I only turn my back for a moment, but in that time the visibility has completely gone, the cloud has closed down around me. In the haze I can just about make out a few brightly coloured skiers moving but I can’t see the lift station at all. I clip back into my skis and scoot along in the direction I think it stands. It looms out of the cloud and I push myself through the pass gate and onto the lift.
I find myself drifting upwards through a white so pure it’s disorientating. The powder below is so deep that I can’t even hear the skiers and snowboarders that must be on the piste below. Occasionally I hear voices but even those seem dampened by the weight of the whiteness.
It’s been snowing all night and all day but only now am I completely surrounded. I try to picture the top of this lift, try to remember the pistes that come off it and where they lead but the white has infiltrated my memory too, veiling the maps that were held there.
Earlier I had been off-piste, waist deep in a huge powder field and out of my depth in more ways than one. With one ski detached and buried somewhere around me, I felt the snow lock in and trap me, the fluffy powder suddenly not being so malleable.
It reminded me of the adventure I had only just finished, sailing around the Atlantic. When swimming in the stunning waters off tiny Bahamian islands, you could forget all your troubles, but the tide turns quickly there and in moments you could try swimming back to the boat and discover yourself in a terrifying situation.
More than once I found myself swimming with all my strength against the current, desperately trying not to get swept away.
Like the ocean, the mountains aren’t to be underestimated. As the snow lounges heavily on fir trees and forms a new, marzipan-like layer on the tops of log cabins, it’s easy to be pulled in, walking on unseen ground for that chocolate-box photograph.
But snow is water, it’s not solid ground and it will turn on you in a split second.
Mountains are vast immoveable giants that create a landscape utterly enchanting. Like the endless ocean, mountains are almost incomprehensibly large, their ranges layering the horizon, stacking up against the sky. And they draw us in. For every mountain path there’s a horde of climbers, hikers, skiers and tourists, lured to the challenge, the views and the wilderness.
The snow here is like quicksand and the risk of avalanche today is ‘significant’ so why are we out here? Why are we hurling ourselves down pistes at 60mph or dropping down into powder fields where hidden tree stumps, avalanches and who knows what else might be our downfall?
Why sail across an ocean, where the weather changes in moments, the sea hides dangerous debris just below its surface and there’s simply no one else around for hundreds of miles?
What is it about these vast wildernesses that causes us to throw ourselves into the middle of them?
Maybe the answer is in the question.
Maybe it is precisely the wilderness that pulls us in, even in the face of danger. In a world of safety, risk management and virtual reality perhaps it’s the wilderness that we crave, the unadulterated natural world where we don’t get free passes just for being human or being part of a certain society.
We’re out there on the mountain with all its attendant risks, its rock falls and avalanches and broken branches.
Or out there in the ocean with its squalls and currents and toothy predators.
Outside we can experience the world as it is, not what we’ve made it.
Outside we have no guarantees; it’s just us, out there, in the wild.