A pair of expert skiers. A legendary couloir. Apparently perfect conditions.
The stage is set for an epic contest
It seemed that fate was the hunter, as it had been and would be
- Ernest K. Gann
Windblown cloud swirled around the tree line, smudging the edges of the mountain with a blur of chalky paste. The glacier hovered not far above the valley, and patches of grey ice appeared from time to time in the viscous air, sometimes bulging out like globules of glue on the mountain’s surface. The high road where Hal and Ingrid lived rose steeply up until it petered out into a track that led into a glade of pines. There were banks of snow on either side of the road piled up as tall as a man, and the wind that gusted down off the glacier built up curved layers around the banks that made the road look like a kind of tunnel as it rose into the trees and disappeared.
When it finally stopped snowing one crystal morning at the beginning of January, Ingrid took Hal to ski the legendary couloir that Snake Jake claimed to have ridden five years ago. Few believed him, although Hal, knowing Jake’s skiing, definitely did. Most people just thought was just too steep, too narrow, and had too many cliffs below it. It was, they said, simply too sketchy to ski.
Hotel Noir, Jake used to call it, after the huge block of jet-black basalt that sat at the apex. You had to enter the couloir by taking your skis off, cramponing up, and doing a sort of sideways squirm with the security of an ice axe in one hand around the side of the block with fifteen hundred feet of sixty-five degree snow and space beneath you. Then, at the marginal safety zone of a narrow rocky shelf, you’d put your skis on, Jake said, and “go large”. It was his way of saying you’d need to ski better than you’d ever skied just to get back down in one piece, let alone to ski the thing with style.
Jake had died two summers ago in a slip on K2’s Bottleneck Couloir when one of his bindings came loose after a ski hit a buried rock. He’d been trying to make the first ski descent, but the mountain was stronger that day. Jake’s death only confirmed Hal’s superstitious belief in fate. He thought that most people who spent a lot of time in high places lived and died according to odds that were largely outside their control. That day, Jake got an unlucky hand. Hal thought about all the times he’d been in similar situations, when a loose binding would have meant certain death. And he wondered why it was that Jake was dead, but he was still alive. The more Hal thought about it, the less clear the whole thing seemed.
After all his years in the mountains Hal had begun to understand that steep alpine skiing is a bit like poker, only more interesting and more risky, because you’re gambling with something you can only lose once. Anyone can lose a thousand dollars on a table and bounce back, but you usually don’t get a second chance when you’re up high.
It was a perfect winter’s day when Hal and Ingrid finally stamped into their skis at the top of Hotel Noir. It had snowed heavily over the past week, whilst remaining unusually cold for the last two days: as a result, the couloir was full of powder as light and effervescent as champagne-froth. Tiny ice crystals danced in the still air. The couloir was deep in shadow, but the sun was beginning to strike the ridge above, drawing long shafts of light through the thin gaps between the jagged pinnacles. Those blades of light now hung suspended in the stillness of the morning like the ethereal spears of phantom warriors. Fifty feet above them, a pair of alpine choughs circled in the wind. Apart from Hal and Ingrid, they were the only signs of life up here at all.
“Okay, you all good?” Hal asked Ingrid.
“Yeah, I’m all good” she replied, looking at him intently with that trademark glint in her steel blue eyes.
“Cool. You want to go first then?” Hal asked.
“Alright, why not?” she replied.
“Alright. Just ski like you always ski. And don’t wait for me until you’re well out of the fall line. I’ll come down when you’re safe on that shelf that runs between the two big rock bands. We can escape off from there down to the glacier, I know a good line that way, we used it to exit the Crystal Couloir over to the north.”
“Okay” she said, as she leant over to double check her bindings were on full tension and her boots were fastened just right. She went through the other checks like clockwork: poles clipped in, goggles secure, helmet fastened, harness tight, avalanche transceiver on. As the device made its characteristic beep, Ingrid stood up to her full height and faced straight down the couloir, the tips of her skis pointing out above the sixty degree snow. She was very cool and totally calm as she made a strong, assertive forwards push with both her poles.
"Ingrid's skis hissed gently in the deep powder, and she shot down into the impending darkness of Hotel Noir"
Her skis hissed gently in the deep powder with a kind of high-pitched, accelerating whistle like the sound of a turbo spooling up on race car, and she shot down into the impending darkness of Hotel Noir as if she had rockets attached to her heels.
