Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

February 5, 2006

Ski Engelberg, Switzerland

There is nothing better than skiing in the Alps. After 2 cancelled trips, the 3rd time was a charm, and at 8 in the morning I found myself buying a lift ticket for the mountains above Engelberg, Switzerland. I rode perhaps ¾ of the way up the mountain on the cable cars, and got bored with sitting, so changed directions and headed down on my short skis. Now, the first run of the morning is usually the hardest, because the light is still dim and the snow is freshly groomed and flat. It is really hard to see the angle of the snow, and after a year of not skiing, it is hard to trust the snow and my skis so quickly. So the first run on the Red trail was a little scary, as it always is. I decided to back off and take the Green trail all the way back to the bus, to check the trail so I could get back at the end of the day on time. It was early in the day and quiet, and I managed to do the ½ hour run down the mountain without ever seeing another skier anywhere. By the time I got down, I was bored with the Green trails, and this time I went all the way back up to the top.

I emerged from the fog layer about midway up the mountain. By the last cable car, the sun was a dim yellow circle seen through the clouds, and it never got much brighter than that. But it was good timing, because I was riding the world’s first rotating arial cable car. Which means that we slowly spun in circles as we were carried higher into the sky, over huge cliffs, a huge blue glacier, and up to the highest point of our journey at 3028 meters. At the top, I took time off from skiing for a 5-minute tour of a glacial cave…gotta love that blue color! And then I was skiing on a narrow path between expansive glacial ice cliffs, down to a chairlift aptly named the Ice Flyer.

A little farther on down the mountain, the nice groomed path ended with the hugest, scariest, deepest set of moguls that I have ever seen. I pull out my map and sure enough, the only way down is through a long black squiggle with huge cliffs lining either side. Makes for beautiful scenery, anyway. A very small note at the bottom of the map stated: “Run #1 (Black) is extremely steep and intended only for experts. Slope conditions may change rapidly.” I read this juicy tidbit of knowledge while sitting on top of a ledge with my skis dangling over the edge, watching peoples faces as they (sometimes not so) willingly dropped over into thin air. I don’t know how the average person got down the mountain….I guess some of them took the cable car down with their tail between their legs. A few lost their skis in the process of fighting the moguls, and I tried not to laugh, knowing that my time was coming. It was only with good luck and a bit of scrambling by their buddies that their skis didn’t end up all the way at the bottom, where people moved around like brightly colored ants.

And as I sat with my legs dangling over the abyss, an orange helicopter wafted its way just beyond the bottom of the torture chamber of moguls awaiting me, and snow glitters obliterated it for a second. It dipped down to pick someone up, and was gone again. I learned later, that it was a member of my bus, a daredevil snowboarder who had gone off-trail and fallen perhaps over a hundred feet off a cliff. He got lucky, maybe, in that he only broke 4 vertebre. I also think he got the fast ride home to Landstuhl Hospital, in a jet or helicopter or something rather than our bus.

But of course, if you know me and skiing, then you know that I haven’t lived until I have found the moguls and skied down them as many times as possible. So I willingly took the plunge myself, and earned a few laughs at the crazy ways my skis tried to go anywhere but where they should have. By the bottom (years later, it seemed), my thighs were burning, my knees were shot, and looking back up the hill made me dizzy from the steepness of it. So I got back on the rotating arial car and did it all again…in fact I went down the moguls 4 times. By the last run of the day, I was flying down them like a pro (almost), and trying to ignore the pain and fire in my legs.

I took a break in the middle of the day, and tried out a different part of the mountain. I took a chairlift across a lake to get there. The only footprints on the frozen lake were those of a large, running 4-legged animal. How do I know such a thing? Because the gaps between the groups of prints had to be 6-8 ft, which is, well, impossible for us. The other mountain wasn’t as exciting, so I went back to the highest section. Along the way, I drank lots of water to keep my camelback from freezing, and ate way too many gummy bears, yum! But it wasn’t until I opened my pack to make a snack out of lunch, that realization dawned on me. My Fig Newton’s would have tasted better, before a headfirst slide down a steep mountain on my back had smashed them to bits.

The weather worsened as the day went on. While parts of the mountain were clear, other parts were plagued with snow showers and whiteout conditions. Luckily I knew the runs by then, so I knew generally where I was going. Even with my goggles on, or perhaps in spite of them, I could see nothing but the occasional orange trail marker, a lone skier, and sometimes a chairlift appear out of the mist. It was a strange experience, not knowing, even while I was skiing down the slopes, whether the trail was getting steeper or leveling out. I had no sense of depth perception at all…the slightest bit of dirt in the snow would suggest to my eyes that the trail was getting steeper, but yet it would stay level beneath my skis. The trail just beyond the glacier at the very top, was level and very consistent, so while it snowed and there were few people on the trails, I amused myself by turning circles down the mountain 54 times in a row without falling down. I love short skis.

Luckily the snow layer ended just as the moguls started. That would have been a nightmare, more than they already were. So I went down them again, had enough time to catch the cable car for one final trip to the top, and turned circles with my skis in the snow again. This time, the snow layer was encroaching onto the moguls, so it was good timing to call it a day and get back to the bus.

Not to forget my skiing ritual, at the end of the day I stopped and sat in the snow and contemplated life. Watched all the skiers racing down their last pass of the day, before I joined them again myself, to arrive at the bus, promptly at 16:30. At which time I added up my runs for the day, and calculated that I had skied over 9000 meters of vertical distance. That is almost 6 miles high.

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