When Life is Heavy, Skiing is Weightless
This article originally appeared on Ski Mag
The morning started cold. At 8:30, the sun hadn’t yet reached the roadside pull-off on Colorado's Ofir Pass. Despite the cobalt blue sky, temperatures hovered a few degrees below zero. Still, my insides felt hot. A combination of last night's margaritas and the anticipation of our objective--to tour up and ski from the summit of Battleship Mountain--brewed heartburn in my chest.
It was day nine back on skis since my ACL tear, surgery, and recovery a year prior. Climbing 2,000 vertical feet in the San Juan range is a big day for me regardless, and while my body, knee included, felt strong, my mind was less certain.
We had to ski down before we could go up. The first 200 yards meandered lazily along the frozen stream. Steam rose from the babbling water where red limestone rocks had melted through the ice. In the shadows, we put on our skins and began to climb up the 55-degree slope, making kick turns every 15 feet. With roots and fallen trees in our path, the skintrack was nightmarish (our two guides promised this was the worst of it). Arid, sugary snow sloughed out beneath our skis as our group of six, Frank, Charlie, Berne, Matt, Sam, and myself, moved through the moss-covered forest.
The arduous climb mellowed out as we approached treeline near 12,000 feet, but my slow pace gave me plenty of time to ruminate on the distance still to travel. Like the hot spot starting to rub on the instep of my left foot, the friction of my environment rubbed my emotions raw with every step. Intrusive thoughts began to creep in.
You're not ready. You're too slow. You're too weak. You are a disappointment. You don't belong here.
I feared I would reinjure my knee or trigger one of my chronic migraines, thereby also rendering my ski partners unsuccessful in their summit attempt; it all triggered a familiar feeling in the back of my throat. Panic. If you, like me, are one of the 40 million people in the U.S. living with an anxiety disorder, you know what it feels like to have your body physically manifest irrational feelings of dread.
I had fallen to the back of the line, joined only by our tail guide, Mark. At a clearing, we stopped to regroup. The fear of putting the group at risk because of my mental and physical state now outweighed my shame and embarrassment.
"I'm not doing well," I blurted out, releasing sweat and tears from my face.
Undeterred, our guide offered an alternative: We would go another three-quarters of a mile, where we could opt to ski another line instead of the original objective. Relief like cool water rolled over me. Still, I felt the heavy weight of disappointing my team. In turn, they responded by offering to carry some of my load.
Frank shouldered the weight of my frustration when fumbling with new gear: Ski crampons mean you're attempting some hairy shit, he reminds me.
When I felt the weight of fulfilling the stereotype that women are less capable, it was Berne who lifted it off my shoulders. It's none of your business what anyone else thinks of you, she sagely reminded me.
Charlie lightened everyone's load with his uncanny ability to bring every conversation back to hot dogs. Oh, you mean meat missiles? he says. We all laugh.
And Matt, with two decades of touring experience, carried the weight of my inexperience. He reminded me it just takes practice to get comfortable in this environment. Give it time, he says, you'll get it back.
With so much less to carry mentally, even my pack felt lighter. The prospect of a smaller goal reinvigorated me, and I was confident I could reach it. We began to move forward again at a reduced pace. Our quiet shuffle up the track gave way to conversations about our go-to karaoke songs, the trouble with dog poop, and classic movies like "Grease" and others that didn't age well. Everything was lighter.
The guides' periodic check-ins--Are you good for another 15 minutes? We're getting close. Can you make it just to that ridge?--led me onwards like a trail of breadcrumbs. I moved slowly still, at survival pace, until we came out of the trees, met by the most spectacular 360-degree view of Colorado's high alpine I have ever seen. Silverton to the southwest, Telluride to the west. It was then I realized that we stood just below the summit of Battleship, the peak we eyed from the parking lot hours earlier in the numbing cold. Fifteen-minute increments at a time, we had arrived at our destination, a place I was sure I could not reach. We transitioned our gear as snow and sun cycloned around us on the ridgeline. Below, to our left and our right, expansive powder fields lay untouched by ski tracks.
I dropped in on tired legs, unstable in the boot-top powder, until my skis carried me back to the surface, turn after turn. I breathed out, let go, and gave in. There, I was weightless.
Sierra Shafer is the Editor-in-Chief of SKI.
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