Ingrid skied the steep and treacherous terrain with the measured, precise perfection of a ballerina. Little snow slides shot out beneath her, gathering pace as they accelerated. Hal watched, transfixed by the grace and poise of her movements; her turns were so fast, he thought, if he blinked he’d miss them. She skied the couloir’s fastest line, straight down the middle, completely ignoring the slight easing in the angle to the left side about five hundred feet down that would have afforded a brief rest.
She skied on towards the exit funnel in a gap between a couple of hundred-foot vertical cliffs as precisely and perfectly as she’d made her first turn.
Hal could only just make Ingrid out as she made a hard turn and stopped under the safety of the undercut three hundred foot cliff at the base of the couloir; she was now nothing but a black spec against the cold expanse of Hotel Noir. Having just watched Ingrid ski the line with such consummate grace, any lingering doubt that Hal had harboured about whether Jake had done it was dispelled. Ingrid was a brilliant, beautiful skier. But Jake had been the best of all of Hal’s peers.
When he'd died, they all knew they’d lost their leading man.
Hal made out Ingrid’s raised ski pole, their sign that she was in a place safe from avalanche danger, and prepared for his descent. His checks, like hers, were instinctive: bindings, boots, poles, helmet, harness, transceiver. He nudged his skis over the edge and looked down, his eyes tracing the twisting curves of Ingrid’s ski tracks down the couloir like a hunter following a line of sight. Hal took a deep breath, inhaling the cold air as he pushed off with his poles.
Hal accelerated like a dropped stone. Hotel Noir was every bit as steep as it looked and as he’d imagined. As he made his first jump turn, Hal realised that the snow in the couloir was perhaps the best he’d ever skied: unbelievably light and deep for such a steep line. He made three more textbook turns in the pristine snow, then another jump turn at a slight narrowing where two rock spurs advanced into the couloir from either side.
Just after this second jump turn, something happened. Hal felt it before he heard it, the weird, unearthly movement under him. As soon as he got the first tremor of the moving snow, he knew exactly what it was. As the slab of hard snow under the powder started to move, Hotel Noir let out a low roar like the death cry of a slain bear.
"As the slab of hard snow under the powder started to move, Hotel Noir let out a low roar like the death cry of a slain bear"
Suddenly, the whole couloir was accelerating downwards with Hal on top of it. He knew exactly what he needed to do: ski it out and escape to the side where Ingrid was waiting under that big cliff. If he came off his skis, he was pretty sure he’d be finished. Because of the steepness of the couloir and the lightness of the powder, the avalanche didn’t build up into the huge, deadly critical mass that characterises slides of lower-angled snow.
Instead, it just got faster. Much faster. And when Hal thought it couldn’t go faster, it accelerated some more. Hal struggled to see what was happening as he flew through the powder-cloud, and fought hard to stay in control on the moving snow using every skill he’d ever learnt in twenty five years of skiing.
Hal had skied Grand Salom for the US when he was a teenager, so he knew a few things about speed skiing. But this was different. Hal reckoned he was travelling about seventy miles an hour on fifty degree ground. By staying as close as he could to the side of the avalanche, he knew he’d stand the best chance of skiing it out. For a few hundred feet that passed in a flash of weird luminosity, Hal played roulette with the mountain, dancing on the moving snow like a lunatic choreographer’s string puppet.
"The powder cloud grew to near white-out proportions. Then the unmistakable sensation of freefall rose in his stomach"
The powder cloud grew to near white-out proportions, and Hal’s vision was reduced to what was immediately ahead of him. But he was still on skis, which was all that mattered now. Just stay with it, he said to himself. The powder-cloud mushroomed, obscuring his vision completely. Then the unmistakable sensation of freefall rose in his stomach.
So that’s the cliff, Hal thought. Jesus. He’d seen Ingrid underneath it and knew how high it was.
Seconds passed. Hal floated in an abstract space as he fell with the torrent of snow, black and white, his mind full of bright dreams that very soon might never matter. He saw Ingrid’s face, her long curls obscuring those high cheekbones. Her steel blue eyes locked on his own.
The searing crack of a splintered ski broke the air. Small stones hissed in freefall, making a high-pitched whine as they passed. Like the view from the window of a descending plane, the mountain accelerated towards him. After a while, a long, muffled thud broke the other sounds, and everything stopped.
