her descent with style and grace.

But people truly can be hurt. I kept quizzing her. And then knowing that Felice would stay out just to please me, I suggested going in. And she acceded. And with this decision made, Felice concluded she wanted to go to the clinic, where she’d seen the doctor the day before for her laryngitis.

The orthopedist manipulated her shoulder and said there was no fracture, just a contusion. Conversation wasn’t easy, since he barely spoke English, but his examination, longer than I’ve ever experienced in the States, convinced me that his conclusion was accurate. He prescribed ice, and anti-inflammatories, which Felice was already taking for her throat problem.

Then we went to lunch. Which is served in the hotel till 1:45,

Despite the favorable diagnosis, I was beside myself. After all, I’d encouraged Felice to ski.

I couldn’t speak, and Steve and Luis came over to torture me, sensing my feeling of responsibility. I found it curious that Felice was so energized, then again, when ill, people always try to cheer you up.

We went back to the room. Earlier in the day I’d been planning to write about the whiteout, the films and our conversation with Rick in depth, but now I could only mindlessly surf the net, as Felice iced her neck and shoulder.

But after resting for an hour, Felice said her pain was almost gone. One had to wonder if she’d just been that freaked out, and her body had tightened up.

So we went to see the movie of the 1966 World Ski Championships in the Cine. And at six, went back to the clinic. Where when the doctor moved Felice’s arm and head, she experienced no pain. I wouldn’t say it was quite a miracle recovery, but I felt like I’d dodged another bullet.

Now the nature of love is you feel responsible. But you’re not only responsible for your loved one’s safety, but enrichment. Life is about passion, and if you heard Felice talk about skiing, you’d know that she’s got the bug. And, as Kim Reichhelm, the professional skier we had tea with the other day, said, it’s a special breed that comes to Chile to ski in August, when it’s so pleasant in the States, when you can bask in the fading summer light.

So don’t beat me up. I’ve beat myself up enough. You’re sitting at home. You just don’t get it. If you’re not taking chances, life just isn’t worth living.

After her first episode of icing, Felice bolted up in bed and said we had to go to Beaver Creek. To ski the Birds of Prey. The famous almost vertical downhill slope.

I asked her what had made her say this. Well, she’d been thinking about our conversation with Rick about the Plunge and Spiral Staircase at Telluride, and she was contemplating other steep slopes and how she wanted to ski them.

Rained real hard and it rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Snow-forecast.com says we’re gonna get another seven centimeters overnight. Felice is sitting up Indian-style in bed, reading "Outside" about climbing Mt. Everest. It’s supposed to be partly cloudy tomorrow. We’ll be out there.

P.S. As I was writing this, the hotel started to shake, yes, so far from California, it was an earthquake. Felice looked at me, I looked at her, it continued to shake for the better part of a minute. But the world’s steady now. In more ways than one.

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