Gliding Friendship

The morning air was crisp and the camp coffee strong. “I think I’d like to be a mountaineer,” my friend Naomi told me on the final morning of a backpacking trip in the Bridgers. “Could you teach me a few things?”

This was two years ago, in the early summer. Naomi had quickly become taken with the Bridgers. Old stories of mountain men and modern tales of Ridge Runners captured her imagination and got her dreaming some big dreams.

“I can only take you so far,” I told her. “I guess we could start with getting you comfortable on skis next winter.” It was June when we had this talk. All summer, she looked forward to the return of the snow. I second-guessed my offer to help her; worried I’d gotten her hopes up.

Naomi should not even be alive. When she was ten, she came in from playing one day and told her mom she had a bad headache. When she grew intensely nauseous, Mom knew something was amiss. An initial trip to the rural family doctor resulted in airlifts to two regional hospitals and the realization that little Naomi had suffered an aneurysm. After hours of surgery to mend the now-ruptured artery, Naomi was in grave condition, but somehow still alive. “Another 30 seconds and I would have lost her,” the doctor told her parents.

Naomi recovered. In a few months she was walking again. But that near-fatal day left her with a tremor in the left side of her body. Her arm shakes anytime she carries a load with it or attempts fine-motor movement. Her leg was weakened and she walks with a somewhat windswept stride.

Now, as a young adult, she has an incredible awareness of her limits and an equally strong desire to test and stretch those limits. Many times, I have offered to help her and heard her reply with confidence, “No, I can do that.” She is also comfortable saying, “I don’t think I can do this; I need help.” Naomi knows herself. In the end, that is what assures me that I’ve made the right choice. Somehow, I will teach her how to ski.

Our first skiing lessons start with the delightful basics of clipping in and out, walking in circles without poles—all the fun little drills that accustom a beginner to the size and weight of cross-country skis. She seems comfortable with the skis, so I take her out for some flat trail work. She follows in my track and is more steady than many adult beginners I’ve worked with, even picking up the pace and getting a good glide in now and then. The weeks pass by. She practices. We set a date for our first real ski outing, an up-and-back on the Sourdough Creek trail.

The day dawns with an ideal temperature, but not the greatest snow. There’s been a bit of melt and refreeze, and only a couple inches of powder covering it. “Are you sure you want to try this? It might be frustrating,” I ask. “Won’t know till we try,” she insists. She’s right. We load up and go.

Only half a mile in, she is discouraged. I assure her that every beginner falls some, the snow is crap, and that all things considered, she’s doing great. “I think I need to not use my left pole,” she says. “It’s driving me crazy. It just shakes and I accidentally get it hung up on the ski. I’m going to leave it in the bushes here.”

It helps a little. But, the terrain is a little more varied than she can handle. At a mile in I’m thinking about turning around. I want her to have a sense of success this first time in the foothills. I ski ahead at one point, permitting her some time to catch up to me and hopefully find her own rhythm. She comes around the bend winded.

“How’s it going?” I ask. She sighs in response. I need to think of something. I remember watching the not-so-well-known sport of skijoring back in Minnesota. It involves using a climbing harness to tether a cross-country skier to a dog. I wonder if I could be the dog? I happen to have some nylon webbing and a spool of 5-mil cord in my pack. “Naomi, I’ve got an idea,” I venture. “But it might look a little funny.” I share the details. She laughs and says, “Let’s try it.”

We fashion a tethering system between the waist strap on her day pack and mine. Two miles later, we’re all smiles. On the whole she’s staying upright and getting to pick up the pace. Yet, I’m not feeling her weight all that much.

“Is it the connection?” I ask her. “Can you sense my movement, my rhythm through the tether? Maybe you internalize it somehow.” I look for some physiospiritual link. Naomi is far more pragmatic. “I think it just makes me more confident,” she says, “knowing someone is there to help me on the steeper sections.”

We ski six miles that day. Not bad for a beginner. We remove the tether on the downhill. It’s not easy for her to go solo, but Naomi’s feeling more positive. She recovers faster from slips and keeps a smile on her face.

We are about a mile from the trailhead when we take a break. Clouds have rolled in and great alpine snowflakes have begun to fall. We are alone on the trail at the moment, and a serene quiet settles in. I realize, as we stand there in snowy silence, that Naomi has not experienced this before.

Taken with the moment, I look straight up at the snow sifting through the tree branches and gathering all around me. Suddenly, a mix of fatigue and vertigo wash over me. With no further adieu, I flail my arms and promptly tip over on my left side with a yelp.

Any friend’s laughter is precious to me, but Naomi's is especially so. She stumbles over and joins me in the snow. We both lay there looking up at the great snowflakes tumbling down. We make snow angels.

Then we’re off. Naomi completes the final mile without the tether, remarkably stable now in her one-pole system. We head to a friend’s place for hot drinks and fireside fellowship. Winter simply does not get any better than this.