Scamper-slide, scamper-slide - the new snow is deep, light and powdery.
Scamper-slide, closer, scamper-slide, closer the ermine comes to have a good look.
For a moment, he sits on his haunches, the wet black nose sniffs first left, then right,
black-tipped ears erect, the gaze of his black eyes is piercing.
Then its about with longer lopes, the black-tipped tail waving,
as the slight golden white form disappears down the mountain.
Hmmm, already a memory worth savoring.
If only I could move like that.
I'm laboring with the weight of a winter pack and the awkwardness of snowshoes
as I head for a leanto at Tuckermans Ravine.
Soon the sun will pass beyond a ridge of the masif of Mt. Washington.
I know a storm is coming.
The famous ravine sits in the lee of prevailing northwest arctic winds,
this mountain range their first impediment.
Despite the proximity to Boston and Montreal, in winter, this mountain
has weather as severe as any. Its an awful attraction.
A bone-deep cold sets in as the deep blue night sky descends - a long night.
The morning is very slow to brighten, winds are increasing,
and it'll be a day with minor shades of gray.
When the storm starts is hard to tell with all the snow blowing.
There's the sound.
There's drifts and windblown hardpack.
Forty mile per hour is difficult,
and sudden gusts threaten all control.
Minus twenty degrees at noon.
The constant sensation of overwhelming force ever able to suck out whatever remains
of the energy warily protected within the layers of your artificial shell.
The effect is dumbing,
even the steps to light a stove
require what seems long mental rehearsal.
They say accidents happen after a series of what may be small mistakes.
I don't want to try to describe the look on the man's face who appeared at camp
about mid-afternoon. He spoke French,
but I understood what had happened. I tried
that I would only be a liability on any attempt
at a rescue. Those more able were all on
but there was a radio.
It wouldn't have mattered. The rescue team when they arrived were methodical. The
experienced know that when hit with an avalanche you search, not go for help. In the
lowering light they soon found a hand above the snow, and footprints nearby. The
body showed the "ice mask". Warm breath melts the snow which then freezes, you
suffocate. The wrong trail had been taken. Bright orange warning signs apparently
ignored. Conditions ignored. The mountain is always there, you can come back to it.
A gorgeous serene morning ensued
with little sense of the tragedy.
Like the ermine,
I just want to be able
to be there.
Paul Eric Johnson
© Nov. 18, 1998