Panes of Snow

JACKSON, Wyo. —

So we’re coming down from the Grand
And a man in front of us dies—
Slips on snow, no helmet, fails to self-arrest,
And over the edge he goes.
When we get to the Needle
We see a headband
And a ski pole, broken
And 800 feet down the Dartmouth Couloir
(snow stained red along the way)
A bundle of color
And no movement at all.
We know that he is dead.

I’m with Dustin; it’s the second time up the Grand for both of us. We’ll spend the next twenty-four hours immersed in a reversal of equilibrium, the stars beneath us, the talus above, doing everything we can to help, and the first hour in it’s useless.

You can’t resurrect a dead man.

On the Lower Saddle, we stay with the man’s partner, fix tea in the rangers’ hut, talk quietly about the accident because we don’t know what else to do. Later, as we’re lying in the tent, a storm moves in over Wyoming. The walls alight in shock moments of lightning, the whole thing shaking like a rabbit in a wolf’s mouth.

Dustin and I talk about the day.

“Adrenaline, excitement and dread,” Dustin whispers, and in the moments of lightning I see his angled face, gray eyes up, and think of when we first heard the cries echoing from below.

It was difficult to hear where they came from; they seemed to resound from every wall and couloir. “We’re coming,” we yelled, scrambling down as fast as we could.

I heard a man’s voice call out for help, and then something else I couldn’t understand.

“What did he say?” I asked, still scrambling.

“I think he said his partner’s dead,” Dustin said.

Adrenaline, excitement and dread.

The next morning the rangers pluck the man’s body from its resting spot in a final belay, the helicopter line lifting the litter from the mountain and flying it down Garnet Canyon. The man’s name is Bill, and we speak quietly with Mike, his partner, as the rangers talk into their radios and the helicopter makes fly-bys above. Mike says that he taught Bill to climb in 1986 and that he watched him when he slipped react slowly, as though he were glissading and unconcerned with the rapidly approaching couloir.

Bill was one of his three best friends. Bill’s daughter just finished high school, and his son is entering his early teens. Bill’s wife, Dianne, who just turned 40, is close to Mike as well.

In the ranger’s hut that morning he lowers his head to his hand as he speaks. He will see Dianne in a matter of hours.

I think of my brother Billy, who I taught to climb on the granite cliffs of the Maine coast. What would I feel if he died while we were climbing?

The helicopter and Bill flutter away to specks before disappearing into Jackson’s Hole.

Afterward, Dustin and I descend from the Lower Saddle, travel back to town. We stop at the Lupine Meadows Rescue Cache and write down what happened. At the Visitors’ Center, we drop off the climbing permit, then go to Dornan’s, have a beer, look out the windows while we mumble about Bill’s death. We’re exhausted. Dustin gets in his car and drives toward Jackson. I go to the phone booth and call home.

—————

That evening I drive to Dustin’s for dinner.

“Hello,” he says, jumping up and offering beer, food. He’s lanky, laconic. I bring bread. Part of his charm is his earnestness—ordinarily, his laughter spills out like creek water—but tonight he’s pared down to something simpler.

“How do you feel?” I ask.

“Good, good,” he says. “Better. I talked a lot. It helped.” We look at each other.

“Me too,” I say. “Me too.”

There’s a part in Kerouac’s Subterranean Blues where a woman sits on a fence; if she gets off on one side life will be one way, and if she gets off on the other it will be different.

When Dustin and I reached the Upper Saddle, Mike and Bill were still behind us on the OS rappel.

“Maybe we should wait for them,” I suggested. “I don’t want any rocks kicked down on us.”

“Let’s go to the top of the Enclosure,” said Dustin. It was nearly five. I groaned. “Come on.”

“Well. I guess I’ll be glad I did later,” I said.

The wind had been playing with the snow in isolated flurries all day; pieces would pick up off the surface and whir into space while all around them nothing else moved. On top of the Enclosure, shortly before hearing Mike’s cries for help, the wind touched a spot of snow, and a delicate flat piece like a windowpane the size of my hand flicked into the air. I watched it spin up beside me and sail out over Cascade Canyon. It dipped, and floated; I thought that it would soar on forever.

In the deepening light of the evening, I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful: the canyons and mountains and streams and hanging lakes, the fingers of snow and Table Mountain sliding off into Idaho. I looked at the Tetons entertained in the bountiful terms of twilight, and thought I could enter my passing on that pane of snow.

Local legend has it that Native Americans climbed to the top of the Enclosure and built a ring of stones to celebrate their vision quest.

I entered through a break in the ring, stepped to the center and, slowly turning, watched the edges of the world fall away—toward the Sawtooths and the Pacific in the west, toward the Snake River Range in the south, toward Yellowstone and Montana and everything north of that. A few hundred feet to the east the Grand still rose above us.

No one was in sight.

I looked at Dustin, the sun low in the sky behind him. We grinned and raised our axes.
Then we heard Mike.

—————

A month and a few days later Dustin and I met at the Brew Pub. When conversations finished and our friends packed up, we remained behind with a pitcher of beer. It was the first time we’d been alone together since the accident.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him,” Dustin said. I cupped my glass and stared into the vaulted room. All our gear that was short hauled out with Bill’s body had by now come back to us. A few of my carabiners were bloodstained around the gate, and a #7 Stopper had a crimson patch where the wires entered the metal that I hadn’t tried to remove. Every time I placed it I saw the stain. I told Dustin this.

He said, “The cuffs of my jacket have his blood on them. When I was climbing Squaretop he was always right there, every time I looked down. It’s like my stuff has been baptized. He’s with me on every climb.”

I turned the glass in my hands and thought of the previous Saturday—how, with Mitch and Barb, two friends from school, I had climbed to the summit for the first time since Bill fell.

Every time I’d fumbled with a stained carabiner, each time I’d placed the nut, I’d thought of Bill.

On the descent, Mitch, Barb and I had come to the place where the path of Bill’s slide had turned to a necklace of impressions in the soft evening snow.

A headband
A ski pole, broken
(Snow stained red along the way)

When I reached the lip of the couloir, I inched out and peered over. The snow was gone; a blue headband lay some thirty feet down the rolling rock ledges. I thought I might get it if I tried, but instead, I turned away.

Mitch caught my eyes. I hadn’t told him or Barb about Bill. Now I did. For a long moment no one spoke, and the evening continued unhurried.

“The mountains have taken many good men,” Mitch said.

In town we say: The world belongs to us. In the mountains we say: we belong to the world.

I nodded. Yes they have. Yes they have.

We turned our attention to the Lower Saddle and slowly made our way down to camp.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of The Mountain Yodel. It is republished here because the author is sick of writing about politics.

About The Author

Paid for by Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commissioner

You May Also Like
News
Christian Beckwith steps down as Executive Director of SHIFT
Community
The Comp Plan is dead. Long live the Comp Plan.
Politics
Let my people go skiing
Community
Why are you here?
Community
Let’s keep the personality politics out of Teton County
Politics
The crucible of conservation?