Sounds of Silence

It was the loudest thing in my world at that moment. Soft brushing sounds resonated like long strokes on stiff canvas. The sound intensified as I opened my eyes and slid from shadow to light. Each turn initiation was soft, followed by a sharp, energetic swoosh through the apex and a diminishing transition into the next turn.

Less than an hour prior, Bobby and I were struggling to stay on the bucking, bellowing snowmobile as we journeyed to the mountain over six miles of rolling trail through moonlit clearings and black forest. It was a spontaneous trip, born from boredom on a four-beer Friday night. The moon was full, the skies were clear, and neither of us had a chance with any of the ladies at the bar. We needed something new.

The surrounding peaks were soft blue and framed with dark shadowy edges where rock met snow, and snow met sky. In the drenching grey-blue light, familiar scenes seemed fresh and ethereal. The mountains all around us appeared larger, steeper, and more rugged. We were stoned on moonlight.

After blasting up the last hill into an upper meadow of the northern Bridgers, we killed the sled and stood there in the high mountain clearing as the last echoes died away. Speaking in quiet murmurs, not wanting to break the fresh silence, we decided on a peak that we knew as “Morning Glory.” On this night it would be “Midnight Glory.”

Skinning up through the trees, the mountain spoke to us in subtleties: the falling of stone from a crag, the flutter of a roosting bird, the stop-and-go scurry of some hardy rodent in the snow. 

From the summit, I glanced across the Shields Valley to the Crazies 40 miles distant. The sporadic lights of ranch homes glittered below, pulsing like phosphorescent plankton.

Below us spread the thousand-foot face. To our right was an enormous cliff that ran the length of the slope, shading half the mountain. The snow was week-old powder, dense but cold and boot-deep. Pushing off, everything came into focus.

It was surreal skiing. From shadow to light and back again, I rode the line where the cliff silhouette met the blue-hued powder. Closing my eyes, I skied for a time by the rhythmic brushing of bases on snow, a sound eclipsed only by the wind whistling by as I gained speed. Pulling up at the bottom, I whooped for the run, the overwhelming beauty, the silence, and fact that we were even there; it seemed impossible to be making turns in that place, at that time.

Bobby pushed off and all I could see were plumes of moonlit roost as he accelerated down the slope. He skied with the same easy grace of the moon traveling above. Stopping next to me, he whooped and laughed with excitement just as I did. We were alive, laughing, alone, and happy beneath a dark Montana sky, looking up at ski tracks carved from moonlight on a backcountry face. Relishing the new sensations of midnight turns, of skiing by sound, we descended to the sled.

We were ready to leave, but starting the snowmobile seemed a sacrilege. The juxtaposition was a difficult one—a surreal wilderness experience made possible by a shrieking machine—and the price worth considering. Was it worth it to be in that place? We stood there looking at the machine for a moment, knowing the true significance, and then pulled the cord and re-entered the industrial world with a two-stroke scream.

This essay was originally published in the November 2006 issue of Backcountry magazine.