Kicked Off a Mountain

It was early in the afternoon in Taos, New Mexico as my brothers and I discussed our plan for the rest of the day. More of the same? Or tackle that climb to the top of the mountain? After a spirited conversation, we chose the latter.

We were on a family skiing trip. For the past few days we’d been lucky enough to enjoy good skiing on runs that didn’t require you to throw ski’s over your shoulder and an oxygen mask on your face. And, if it was any other day, more of the same would have been better than anything I could hope for. However, it wasn’t any other day. It was the last day. So doing stuff that didn’t necessarily sound super appealing began to look more appealing.

To be fair, the hike didn’t look too bad and we were in reasonable enough shape. From the top of the ski lift you could see little specks of people trudging along a ridge that appeared to be relatively flat. If they could do it, why couldn’t we? Maybe twenty minutes of walking with our heads down and we’d be atop the mountain, strapping in to our ski’s and board, ready for the best run of the week. (The whole point of hiking to the top of the mountain was being able to ski down afterward. It was a run that was supposed to be unlike anything you could find anywhere else on the mountain.)

With that in mind, we slung our skis and boards over our shoulders and began our hike. Spirits were high. We navigated through clusters of snow laden trees that remind you—if you could forget—how beautiful the mountains are, before hugging a little ridge that spit us out into an open, expansive area of the mountain. From there, the next stretch almost appeared to be downhill! It was all so pleasant.

At the end of our “downhill” stretch, we came to a halt. There was a rope between us and the rest of the trail. It had a sign attached to it that said something about being closed because it was too late in the day and conditions on the mountain could rapidly deteriorate after said time. Something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. So we discussed our options briefly, and, without much concern, decided to jump the rope. After all, there was a group of five or six people some two or three hundred yards in front of us plugging away. Plus, it was only minutes past the aforementioned cutoff time. How much of a difference could a couple of minutes make?

On the other side of the rope, the severity of the slope quickly increased. For a while, it wasn’t so bad. After all, we were hiking a mountain. We expected this. We were ready for this. But then, a few minutes later, as the slope continued to increase, something changed. It was no longer a casual walk in the woods. It was climbing stairs while being sucker punched in the stomach (a little known fact about hiking at 12,000 ft: it’s harder to breathe than hiking at, say, anything below 12,000 ft).

There was no more casual conversation. Just heads down, one foot in front of the other, straight into the wind and snow that was now falling, seemingly not at a vertical angle, but at a horizontal angle straight into our face as though each and every freezing snowflake was piloted by some angry little snowflake pilot.

The one bright side—for me, at least—was being a snowboarder. My two brothers, on the other hand, were skiers. This meant a couple of things. First, my boots were significantly more comfortable. Think of walking in a pair of sneakers vs. walking in bricks cemented to your feet. And second, I could use my snowboard to dig into the snow like a very wide, and not incredibly convenient to carry, ice axe. The combination of which resulted in me scampering up the mountain quite a bit quicker than my skier counterparts (at one point, I was so far ahead, I even sought respite in a igloo; something I’m still a little unsure about).

Finally, though, we all made it to the top of the mountain, my brothers a good ten to fifteen minutes behind me. An accomplishment that put our total hiking time a touch past our initial twenty minute estimate to an hour and a half (this would now be our last run of the trip). But, no matter how grave our miscalculations were, we had made it.

We sat at the top, snow still falling suspiciously angrily at our faces, taking in the view and admiring our achievement. Minutes passed. Then a few more. Then, somewhat inevitably, we decided it was time to move on from our pretty, chilly perch—rather, we could finally feel our legs again—so we walked to the edge of the steep slope, strapped in to our respective slide-down-mountain-on-wood equipment, and took off.

The run was good. Was it the best run I’ve ever been on? Probably not. But the snow was largely untouched by other people, and no human machinery ever ventured that high, so it made for a natural skiing/snowboarding experience. And between that and our unforeseen trek to the top of K2, there was something extremely satisfying about it.

As we approached the bottom we could see a man motioning us his way. He appeared to be an employee of the mountain. Thinking he was waving us over to congratulate us on our achievement and welcome us back with freshly baked brownies, we obliged. However, it soon became clear this wasn’t a celebration over tasty treats. Quite the opposite. He was scolding us.

Apparently he had been watching us for some time. Maybe he picked us up around the odd igloo—or, Basecamp 1, as I like to call it. Or maybe he picked us up shortly after we jumped the rope. It’s anyone’s guess, really, but the latter is surely the likelier of the two considering this was a chief concern of his. Why would we disregard the rope like that?

It was a fair question, but we had a good answer: the people in front of us seemed to. Not surprisingly, our answer did little to appease his concerns. In fact, it made things worse. He laid into us about being reckless, and putting more than just our own lives at risk. Which was a justifiable thing to say, however, we weren’t totally unexperienced on a mountain, we began our trek at an appropriate time, we came to the rope only minutes after the path was closed for the day, and people were still skiing down the mountain around us. But again, he wasn’t wrong to say what he did.

So it wasn’t all too surprising when he informed us that he would be removing us of our ski passes. We didn’t protest the decision. After all, it was the last run of our last day, so it had no impact on our skiing adventure. We would be skiing down and packing our bags either way. That, and we kind of deserved it. Something we explained to the man, which seemed to sour his experience, but he went ahead anyway. Snip. Snip. And snip. And then we went ahead and skied down the rest of the mountain, pass-less, and packed our bags.

This story is now some seven or eight years old, but it’s one we often reference. Why? I think for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a good story. There are mountains. Adventure. Danger. An igloo that probably served as both a hideout for some secret military group and a place of respite for a group of rowdy, borderline alcoholic, foxes. But also, and more pertinently, it’s a story about mishaps.

It can be easy to forget the stuff that went right. The stuff that went according to plan. Sure, there are pleasant, memorable moments there to—like going for a walk in the park with a loved one and not getting pooped on by a bird. But if everything went right those “according to plan” moments wouldn’t be as sweet, and our memories would be full of indiscernible moments. You need stuff to go wrong every once in a while. It’s a key component of life. So take chances, do things you probably shouldn’t (like dancing on a slippery floor; not robbing a bank), make mistakes, and laugh about it later. It’ll serve you well in the long run.

[Authors note: In this instance, we were, of course, in the wrong. Skiing on a mountain is dangerous enough, let alone doing it when and where you’re not supposed to. Should we have hopped the rope? No. Mountain rules, like most rules, are very much something to be taken seriously. Thankfully, nobody was harmed or ever really at risk of being harmed in this story. We never even considered what we were doing to be dangerous. That’s not to say what we did was right, or justifiable, but it wasn’t a case of neglect. We made a calculated decision (fortunately it worked out and we can now look back on it as a fun, humorous story), albeit the wrong one. To anyone who works on a mountain or looks at this as an act of negligence or defiance: sorry, and thank you for putting up with stuff like this.]