The Season of Brown

I’m pretty sure we had our last glimpse of winter from a mountaintop on Sunday. Saturday evening, Bill, Liam, and I drove two hours north up to Gilford, NH; we were skiing at Gunstock Mountain early Sunday morning with another family. Our oldest son, Will, had gone to Crotched Mountain, also in New Hampshire, with a friend to ski Saturday afternoon and night.

A drive north to the mountains never disappoints. And the fact that I can drive to the mountains still seems out of alignment with my Midwest born feet. However, on Sunday the lack of snow on that journey north meant one thing. The Season of Brown has arrived. Yet the summit of Gunstock, at 2,300 feet, had gotten four inches of snow a couple days earlier. When Gunstock came into sight, miles away, we recognized it because of the snowy wide strips running vertically down the mountain. The surrounding area was brown, just like the drive up. Aside from the snow at the very top, the trails weren’t covered in winter snow. Most of this was man-made snow — able to cling to the trails because the ground is still cold, the humidity in the atmosphere is just right, and the sun isn’t yet warm enough to melt it.

The snow on the trails was soft not slushy, but it was heading in that direction. It was hard work plowing through thick snow on some of the trails. My first thought was that it felt like skiing through peanut butter. Our friend we were skiing with named it more aptly: mashed potatoes.

Normally, I find a green run and ski it, by myself, from morning til close. Throughout my typical ski day, I build up confidence such that I don’t have to think about this ludicrous thing I’m doing. I get used to one trail’s curves, icy sheets, and gravelly frozen bits. I go slowly and stop often to take in the view. I don’t worry about getting hurt when I’m skiing alone, for I have complete confidence that one of those little five-year-olds who ski with no poles will get help for me if I happen to wipe out and not be able to get up.

But Sunday was different: our two families skied together every run. As we walked to the first chairlift, I coasted on a fine line between terror and peace. Blues and blacks scared me, yet I had a good set of greens under my belt for the season. Much like my snowshoeing expedition a few weeks back, I remembered that while down might be intimidating, I can ski across anything. Or, as an adult woman on the other side of fifty, I would be quite comfortable taking the skis off and walking down the mountain. Or sliding on my butt. I have choices. Our first run down would be a blue. Green is easiest, then blue, then black, then those crazy double blacks. There would be none of the latter that day.

I think the color label on the trail reflects the steepest part of that trail. I could tell on the blue trails that the earth was propped up a bit, pushing me faster than my comfortable green runs. Everyone skied ahead of me, but Bill. He took up his normal residence behind me, like the dad chasing behind his son’s bike the first time he rides solo. Bill did the same in Utah some thirty years ago when we were at a tough mountain, Snowbird, in which the green trails are the narrow mountain roads circling down the mountain. On that trip, Bill coaxed me down a blue run, away from the edge of a mountain. He stood at the top as I took off across the steep hill. I could traverse but not turn at the edge of the trail. Mentally, I couldn’t get past that moment in a turn when both skis point straight down the mountain. I fell instead. Then, I’d scoot around on my butt to go the other direction, stand up, traverse, and fall again. Perhaps I did this five or six times before I simply didn’t get up. Bill came whooshing down the mountain to my side. I was sobbing. His “let me give you a hug” was met with a fierce “a hug won’t get me off this %$#@ mountain!” I don’t remember how I made it down, but I know there was no hug involved. I had a six-inch purple bruise on the back of my thigh that trip from landing on my ski in the same place each time I fell.

As for Sunday’s trip, our friends had skied this mountain all season, so they had each trail’s personality memorized. They gave us a little debriefing before each run. The kicker was the black run with the “head wall.” Think forehead. A steep to vertical cliff landing at the bridge of a less steep nose. Maybe it was only twenty feet down. Maybe it was fifty. Or, was it a football field? I dropped in from one side and traversed across, cutting the edges of my skis into the side of the mountain to hold on. I was doing wide, ugly traverses leaning into the mountain. As I made the first turn —without a fall, I looked down to where the trail was a bit less angry, but still steep as a nose. I recognized Liam’s blue coat and black pants with a white wiggly puff attached to the back. He had his snow pants on backwards that day so all of his previous ski passes that should have been at his belly button were flying on his backside like a rabbit’s tail. He and his buddies decided not to use ski poles that day, and this made it very easy for him to do jumping jacks — with full extension of legs and arms — as he glided down the mountain.

I pulled my focus back to crossing the headwall. My shoulder was practically hugging the mountain. A straight, outstretched arm would’ve touched the ground. If I fell in place without sliding, which would be impossible, but if I did, my side would fall against the mountain. I wouldn’t fall down onto the the mountain for the side of the mountain was next to me. Watching Liam’s wild flying arms, I couldn’t help think that we both looked like hot messes coming down this trail, albeit for different reasons.

We weaved our way across the whole mountain, skiing most every run but the double blacks, and stopped around 2 p.m. After refreshments at the base, we packed up, anchored our ski bags on our backs, balanced our skis over a shoulder, and carried our poles in the other free hand. We landed on the pavement, out of the slush and mud puddles that had bloomed throughout the day. Then onto the gravel parking lot. A skier needs the right equipment for the job — as does a scuba diver or an astronaut. The lightness when removing the hard plastic boots, big helmet, sweaty gloves, and swishy snow pants leaves the released body feeling like it’s floating.

We slung our gear into the van, and in the driver’s seat, I slowly picked a path through the pot-holed lot onto the road. We were turning our backs on the snow. The woods around us had only dirty lumps of snow remaining. The trees weren’t yet budding. The dead leaves from fall sat as they had in late November. Entering the first Season of Brown for 2019 made me want to cry. The second Season of Brown will come again in November, after Halloween and weeks before the sparkle of winter again covers the dormant, dark ground and trees.