Reflections from the Swamp
Moses walked to the top of the mountain, between the heavens and Earth, where God came down and gave him the Ten Commandments. He had it easy compared to our ascent of Mount Whitehorn.
My sixteen-year-old big brother, Arie, often went skiing on the weekends. Wearing his three-foot-long black and white striped toque, green ski jacket, and cool-guy sunglasses, he boarded a bus from Calgary, bringing him to Mount Whitehorn near Lake Louise on Saturdays. Arie was quite the guy. They called him Groovy Doovy at school. He may have been cool, groovy and far out, but sometimes he was just ‘too much’ man!’
While skiing, he conscripted me to deliver his 73 Calgary Herold newspapers on his paper route on 17th Ave. I was 12 years old. Saturday papers were as heavy as stones. There were six sections, a Saturday magazine called ‘The Weekender’, and a pack of fliers inserted into the mammoth newspaper. I stole a shopping cart from a local grocery store to facilitate delivery. Spending five cents for a double scoop of Maple Walnut ice cream at the Palm dairy left me with 20 cents from the quarter he paid me to deliver his route. The exploitation of child labour was alive and well in our household.
Our family went to Lake Louise to drop Arie and me off at the ski hill on a cold, sunny winter day. My parents bought me a ski-lift ticket, including the rented equipment, for 10 dollars. Arie was none too pleased to be stuck with the albatross of a little brother hanging around his neck. A grainy family home movie shows me descending a short bunny hill awkwardly on my rented skies as my brother sails by in the background. The film is not an accurate account of what happened that day. Younger siblings are waving at us as we ski by them—two Olympiads in the making. My parents then leave, taking the younger siblings to the dump to look for bears, our form of cheap family entertainment.
Arie glides over to the chair lift like a ballerina as I fumble my way over. As the chairs turn around the bend, you’re supposed to be able to maneuver onto the seat in the two seconds allotted. I fall, the chair bangs my head, and the operator curses and stops the chair lift. Hundreds of people up the line are left hanging, turning to see which yahoo has slowed down the parade of skiers this time. Once we were airborne, Arie lifted the safety bar to afford us an unrestricted view of the path to suicide into the winter wonderland below. He’d do anything to make this trip memorable.
The cables squeak and complain as they squeeze between the tower wheels. The squealing sounds contrast with the silent, pillowing snow covering the spruce trees and frozen ground below. We see the trees standing at attention between our dangling legs, adding their fresh fragrance to the cold, wintery air. The lodge finally disappears from view behind an outcrop of grey snowcapped rock, ever diminishing in size. We are approaching the heavens but will have to take two more chairlifts to the top of the world. It dawns on me that this adventure may be above my pay grade as a novice skier.
I miraculously step off the creaky lift as it rotates around the platform and make my way to the hill. Arie calls me to tell me that we still have two rides to make it to the top. A discussion ensues. I think this place is plenty high enough to ski down and point to several skiers making their way down the slope. Arie responds with something that includes the word ‘ wimp.’ I’d rather be a suicidal maniac than a wimp, so I dutifully proceed to the next lift going up the mountain.
The wind pours down from the mountain tops above. The wind whispers that the way down will be fast and fluid. The adrenaline flows into every crevice of my body in response to the rising fear that permeates my mind. We complete the last two lifts up the mountain and arrive at the top of the world. A fantastic vista of snow-covered mountains surrounds us. It’s all downhill from here. I briefly wonder if we can take the chair lifts down the hill.
Arie looks at me with his long toque wrapped around his head. I can see my distorted reflection in his sunglasses. I feel like telling him that I can’t do this. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, tears begin to well under my sun goggles. He waves at me, “See you at the bottom,” and he slides adeptly off down the hill, soon to disappear around a bend. I am alone in the world. My path downhill is a steep one filled with twists and turns, protruding rock faces, trees, moguls, and probable death.
How could he abandon me? Anger replaces the fear that permeates every fibre of my being. I will tell his girlfriend that he spends an hour popping zits before school every morning. Next time I’m delivering his papers, I’ll dump them all in the trash. I’ll tell Mom about the Playboy foldouts under his mattress. He’s going to pay big time for this!
I begin to make my perilous descent, often falling, crashing into trees, trying to move as slowly as the steep slope will allow. A rock face abruptly arrests my progress. The shock knocks the wind is out of me, but I don’t think I broke any bones. I decide to take off my skis and walk the 200 miles to the bottom.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s Arie.
He hasn’t skied down the hill after all! He encourages me to get up and demonstrates how to do the ‘Snowplow.’ I feel an overwhelming sense of relief and a sign of new courage to make it through the ordeal. We stumble our way down the mountain like two ants to the final chute that leads to the lodge.
On the final chute, I point the skis straight down the hill. The rush of speed was immediate. That sense of immortality felt by all skiers filled my soul. There was a sensation of weightlessness as I passed Arie and flew towards the lodge. I was fully alive, and nothing could stop me now. I finally slowed down just before approaching the chalet.
Arie pulled in beside me seconds later. I casually remarked, “Keep practicing, and someday you might beat me in a race.” He gave me that big brother smile and replied,” OK, but not today, maybe next time. Hey, check out the babes on the bunny hill!”
We went into the chalet and ordered some hot chocolate. I settled into a comfortable chair and stayed there until our parents picked us up. There is only so much heaven and hell you can take in a day and still live through it.
Sipping the hot chocolate while staring out of the chalet window at the skiers ascending and descending the hill, I sensed that something had changed and would never be the same again. I was growing up and leaving my childhood behind. Life is full of slips and falls, rockfaces and moguls. Somehow, with courage, we can make our way through it.