The hike to High Baldy passes along the top of the Chamonix Chutes. Photo by Eric Hostetler.

No matter where you go, there you are.  This is the primordial flaw in the vacation concept.  The principal goal, to get away from oneself, isn’t normally achievable.  In the era of ubiquitous email, it often isn’t even possible to get away from work.  Even if you do make it all the way to Bora Bora, while you’ll probably return with a tan, you may not feel much change underneath it.

That’s because there’s more to getting away than just leaving wherever you are.  Escaping yourself requires an intense commitment to the moment, an all-in mentality that leaves as little room for doubt as it does for self-consciousness.  To find your perfect center in a snowbound world without coordinates requires you to move off-center from the everyday person who operates your being.  The judgmental entity who nags us from the inside out has to sit down and stick a sock in its maw to allow your centered self to emerge and ride the invisible flow.

This world of self-discovery doesn’t exist everywhere or else our lives would be much more interesting, but it exists at high altitude in winter.  The top of big mountains are formidable environments, lashed by winds that will remove facial hair and snow that seems to fall in every direction at once.   Without ski lifts, only a handful of people might ever ascend to this height.  Before lifts, the only people around here were miners who prayed the damn snow would hurry up and melt so they could get back to business.  Anyone of that era who would venture to the top while it was under assault by snowstorms would probably not survive the experience.

It’s our great good fortune to be alive, not just in this particular place, but in a time when skiing as we know it is possible.  As recently as a hundred years ago, mankind didn’t see mountains in winter as recreational opportunities but as venues where an already challenging existence turned into a battle for survival.  If we weren’t living in this time, we would have no means to appreciate this place.

What a gift it is to arrive at the top of Hidden Peak equipped to meet its extraordinary opportunities and engage in such delicious madness.  The smog-choked valley below is a harmless metaphor for the life you left behind, the details far too small to matter.  Some of the silver the miners sought still lies in undiscovered veins beneath your feet, but the lucre of the past can’t compare to the essence of today, two feet of Wasatch white, more precious than any metal, for in its embrace you can find the dance of life.

Unlike the miners who staked successful claims, we skiers produce nothing with a market value.  Our medium of exchange is pure ephemera, for it is the ever-vanishing moment when we become indistinguishable from our actions, when we are the turn. We find our treasure in the stillness of now. That is our reward, our seam of ore.

To unearth the intangible value in the interaction of gravity, snow and human intent, try doing the dance in the chaos of sightlessness.  When the tram operator omits Mineral Basin from the list of closed areas, almost everyone will bolt for the familiar comforts of Powder Paradise or other lines to skier’s right.  That’s when you meander towards the top of Chip’s, veer off as if you were going to climb up Baldy then, just as the hill ahead begins to arc upwards, you slip skier’s right and find the powder-choked, storm-day blind plunges that are the Chamonix Chutes.

The first couple of entries are steeper at the top and so appear more menacing, but all the lines here are in fact benign the instant you settle into a rhythm.  The uninitiated might wonder how to divine a rhythm in a sensory void; converts know rhythm is all you’ve got.  Not seeing is no excuse for not sensing.  Maybe you can’t see the pitch but you can feel it.  Your skis are sinking or floating in accordance with what they encounter; they can be trusted if you trust in them.  When they rise, you rise, and unfailingly commit to the void as if you were engaged in a trust exercise with the mountain and gravity.  If I drop in the turn, will momentum catch me?  Let the splash of snow on weatherproof fabric be your answer.  Keep the splashes coming in metered beats and don’t forget to breathe.

In the rarified air of big mountains, you depend on a different kind of judgment. You have no data to guide you, no spreadsheets or analytics to inform decision-making.  You have to embrace the perfection of the adverse, find direction in the chaos and do it without much more than the will to find the next turn.  You can’t stop, for that will only exacerbate the sense of isolation and dislocation in a world that no longer seems to rotate on a single axis. Wise skiers prevail by projecting just the smallest degree into the future.  They have confidence in a line they cannot see, knowledge of a path that feels behind them before it’s here.

It takes a higher mind to find a higher line. No, we’re not talking about that kind of high; we mean the higher consciousness of high altitude, this strange, separate place that we would never inhabit were it not for our peculiar addiction to self-realization on skis.  Here in this separate world we can find our separate selves, the person divorced from the contorted identities of the workplace and family roles.  When nature drops a veil of invisibility over a slope like the Chamonix Chutes, we confront a universe of one, with only the compelling hand of gravity to guide us.   We become stripped to the essentials of identity, sensation and energy: we are only what we feel this pinprick instant in an ever-shifting flow through different densities of snow.  If we don’t make turns there are no turns and so we make them, splash, splash, splash.

In flat light it’s impossible to say when, but in twenty turns or so you’ll reach a transition that levels out.  Stay skier’s right and after the flats follow the rolling terrain into some scattered trees.  This will lead to some low-risk cliff bands with ample lines between them for finding pockets of true love.  There’s a road below you, Lupine Loop, which you won’t see in a whiteout, so keep one foot on the brakes.

If the sun were out, you’d be in sight of two lifts, Baldy Express along the road to skier’s right, or Mineral Basin Express more or less directly below.  To get here, you carved a path through a maze that wasn’t there, found down when it wasn’t a self-evident direction, moved using energy the hill let you borrow.  When you couldn’t see with your eyes, a higher mind nurtured by rare air found a line and with it the confidence to sculpt it in the next, invisible moment. You’re Alice returning from Wonderland, Einstein fresh from bending time; where you’ve been will forever inform where you go next.  You’ve found a place you’ve never been, inside you all along.

This is what you return with from the Chamonix Chutes that you can’t bring home from Bimini:  a person you weren’t when you left.  The old you, good and bad, will still be there; but so will the soul who found new trust in all that is on the sightless slopes above Mineral Basin.