I strapped on my first pair of skis at 13 years old. Like most hard headed middle schoolers, I wasn’t about to take lessons. But when I went with the youth group from North Beaver Baptist church, I was bound and determined to show everyone my awesome skills, experience notwithstanding! That first night I rode to the very top of Big Apple and pointed my skis towards the bottom.
I failed, horribly.
I fell, crashed dramatically, and I’m sure the ski patrol had reminded me on more than one occasion to make turns and not bomb the mountain (a term we use when skiers go straight down, instead of a controlled zig zag).
After that night, I was in love. I loved the bite of the snow, the fireplaces, the feeling of freedom it gave me. Ever since then, skiing has been my fishing. I found every reason I could think of to go skiing, returning again and again to that same mountain with every junior ROTC trip the high school offered.
As I got older, things changed, but my love for the sport never did. There were no more junior ROTC trips or church youth groups. It was time to find my people, like minded skiers willing to chase the perfect mountain with me.
One night many years later I found myself at Geno’s sports bar and grill in Boone, playing darts. I could see World B. Otto across the bar, a man I recognized but had never spoken to. He didn’t know me, and in fact the only thing I could tell you about him was that he liked to ski. I took a leap. I walked over and introduced myself, told him I was a fellow skier. He was perfectly polite, so we chatted awkwardly as total strangers do, swapping stories about a few mountains we had in common.
I made a split second decision. I asked him point blank if he wanted to come with me to Valle Nevado outside of Santiago Chile that August. World B. stopped reading his paper, looked at me and said, “Who all is going?”
“Well, right now, just you and me,” I answered.
It didn’t seem like five seconds had passed before he said, “I’m in.”
I was thrilled. I looped in Jason, my partner at HitsTech (it didn’t take much convincing) and just like that we were off to South America. The next few months were silent as we prepared for our big trip.
On August 15th, 2008, I met World B and Jason at the airport in Greensboro, NC. World B, it turned out, was the funniest person I had ever met. Jason and I laughed for a solid hour before the flight left, and getting on an international flight with a near-stranger didn’t seem quite so crazy after all.
Over 13 hours later, we stepped onto South American ground for the first time. My first act was to struggle with the only available technology, resorting a computer and headset to call home and let everyone know I made it alright. As I juggled the headset and coaxed the limited internet, I caught the eye of a couple a little ways off. They were watching me, giggling together and kind of making fun of me.
“Come on,” I thought to myself, “Do I really look that funny?”
There wasn’t time to answer my own rhetorical question, however, as we were ushered onto a bus that would take us up the mountain. My admiring couple, I noticed, got on too. World B. somehow managed to convince the bus driver to stop at a McDonald’s for breakfast and then a grocery store to stock up on a weeks’ worth of cervezas. He kept the entire bus amused with his stunts, and I couldn’t help but soften toward the mystery couple them when I noticed that they, too, were laughing.
It was a harrowing ride up, crisscrossing the mountain with hundreds upon hundreds of steep switchbacks. Worse still when I realized the road was in fact one way — in the morning traffic went up, and in the evening it only went down.
We made it in one piece and checked in around 1pm. That evening before dinner, I was hanging around the window when I saw an entire section of the mountain dislodge itself and go sliding down! I yelled to World. B and spun around to watch him come flying down the hall in nothing but his underwear. Through fits of laughter, I pointed to the avalanche and we watched the very road we’d traveled that morning disappear completely in the white.
For the next week, our busload had complete run of the mountain. No one else could come up or down if they tried. A dozen people and 4,000 acres of skiable terrain — it was going to be the trip of a lifetime.
That first day was a complete white out, we couldn’t see a thing and it made for an early day. I do, however, have the honor of saying I witnessed World B. perform what I believe was his only full flip on skis of his entire life.
We came to know that mountain like an old friend. The slopes looked like a white desert; The snow was sand and the drifts were distinctly defined, almost completely burying the lifts. Most intriguing of all were the trees — There weren’t any. The entire mountain was above the tree line. I was all the more alien and beautiful to us when we remembered that we had seen wild horses and cacti only the day before on the drive up the now eviscerated road.
Most of the people on the mountain couldn’t (or wouldn’t) speak English, so the three of us kept our own company. That is, until one day as we stood mid mountain and a snowboarder literally flew by us.
I looked at World B and Jason and said, “Damn, that guy is good!” Not two seconds later, a woman on skis sped past, nearly lifting off the mountain.
“She’s not that bad,” said World B. admiringly. And what do you know, it was the very same couple that looked at us so strangely at the airport.
We caught up with them and learned their names: Mathieu Ritzenthaler, and Adeline Pichard. Mathieu was a former X Game Boarder from France, and Adeline was a ski instructor in Gryon Switzerland. They had met some time back but this was their time out of Europe together. Mathieu didn’t speak much English, but Adeline was fluent enough for both of them.
We all went to dinner together. The menu was pasta and bread, but World B. couldn’t seem to secure himself any butter for either one. The waiter would come by, and World B. would ask for butter, trying to prove his point and convince the poor waitstaff he knew what he was talking about by repeating, “You know, el Buuteer!”
I don’t think we have laughed so hard in all of our lives. We would later learn to ask for mantequilla, but our friendship was cemented that night over World B.’s stubbornly butterless bread.
World B.’s antics didn’t go over quite as well when we ran into a big, burly, military type Russian guy visiting the mountain on vacation. The 2008 Olympics were on, and Russia was in the act of invading Georgia, so World B. walked right up and asked him how he was enjoying the invading (just for fun!)
Our Russian friend looked at us with a blank stare and barked, “FINE.” If the man had a sense of humor, it certainly wasn’t ours.
When at last it came time to go, it was hard to imagine leaving the memories we had made there. After all, we had shared a once-in-a-lifetime week together — just me, World B., Jason, Mathieu, Adeline, and the mountain.
Adeline invited us to Switzerland and I, of course, invited them to North Carolina. But we all knew how these things go — it was likely the last time we would see our new French/Swiss friends.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my adventures, however, it’s that a mountain like that holds a special kind of power, and the bonds you make with fellow travelers are forged from strong stuff. The roads opened up, new visitors arrived on the mountain, and it was time for us to go home. The real adventure however, as so often happens, was just beginning.
A mere three months later, the three of us were on a plane again, jetting off to Switzerland and Mathieu and Adeline. In April, they came all the way to North Carolina for my birthday, and three years later, they returned to the U.S. to watch my about-to-be-wife walk down the aisle. Since then, we’ve returned to Switzerland, met up in Japan, and had many more adventures — but that’s a story for another blog.