Friday, February 15, 2013

The healing powers of snow


Standing atop Bald Mountain for the past few weeks has been an exercise in stilling my roiling mind and trying to listen to what the universe is telling me.

I have undertaken this peculiar meditation because a few weeks ago, my children lost their father, my former husband, two weeks after his 44th birthday. He was living in New York and his health had steadily deteriorated during the past few years. But as anyone who has lost someone they love knows, there is always hope until there isn’t.

My overwhelming instinct, in response to this profound loss, was to go up, to get on top of the mountain and spend as much time there as possible. On Baldy’s summit, at 9,150 feet, surrounded by sublime peaks and that immense blue sky, it is impossible not to search for perspective. Whether you are looking down, looking up, or looking out, the world below falls away, allowing what is important to rise up and take focus. I have always done my best thinking on the mountain—puzzled through problems, found solutions, called it a draw, let it go. Altitude is what I seek when nothing else is working. Or even when it is.

When we first learned of Ray’s passing, the mindless routine of skiing was comforting. Get dressed; drive to the mountain; hop on the parking lot shuttle; click into my boots; adjust my mask; greet my friends who check my pass at the bottom of River Run; get carried to the top. Every day on the hill resembles the one before which is a good thing. Solace takes many forms.

Yet the few runs I managed those first days were not routine, they were tentative, hesitant, wholly uncertain. When your entire world changes shape, the terrain beneath your feet suddenly does, too. Although my legs were making the usual motions down the usual runs, I was totally disconnected, out of my body, continuously scanning the sky for something. For what, I wasn’t sure.

As I turned my face to the powerful Idaho winter sun and watched the snow move beneath me, the hill started to work its magic. Subsequent days have started to put me firmly back on the hill, grateful for the pull of gravity keeping me connected to the slope. Back in my body, the anger, disappointment and grief have taken hold of my muscles. Normally, I am far from an aggressive skier but attacking the runs feels really good right about now.

I am typical, it seems, in my proclivities. Since time immemorial, mountains have been a place of rebirth, epiphany, signs. People have always climbed peaks in order to get grounded. As mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev so poetically surmised, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” Mountains are a place of healing, whether you are going up, or sliding down.

According to Ketchum’s Ellen Tracy, a therapist, as well as an avid skier, being up on the mountain can’t help but provide a sense of connection with something bigger than oneself. “Nature truly does heal,” she said. “And activity is vital. When I work with someone who has suffered a loss, my first recommendations always include getting outside and doing something physical. The endorphins kick in and when you are up skiing or snowboarding, it takes you out of the story in your head. You are forced to be in the moment.”

So why do we ski or snowboard or climb mountains for that matter? Surely for the joy. Because it is good to feel your heart race and your muscles work as you make your way down a slope. Because the sting of your lungs when you breathe air so cold it could shatter feels perfect. Because what better way is there to spend time with friends and family? Because you can be alone on the hill but still intrinsically connected to those around you. Because it heals a lot of wounds. Because on top of Baldy, you simply feel alive.

It will always be the Wood River Valley’s pristine rivers that I most associate with my husband (he was a beautiful fisherman with an uncanny and envy-provoking ability to read a stream). Yet I also see him in the mountains. I will always remember him as a strong, handsome, 22-year-old, fresh out of Yale, playing hockey in the minors, learning, finally, to ski. In my mind, he will remain powerful and fast, young and free, taking on Warm Springs top-to-bottom on his third day on skis.

For Ray Letourneau. May these mountains forever be a home.


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