February 11, 2008

The whiteness of the squall

The meteorologists called it a snow squall, with wind gusts up to 50 mph, a dramatic drop in temperature, and whiteout conditions. The newspapers talked about the "wind chill" factor. And when it hit, I was in a metal chair, dangling high above the ground.

Early yesterday morning, when we drove to the ski slopes, the sun was shining. I'd been in a mopey February mood, followed by an angry why-do-I-have-to-be-the-one-to wake-up-these-sleepy-teenagers mood, which precipitated me yelling repeatedly at my darling children to get them moving so we could get to the ski slopes in time for my snowboarding lesson, and threatening to leave without them, which they know is an empty threat. But my mood had improved as soon as we left the house, and I was chatting happily with Blonde Niece as we drove, even stopping once to take a photo of the sun through the trees.

We'd gotten lots of snow overnight, powdery snow that blew across the roads as we drove past farms and cornfields. All the new snow was fun to snowboard on, and I spent the morning on one of the black diamond slopes with my instructor, practicing turns, learning how to pick up speed. After lunch, we — my kids, Neighbor Guy and his kids, assorted extras — headed to the triple chairlift, which goes to the highest point on the mountain. I was sitting on a chairlift, high up in the air, talking to Blonde Niece, looking down at the skiers below us, when the squall hit.

A tidal wave of cold air rushed at us. At first, we could see it coming — the trees shaking and bending. But within minutes, the trees disappeared from view, hidden behind thick swirling snow. I could no longer see the chair ahead of me or the skiers below. And I could hear screaming. Screaming voices below me and behind me, some excited, some laughing, some scared. It was the kind of screaming people do when they are on a roller coaster, just instinctive, high-pitched screaming. The bit of skin that I'd left carelessly exposed, that little bit between my goggles and face mask, felt suddenly, painfully cold.

"I can't see anything!" Blonde Niece yelled. I looked back at the chair behind us, and could just barely make out the figures of Shaggy Hair and Older Neighbor Boy, who both had their faces down and hands up to shield themselves. The chairs swayed, but seemed thankfully able to handle the wind.

The whiteness was so thick I could no longer see anything but the poles of the chairlift as they went by. Blonde Niece and I tried to calculate where we were, how soon we'd be getting off. I couldn't see anything below us, just swirling snow, but I could hear skiers and snowboarders calling to each other, screaming over the wind. "This is crazy!" Blonde Niece yelled.

The ramp came up suddenly, appearing out of blurred whiteness, and soon we were standing on top of the mountain, the familiar place completely transformed. I couldn't see the trail signs or the trees, just the snow-packed ground in front of me. Shaggy Hair Boy, strapping into his board right next to me, had so much snow in his ponytail that the curls were white. Blonde Niece swished by on her snowboard and I followed her, leaving behind a clump of skiers who were still yelling to each other above the wind.

When I looked down, all I could see was snow, and all around me, swirling whiteness. Once I was down the first hill, I could no longer hear any screaming. Suddenly, I seemed to be all alone. I wasn't exactly sure which trail I was on, and I couldn't tell what hills were coming up. Usually, when I snowboard, I can look down the hill and across the valley at other mountains. Normally, I can see the trees on either side, and the chairlift in some places, and other snowboarders. But when I looked ahead, I just saw white, nothing but a blurry, swirling whiteness. I felt like I could snowboard forever into that whiteness.

A figure brushed past me, waking me from my Herman Melville moment. I recognized the gold-brown ski pants. It was Older Neighbor Boy. Shaggy Hair was right behind him, his ponytail hanging out from under his helmet, his green coat recognizable. They turned to the right, and I followed. Older Neighbor Boy has been coming here for more than eight years and could probably board these hills blindfolded.

