What You Think About When You are Hurtling Down an Icy Slope Headfirst.
I was picking up speed. I could only see sky but I know there must be trees and rocks in front of me. I tried to grab onto the side of the mountain but it was all ice. This was going to be bad. I used to work at a head-injury rehabilitation hospital so I knew what a hell that could be. Shoganai the Japanese say, there was nothing to be done. I was going down the hill until I hit something. I put my arms over my head and waited for impact.
The day had started out pretty well. We met up late the previous night in Osaka. Spirits were high. We piled our ski gear and bags into Yuka’s car, grabbed some conbini beers and we were off.
Unlike poor Yuka, Will and I could get a few hours of sleep once we all calmed down. It was a long drive. Once we were in the mountains, it got worse. A long snake of a traffic jam. But Yuka fought through it and we got to the Dyanland Ski resort before it opened in the morning.
We had our gear on in nothing flat and were first in line on the lift. We cruised down a little road that connected to another lift that went to the summit. We were basking in the crisp morning sunlight. We looked to the right. A steep bank of moguls covered in virgin powder and no one in sight. If we went now, we’d be first and have it all to ourselves. Normally I’d be a little afraid of moguls, but they were these big fluffy things that perfect morning.
I had only graduated to black diamond runs the last ski trip. I’m Canadian but we were poor, we didn’t live near a ski resort, and no one in my family skied. I learned to ski in Japan. Every year I went a of couple times. I worked my way from the beginner slopes, to intermediate and finally the black diamonds. Especially one run at Nozawa Onsen, the Skyline.
The Skyline was winding 4-meter run along the top of a ridge and then the big wide steep valley. You had to tuck and go fast or you wouldn’t make it up the other side. I’d never gone so fast. It felt like you might catch an edge and fly off the mountain at any time.
It was tempting to zig-zag down a bit before you tucked in to avoid picking up too much speed but if you started in earnest too far down, you’d have to do the humiliating side-ski walk up the slope while your friends were waiting.
The first time I was invited down the skyline Will was in the background discreetly wagging his head to warn me off. He was the sensible one, but even at 40 the peer pressure overwhelmed me and I went along. I somehow made it to the other side, and it was exhilarating. I was hooked.
We looked over the lip of the road at all the power and we both jumped off. Ice. All ice. I screeched to a halt at the first turn. We looked at each other. ****! We were frozen in place for a minute until Will said, “Just take it one turn at a time.” I slipped and fell against the hard, icy mountain. I looked up at the sky and over at Will. We started laughing. This was going to be a **** to get down.
I started to move almost imperceivably. Oh shit. I slipped a bit more. My upper body moved towards the center of the hill as my skis still had a little traction. Slightly panicking I tried to grab on to something, anything, but nothing was there. My skis slipped out and my poles were flying. I was sliding sideways, slowly picking up speed. I tried flailing around to get a toehold with a ski or a hand but I was now facing down the hill looking up at the sky going faster and faster. Oh shit.
The realization dawned on me; I wasn’t going to be able to stop myself. Only something down the mountain was going to stop me. I was going straight down the mountain head first. I had my arms out to slow myself, but I put them over my head. Broken limbs aren’t fun but from my work at a brain injury rehabilitation center I had seen what devastation a traumatic head injury could wreak on someone’s life.
Now it felt like I was rocketing down the slope. I closed my eyes and braced for impact. Oh shit. It seemed like death was the most likely outcome.
I should have been a better son. I should have been a better brother. I should have been a better boyfriend. I should have been a better friend.
And then … air. I was flying. I had hit a sort of ramp at the bottom, snow pushed up to clear a connecting horizontal run across the bottom of the mogul slope. I twisted slightly to see I had just barely flown over two chatting university-aged women who seemingly hadn’t noticed the big foreigner hurtling toward them. Somehow the upward trajectory had slowed me down a bit and I landed on a flat, gently sloping bunny hill. I hit my shoulder hard but somehow my equipment and limbs hadn’t gotten twisted up and I slid down the mostly empty slope for 10 meters until I came to a stop without injuring myself or anyone else. A miracle.
I learned a couple of things:
- Consider not doing dangerous sports, especially when you are over 40. It is not worth it.
- Be careful with physical sports. Protect your head most of all.
- It’s the people. I thought about the people I was close to.
- It’s how you act. I hadn’t been bad to the people around me, but maybe I hadn’t given my best. Give your best.