We live in the Northwest and have access to many recreational opportunities. In the summer and fall we go hiking and camping and in the winter, and even spring, we go to the mountain for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding. Our winter sport is snowboarding.
I was in my early forties when I took up snowboarding. I was in a ski instructor class at the local resort learning how to teach skiing. The lead instructor was going on about the method as I stared off at the summit of Mt. Hood. You had to turn like this and keep the skis this way, etc. Skiing had always seemed so rigid to me. Suddenly, a group of snowboard instructors-in-training came flying by, some were flying as they caught air off bumps in the snow. I thought, that’s where I need to be. That day I bought a snowboard. I took a six-week course that was a fast track into instructing. I got my first class that season. I had three six-year-old students, and one of them was my youngest son, James.
Three years later James and I, along with my oldest son Andrew, were shredding the slopes of Mt Hood Meadows on a regular basis. Mt. Hood was 90 minutes from our house, so we went there whenever we had the chance.
Our regular routine was to leave home as early as possible so that we would get to the slopes early and get the fresh powder before everybody chewed it up. The boys hated the early departure time. For us it was 0600 hours, 6:00 AM. We weren’t the only ones who thought like that. We were members of an elite group. We lived for the powder and the fresh runs. The drive there was like joining a parade of friends as we turned onto Highway 26 and headed east to Mt Hood. The diehards were easy to spot. Whether they were in a sedan or an SUV you could tell they were kindreds by the rack on the roof of their vehicle. They would have either snowboards or skis, and many times both, in the racks.
I drove and they played with their portable gaming machines, Gameboy or PSP. We had season passes so we didn’t have to wait in the lines for lift tickets. My wife didn’t partake of the sport, so it was a time for me and my sons to spend together.
When I started snowboarding, my sons started snowboarding. During the three years prior, we had become very proficient on the boards. We had been to both resorts on Mt. Hood, Timberline and Meadows. It was Timberline where it had all started. We had a timeshare that gave us access to Whistler, BC and we went every year.
Every year meant a new board for each of them. As your skill increases on snowboards, or skis, you get longer ones. You want to get a board that is close to your height. The physics behind the skis and snowboards is the longer the platform, the faster it will go. My snowboard was longer than those that my boys used. Andrew’s board was longer than James’ board.
This day was one of those epic days for snow sporting. A fresh delivery of the white stuff had come the night before, the resort slope maintenance crew had done an excellent job of grooming the runs and the sun was out, not a cloud in the sky. We rode the slopes until noon, stopped about 45 minutes for lunch and then went back out and rode some more. We covered the mountain from the green runs (beginner) to the blue (intermediate) to the black (expert). We spent most of our time on the intermediate runs mainly because they were longer. You could go from the peak to the parking lot on a good intermediate run.
It was about mid-afternoon and we were going to take one last run and head home to the hot tub. Andrew told me that his stomach was doing flips. He loved to put hot sauce on everything. He was 12 years old. I figured that he knew the way to the car and could sit there for a few minutes while James and I took the last run. As part of our riding gear along with the gloves and goggles, we each carried one of those Family Service Radios (FSR). They are pocket sized walkie-talkies. We also had a lapel microphone so you could keep the radio in your pocket. All you had to do to talk was press the button on the mike on your collar. He could call me on that if he needed anything. I gave him the keys and off he went.
James and I rode the Cascade Express chair which took us up to the highest point at the ski resort. From there you could take a handful of runs to the base. We chose Texas Trail. It was a wide, long blue run. We left the lift house together and we had to negotiate through some traffic. People were stopping to check trail maps or gear or just to chat. Soon we were on Texas Trail.
I had read an article that talked about the nirvana that surfers get when riding the waves and, especially in the pipe. The bonsai pipe is the tube of water where surfers want to ride the most. The equivalent to riding a great wave in snow sports is riding or skiing a great run. That day, Texas Trail was a great run. Without realizing it, I had gotten a considerable distance ahead of James, because of the larger board that I was using compared his board.
I was riding along, and everything was quiet except for the slush of the board on the snow. I was feeling that nirvana that surfers get. I was in that moment. Then I heard it. As clear as someone speaking to me in my ear. You know how the music sounds when you listen to it with headphones? Well, it sounded like that, but I wasn’t wearing any headphones or earbuds. It was a voice. It had no gender, it was just a voice. It wasn’t too loud or too soft. It was just the right audio level.
The voice said, “Look back.”
I was riding right foot downhill, so I turned and looked over my left shoulder. I saw James about 200 yards behind me. He was there for one second, just at the very moment that I looked. Then he was gone. Down in a flurry of snow, like a cloud of dust shooting up.
I dug in the left edge of my board and hooked it into a hard turn to the left and came to a stop facing uphill. I got on the radio and asked, “James, are you alright!?”
He replied in an out of breath, shaky voice, “Yeaah, I’m okay.”
I couldn’t get to him any faster than he could pull himself together and come to me. The ski runs are great for skiing and boarding on, but they suck bad to walk on them. Your boots sink up to the ankles even on packed runs and this was pretty good powder. So, I waited. It took him about a minute to recover enough to ride down to me. We waited another couple of minutes. He was fine. Then we went down to the car.
James was nine years old then. He was his Mama’s baby. I have often thought about the voice and the consequences that would have followed had I ignored it. I'm glad that I did not ignore it. It was so clear, how could I? It was like someone calling your name across a crowded room. You hear the call even in the noise and turn in the direction of the caller.
My son is 24 now. I’m writing about this experience because it is as vivid in my mind now as it was that day. I have heard the voice since then. It’s like tuning one of those old analog radio sets. You turn the dial back and forth trying to get the channel just right where the music is perfectly clear. When you get it, it stays set.
Listen to the voice. It’s hard to hear, but it’s there. There may be a message for you.