The jagged boulders at the bottom
of the snow-filled gully weren’t fully covered by the snow. They lay in a jumble, piled there by the receding glacier from the last ice age. There was plenty of time to fully regard them as he accelerated towards them, approaching some terminal velocity, down the ice chute into which he’d been unceremoniously pitched, headlong. His mind didn’t think about them, really, these angular blocks, black against the snow’s white. It merely held them, turning the prospect over, like some mild curiosity.
This fall wasn’t like most. Usually falls were over before one knew it. Generally, they were merely sequential photographs - one of standing or climbing, next of lying down or dangling from a rope - the actual fall skipped over by the mind. This one, however, had the curious feature, the luxury, of lasting long enough to actually exist.
The trip had started uneventfully enough. Shouldering heavy winter packs, they’d skied north along the top of a remote Sierra ridge toward Yosemite, high above the headwaters of the San Joaquin, California’s longest river. They could have been in China, though, so poor was the visibility rendered by the storm. Snow started falling silently in flakes, then clumps big enough that one could hear them thud dully against the parka’s hood. Breath came in icy, billowy gasps in the high altitude and sub-freezing December air.
The fall started humbly enough. The metal edges of the skis had slipped on a patch of ice, then bit suddenly, as they sometimes did. This slip and stop of the skis unexpectedly pitched him over, the momentum of the pack swinging on after the ski edges grabbed. He landed on his back like a gangly insect. It was there that the one small, inconspicuous piece of bad luck made its brief appearance, then disappeared into the heavy cloud cover: This particular icy patch lay in a slight dip at the top of a steep gully, a wrinkle that fell off the side of the ridge. The wind had blown its snow into an icy glaze. It was hard, and it was slick.
The smooth nylon of the pack slid swiftly over the ice, picking up speed with him strapped atop. Before the danger was ever seen, the skier was a helpless passenger. He’d lost his skis and poles early in the struggle against the descent, flicked away by the mountain. He had nothing now to slow the fall. He sped downward, hundreds of feet, towards whatever was next.
He managed to get himself oriented feet first, hurtling down this long, narrow funnel, facing the approaching end. The crash was a fait accompli. There was nothing to do but watch. His mind wandered to what damage would come
after. Of course, especially with the 70-pound pack, nothing could diminish the impact, break the momentum driving into the gray heap of talus.
Then, a curious occurrence: a lump of stone protruding through the ice, the progenitor of the angular boulders below, launched him into the air—not high, not far, but enough. The impact of landing punched him through the icy glaze and into the softer snow beneath, aborting the descent eighty feet above the angry serrations below, which had now lost their malevolence. Blood mingled with the snow.
His companions took a half hour to reach him, kicking steps through the crust, using their poles for balance. His gear had spilled out of the bottom of the gully, onto the rocks. The skis were all busted up, of course, the poles bent and twisted. The next day the skiers made their way back, through the heavy snow and howling wind—he on the broken shards of his skis.
They made it out just as the heavy winter night was deepening the omnipresent grey to black. With all the passes closed by the storm, they had to drive south around the end of the Sierras then head north to home—south through Bishop, Lone Pine, Mojave, Tehachapi, Bakersfield—then north, rejoining the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley, the valley of the San Joaquin. They paralleled its course for a hundred miles and continued, as the river swung west, rolling into the delta, then the sea.