Snowboarding in a whiteout was exhilarating and surreal. Every once in a while, I'd glimpse a landmark — a tree perhaps, or a chairlift pole — but mostly I followed the hard-packed snow beneath my board. I could tell from the texture of the snow when I was near the edge of the slope, and I'd turn and glide back the other way. The wind was so strong that it was buffeting me, and I tried to let it guide me, as if I were a sailboat gliding down the slope into the whiteness of the storm.

And then suddenly, the lodge came into view. I was at the bottom. I went in to find the teenagers gathered around the table; they all board faster than I do so I was the last one down. They were talking excitedly, their faces red with cold, and rooting through the duffle bags to find extra gear: face masks, gaiters, scarves. Properly bundled up, we all went back out again, although by then the visibility had improved just a bit and it seemed more like just a normal, blustery winter day.

By the time we drove home, several hours later, the winds had died down somewhat, although we had to drive around drifts of snow that hadn't yet been plowed. The power company had emergency crews out everywhere, tying up the power lines that had come down. I felt sorry for the people who had been safely inside their houses for the squall, who didn't get to experience its full power.


YourFireAnt said...

Jo(e), you should chop off the last two paragraphs and leave us hanging till tomorrow!


jo(e) said...

Oh, good editing suggestion. I did go back and chop off the last two paragraphs ... and I think I like it better.

kathy a. said...

beautifully written! you are brave. i would have hunkered down to wait for ski patrol.

chip said...

Hey we must have just missed you, I brought BK to the hellenic point ski place later in the afternoon.

When the squalls hi I was on my bike, it was pretty dramatic, and fun except for the concern about cars being able to see me -- I did have on a blinking light -- and my glasses and goggles fogging up. It was like pedalling through a cloud, I couldn't see more than a few feet ahead, enough to see I was still on the shoulder of the road. When I got home I looked like I'd been in the arctic wilderness, totally plastered with snow. I have to say I just love those squalls.

jo(e) said...

Chip: Oh, we weren't at the Hellenic Point Ski Place. We were at the Big Black Dog Ski Place.

Oh, that must have been something on a bike. The whole thing was so sudden, wasn't it? The most dramatic thing was everyone screaming like crazy at the ski place.

And on the way home, emergency crews were out tying up downed power lines. I am glad the chairlift was sturdier than the power lines.

liz said...

I've never been in a snow squall, but your description reminds me of that passage from The Long Winter where the whole school has to get back to town by feel and nearly miss the town.

jo(e) said...

Liz: I'm laughing because I thought of that too. It was just like that scene.

Linda said...

I've cross country skied in conditions like that, but it's much easier to know where to go, as long as the trails are well groomed. It's an amazing experience, but I'm not sure I'd want to be going down hill really fast.

jo(e) said...

I've put the last two paragraphs back in for readers who have emailed me asking what they were.

You can all discuss amongst yourselves whether those two paragraphs should be there or not ....

Lomagirl said...

I'm inside but I'm freezing, just from this description. Much fun as this sounds, the cold, the cold! I can't believe you all went back out in it.
I like the last two paragraphs fine. I was a little worried about everyone, and was hoping you would count heads!

Artist Friend said...

I vote to leave the last two paragraphs in. That last line makes it for me, and I was disappointed when you took it out.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Cut the last two paras.

The last time I snowboarded the top half of the run was white-out and the bottom half was perfectly clear. It was so odd. At the top my sister-in-law and I kept shouting, "I can't see the snow!"

I've been up on a squall before, but not so dramatic as you describe. I remember thinking that I was flying down the hill, then abruptly I tipped over -- it turned out I hadn't been moving AT ALL & couldn't even tell! I was dizzy, too.

Silver Creek Mom said...

WOW wht and experience. Althought I like to feel the power of that squall right here at home. Or maybe taking Pictures of it. BUT NOT on a ski hill boarding. Your one brave cookie.
And a Crazy one too!!!
But we all can't be me. Thanks GOD. ;)

Great Great Story

listie said...

I was one of those who passed up the squall. I waited it out inside before walking home. The wind alone made it a challenge to get up our hill.