A year ago my dad sent me this email:
Sam: The Polish guy has dropped out. His mother’s sick or something. I’m sure there is little chance of your being able to say yes, but would you have any interest in going to Switzerland next week?
I told him I wasn’t sure; that I didn’t really want to leave Revelstoke right at that moment, and could I talk it over with my friends. I did, I presented them with what I thought was a dilemma: go on this trip and miss out on two end-of-season weekends in Revy, or stick around with the status quo. My friend Scotty actually got angry that I was even considering bailing on the opportunity and so I boarded a bus to Vancouver.
Which is maybe when the trip really began. Before the big softness of the airport terminal after dark, inebriated with the feeling of going somewhere new. Before we arrived at les Diablerets, rooftops dripping with the early spring melt. Before we set a single track on the snow.
We – that is, me, my dad, his old friend Francis, Marc, and Bruno, our guide – were going oberland on a route roughly parallel with the Rhone valley. They are professionals with the time and money to afford these kinds of trips; I was on a year-long hiatus from my bachelor’s degree. To better understand myself, I had said.
I say the trip maybe started in the cruddy lot out front the Frontier Motel because the mountains employ a different frame of reference. Up there is colder, thinner, emptier of anything that doesn’t relate to putting one foot in front of the other.
Our first day was sharp and grueling. On top of a peak, Arpelistock, suddenly our vista was snatched back by the clouds. They smothered all context, choked visibility. Total fucking whiteout, as if we were five men alone on earth.
But we got down and Francis relaxed and said, “no one can send me email,” with satisfaction. He said later over his belly that he had made peace with his lack of athleticism and dad admitted he got into the ibuprofen. We shared our first pot of soup.
These mountains are big and the sky moves quickly. I think that so long as I am alive on this planet I will be watching the weather. Dad remarked that taking a trip like this, the skiers are mostly of a particular tax bracket and I register my position in that schema.
The second day was the only day I yelled at Bruno. I could count at least three times where I had worried sincerely about getting blown off the slope I was traversing. It was a grim, grayscale slog. Eleven hours later dad couldn’t stretch he was too sore. My feet smelled awful. Mark had a far-away look on his face like he’d witnessed a terrible thing.
So we called an audible the next day. Skipped out on a section of our route, dropped down to the valley and made up distance by train and bus. We did because we could, I suppose.
At the train station, I recognized the actor who played state’s attorney Rupert Bond on the Wire, and Bruno said that I must introduce myself: “Of course, otherwise you will always regret it.” So I said hello and slapped him five and made a point about the case of Senator Clay Davis, and he said that David Simon had said that the Wire was about the decline of American capitalism.
We were headed for a hotel in Blatten. Wooden houses overhung the road; churches stood tall, facing God. Little towns perched just on the edge of things.
Then we cut a long straight track back into the upper world. We passed a shuttered village that reminded dad of his mother. She died five years prior, that March. Over cards later, he wondered aloud how long his father would live. I think acceptance begets peace, even if it’s morbid. He whipped me twice at crib and then again at chess.
The names of some of the huts we stayed in sound made up, like they just threw syllables together: Finsteraarhornhutte, Finsteraaraurjock. A bottle of water runs 20 francs in any of them. The tax bracket, remember.
We crossed the longest glacier in Europe – it was the fourth morning in the mountains – one of many little lines of people roped together, ants filing in front of the Jungfrau.
On April 1st we climbed for seven hours through fog so thick it made me queasy, where every five metres reset the system. We passed ice falls like pale blue apartment blocks. I was
reminded of a fundamental rule that applies to teenagers as it does middle agers, on mountainsides as in the boardroom: if you tell yourself you can’t do it, then yeah, you won’t be able to do it. But we made it, even the last scramble to the hut door. That evening I won an honest to god game of chess for the first time in my life.
And the next afternoon we found our last hut. Poised on a shelf of rock high above a glacier that isn’t much of a glacier anymore. Above a valley perfectly beveled by centuries upon centuries of ice. We came down a thousand odd metres that day. We could see, finally. A thousand metres down and then across the woulda-been glacier and then up again, the sun shining on us the whole way.
Francis said that the skiing, those top turns there, should be my story for the trip. As it stands, I don’t know what the story is exactly. Sure, there’s fog, and there’s suffering. There’s the wind. Francis’s bearded, watery-eyed humour; dad’s subtle emphasis on money and earning and career. The way he kind of smirked when I said, “well I haven’t really tried a career yet, so I can’t say what the opportunities are like” – even though even if I hadn’t taken this year off from school, I still wouldn’t be looking for a career, you understand that, right, dad? There are games of crib and chess and hearts. There’s soup and dense bread and strong cheese. Unglued climbing skins and ropes and crevasses.
Towering ancient peaks; cols and passes criss-crossed with histories of traders and armies and men seeking something on the far side. Bunk beds and Swiss bunk mates snoring gently. Calcified wool shirts. Cold hands and lips caked with penaten, the goofy white look far favourable to the swollen, cracked alternative. Long straight days and long evenings and folks back home and all the hustle consumed in the kwiss-kwiss of goretex knees. Seven days in the mountains, one more yet to go, and maybe those turns were the story.
It’s funny too: if the weather had been good all week, our only route out would have been impassable. Good luck, bad luck, who knows. South facing slopes had already released huge slabs. Any warmer and it probably would have been no-go.
But we made it and we found the Rhone once more, narrow and beginning to churn with the season. We skied right to the platform of the train station, not before we paused and ordered beers (cinque birra) from a woman who spoke only Italian. Each metre lost in elevation was a metre warmer, a metre closer to our finish line.
Then, in Brig, by the light of my iPhone screen I reconnected with what I had missed all week. That’s how the trip really ceased to begin. One more day in Geneva’s rainy streets and the mind bending capacity of the Frankfurt airport. Then back to BC where I had to thank Scotty for his wisdom. I think it’s not enough to know yourself or the people you love without reducing your needs to one backpack and a guide; without abdicating control to other actors (the mountains).
Anyway thanks dad. Good trip.