Picture the scene. The air surrounding you has teeth. You slip off right hand glove for just a moment to zip jacket, immediately feel your fingers bitten by the cold and quickly enclose them back into their shell, balling them to help warmth spread. Like the crown of the greatest ice queen who ever lived, an immense circle of sharp spiked mountains surrounds you, tens of kilometres around. Each peak is its own kingdom; each col a battle and a treaty. Turning slowly, you catch your eyes on one particularly alluring face, a white blotch in the distance with sheer rock above and below it. You imagine how your turns would look on it, then zooming out you see them disappear so quickly, and you feel unfathomably small.
A tingle in your left toe returns you to your body. Here you are. Here you stand. Nothing below you but white snow; nothing above you but blue sky. Yes, that’s better, you feel yourself again. You can feel blood in your limbs, warming them, alerting them to impending action. Your legs separate into a lunge, one way then the other: feel the stretch along your calf and up into your hamstring. It feels good. Your legs feel warmer, ready.
Oh and I forgot to mention one more thing: this mountain, this morning, is yours. You are alone. The signs, the structures of humans exist, but they themselves do not. Nobody would hear you scream. You want to. Looking down at what lies before you a sudden grin bursts across your face. Corduroy lines the piste. This run, perfectly groomed overnight into a thousand tiny ridges, now waits for you, expectantly. It is steep. It swoops down and left concavely, before curving itself into a rolling hill, then disappearing over its edge.
Something vibrates down your spine. You begin to push off with your poles, listen to the sudden scraping of snow as your skis grip the mountainside, doing the hard work. Then, before committing, you brake and stop still. Quiet again. As if you were not ready to break the reverie. Oh well, too late now. Your focus has been shifted. Away from those kingdoms and queendoms, brought in like fishing line to within the boundaries of flesh. More specifically, to within your feet.
Oh feet. Oh glorious feet. Surely we do not cannot thank you enough. How you carry us so surely. How you devote every ounce of yourselves to being stood on. When have you ever been given full attention? For a few seconds in the shower, perhaps, as we go in and out between the toes? Even that much, probably not every day. With a glance, as we put our socks on? Oh feet, you deserve so much more. You deserve hand-crafted slippers of silk and soothing baths and shrines and stars and symphonies. Instead you get ski boots.
Now, for these seconds, you notice them, your feet. No, you inhabit them. First the right. You feel its bulges and crevices, smoothness and skin stretched. You feel where the weight is. Inside arc of the heel base, fourth biggest toe, on the ball right below the big toe, and the very tip of the big toe himself. Then your attention shifts into the left. You become aware of the desire to rub and apply pressure to the cleft that lies between big toe and ball of foot, but it goes unsatisfied. You take a breath. Your feet know what to do. Thus you know what to do.
This time with intention, you push. Shins press into plastic as you drive your body forwards. This is what it means to commit. Picture the first turn. Finally, say your muscles. Find a way, say your lungs. Now you’re thinking, quickly. Four turns ahead. Between each turn you release the edges and spend a nanosecond symmetrically balanced before engaging the new ones, impossibly, uphill. What a crazy dance of gravitational and centripetal forces are at work here, you do not say to yourself, not right now; it is not the time.
Over the rolling hill you slide. No, hurtle. Gone are the speed checks; gone is the allure of safety. You are gripped by energy; it shudders your legs as you hold a sharp turn, it vibrates in your rib cage.
You are still accelerating. You (just) hold everything together. You hold everything together. You know this is it: the limit of your balance, the limit of a ski’s strength. The mountain? She is limitless, as always. However fine the line, you hold it. All is smooth, all is calm. At exactly this treacherous speed you are at peace.
Thwick. Half a second.
You fly towards oblivion. By the time your brain understands your legs are hard at work. You caught an edge. During a transfer of weight, some imperfection in the snow-skier circus found your skis and sent them off course. This, resultantly, sent you off course. Calm shattered, your stomach’s bulging in your mouth. Every cell that makes you seems to be holding on. To what? Thin air.
Just as suddenly, it is over. It wasn’t up to you. It might have come up one side, and you’d have fallen, but this time it came up on the other and saved you. Just as suddenly, equilibrium returns. The speed, still treacherous, feels calm again. No danger. Relief passing, forgotten almost already. Unimaginably one second ago, your run goes on. You take the next left turn, and the next right turn, and the next left turn, and the next right turn. The frozen air whistles through your teeth and past your cheeks.