A few unbelievable statistics: In the past 6 weeks over 250 inches of snow fell in Valdez. Snowplows work night and day moving snow. In places the piles tower more than three stories tall. 60+ inches of snow smothers the grass in the front yard. All the while, Thompson Pass, where we ski, receives three times more snow than Valdez. The skiing exceeds all my expectations. Knee deep every day, hip deep every other day, each day filled with endless untracked powder. We earn our turns, working as a team, breaking trail up the gullies and faces we want to ski.
On the way up we pay attention to the snow, how it feels, what it sounds like, how it behaves. We stop to dig pits to expose the buried layers of snow. We look to see how different layers bond together, we look for weak layers that might break under the weight of a skier, causing an avalanche. After climbing for a few hours or more, we stow our skins, don our big gloves, helmets and neck gaiters and contemplate the light.
Valdez sits at 61° North, and the sun rises just enough to peek over the mountain tops of the southern horizon. The Chugach Mountains often trap intense cloud cover. Like dragon’s teeth in flesh, the clouds wind between the peaks and settle into the valleys. The light and clouds combine to create an intensely blue, unbelievably flat light. The flat light obliterates all perceptions of up and down, left and right. Only the sickening feeling of gravity in my gut would tell me I skied off a cliff.
On any powder day, in any other location, everyone covets first tracks. Everyone craves the sheer ecstasy of floating through perfect fluff. On a flat light day in the Chugach, first tracks mean only your toes will know where the next roll is, only your nose will know if the fall line changes. First tracks mean skiing by Braille, with a hefty dose of flat-light vertigo. So the question remains, how do I defeat the flat light?
One solution: Wear glasses or goggles with yellow lenses. If this doesn’t make you nauseous, you might see a bit better. A better solution: Ski at night. No flat light at night, actually no light at all. No moon, no aurora, no stars, only darkness and clouds.
The solution comes from a local guy. Having grown up here, having battled the flat light all his life, he builds 30- and 50-watt halogen headlamps from parts available at the hardware store. The homemade light, wired to a small motorcycle battery carried in my ski pack and mounted to my helmet, prepares me for the darkness.
The son of a ski patroller and ski instructor, my love of the turn began at an early age. Skiing breathes life into my soul. For as long as I can remember I wanted to spend a winter in Valdez skiing these legendary snows. The voyage north to get here this summer taught me that darkness doubles everything. Darkness doubles my exhilaration and anticipation. Darkness doubles my perception and focus and at the very minimum, darkness doubles my fear.
The homemade headlamp strapped to my helmet vanquishes the darkness, yet my senses remain doubled. The darkness of night, illuminated by ingenuity, concentrates my perception into the bright spot before me. All the details lost to the flat light of day, pop with spectacular intensity. Snow glitters and flies against the black backdrop of night. I cannot think three turns ahead. Outside the pool of light emanating from my head is nothingness. Only one turn matters, this turn, it comes from deep within me and out through my toes. My mind quiets, leaving me weightless, surrounded by glittering flakes. Over and over, the turn comes, left then right, left then right. I hear nothing, I see nothing, I feel nothing. I can’t wait to go again.
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