Hal blinked. He looked out through the narrow window of his goggles. Half-darkness. A dull ache pulsed up from his left leg. He punched his right hand upward through the snow. He did it again, then again, and again. The darkness subsided. On the sixth strike, he broke through.
Silence and light flooded into Hal’s brain. He felt like he’d shallow-dived into a lake of cool, bright water. Somewhere in the middle distance, he heard Ingrid’s voice in the frozen air calling his name.
He stared out from the three metre crater in the snow he’d made on impact and into the icy blue air of the winter day. Far above, he could just make out that huge block of stone at the top of Hotel Noir, maybe a thousand feet above him. His eye traced the two lines of ski tracks down the couloir. Five turns each, then nothing but a clean sweep of powder-blasted snow. The avalanche had started where the base layer had cracked under the weight of his skis. It had been triggered, probably, by that second jump-turn. That one was a bit over the top, really. Hal stared up at the cliff the avalanche had tracked off in the lower part of the couloir, taking him with it. It was bigger and nastier looking than the cliff he’d once skied off on Mount Hunter. Ingrid, he guessed, had seen everything, worked out what was going to happen, and skied well away from danger along the shelf.
“Hal! Holy shit! I… I thought you were gone. But you’re fine!” Ingrid exclaimed as she skied across to the avalanche debris.
Hal had thought he was gone, too, forty-five seconds ago. In the time it takes to ski seven turns, Hal’s life had hovered in the white space between this world and another before returning to the side of the mountain with a dull thud.
Soon, Ingrid was there, standing tall above the crater, telling him that she was real when he asked her, telling him it wasn’t a dream and they were really in the exit chute of the legendary couloir, Hotel Noir. Then she was helping him out of the snow and pulling his strong, lean body against hers so he could feel her warmth against him. Then she gently took off his helmet and goggles, running her fingers through his tangled hair and brushing the snow from his eyes. As they stared at each other, Hal and Ingrid started laughing. Once again, Hal knew, he’d cheated the silent hunter that stalks every high mountain, and who waits for all who venture there.
After a while, Hal looked at Ingrid and then out across the mountains all around them; right now, just breathing in the frozen air was more than enough.
Somehow, Ingrid had managed to find Hal’s skis buried in the powder. She had a talent for finding lost skis. Hal thought it was her hunter-gatherer instinct kicking in, developed when she was a child on summer holidays in west Norway, searching for cloudberries in the hills above the fjords. Both Hal’s skis had come off during his freefall down the cliff: the tail had snapped off one and the other had a massive crack running all the way down it. But they were enough to get Hal off the mountain without the need for a helicopter or a very long and arduous hike.
"Hal knew that once again he’d cheated the silent hunter that stalks every high mountain, and waits for all who venture there"
Hal stamped into his broken skis and followed Ingrid’s slow turns through deep snow down towards the tree line. Somewhere else, in another dimension of time and memory, he heard a dull roar of moving snow and ice broken up by the laughter of children.
After a while, the two skiers entered a glade of tall pines that splintered sparks of luminous snow. Blue air spilled across the still-frozen terrain of the lower slopes as Hal and Ingrid vanished into the trees. They were now just two moving figures on the penumbra of the mountain, as much a part of it as it had now become a part of them. In the distance, the lights were coming on in the valley below, flickering slightly as they increased the pace of their descent.
This short story is an extract from the collection of short fiction After The Crash and other stories by David Pickford, published in 2015 by Vertebrate Publishing. Five of the stories compose a series of vividly descriptive episodes of mountain literature, where the perilous conditions of the adventurous life are explored and questioned, extreme skiers are tested to the limit, an alpinist finds himself marooned high in the Himalaya after a plane crash, the border between myth and reality is blurred during a long solo climb, and a tragic mystery is solved by a lone climber who reassembles the lost pieces of a map. The remaining four stories range from the first manned mission to Mars to the ideology of an Islamist fighter. Controversial, poetic, melancholy, and thought provoking, each story is revealed in just enough detail to let your imagination conceive what might happen next.
"Tense, taut and elegantly crafted, Pickford's writing seems both achingly realistic and hauntingly surreal at the same time. The landscapes these stories are set in become brooding characters in the narratives, which allow us to eavesdrop on lives poised between ultimate risk and some kind of reconciliation. This collection is a gripping read."
- Amazon review by Helen Mort