THE 40-FOOT SAILBOAT rocked gently back and forth on the ink-black waters off Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It was the last night of a 10-day trip up the remote Bute Inlet, where a crew of skiers and I had been using the boat as a basecamp to access some very steep and inhospitable mountains. While the adventure level had been off the charts, the snow on the peaks had been ravaged by wind and freezing temperatures, resulting in some difficult skiing conditions. After sharing the close confines of the boat's cabin for so many days and nights, it's safe to say the five of us were sufficiently crispy. Yes, we were ready to go home.
That night, we rolled out our sleeping bags on the boat deck to take advantage of warmer temperatures. We had GPS coordinates, but there's no way I could tell you where we were—some nondescript cove among a thousand nondescript coves. There was no moon, and it was completely black. Except for the billions of stars shining down and being reflected upon the water. It was like we were floating on a cushion of starlight, and my heart was overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude.
Like so many days before and after that moment, it's not the darkness that I remember. It's the light. As a young skier growing up in Salt Lake City, my family and I would often flee the valley smog by heading up the canyon to go skiing. Emerging from the choking brown haze into the brilliant sunshine felt like a rebirth. Up above the clouds, everything was better—the air, the smiles, the mule kicks—and made you want to scream out in joy like Joliet Jake from The Blues Brothers: "Jesus H. Tap-dancing Christ, I have seen the light!"
Ever since, it's been obvious to me that skiers have a special relationship with light. At its most fundamental, it blesses us with radiant heat during the coldest and darkest times of the year, and provides visibility to navigate during a storm. At its most mystical (to my non-scientific brain, at least), it refracts across the contours of an otherwise immaculate slope of powder, revealing wrinkles and wind lips with blue shadows and reflecting off surface hoar like tiny pieces of shattered glass.
The relationship goes even deeper for ski photographers. Their entire profession relies on it, and they are militant about finding just the right amount. Location scouting, hiking for miles, and setting up compositions are almost all dictated by light. And they will happily wait for it.
The world could be on the verge of imminent destruction, but until that little cloud moves away from the sun, they—and the skier—aren't moving a muscle. On that sailboat trip to BC, skier Chad Sayers waited so long at one point for photographer Dave Heath to give the signal that his feet went numb inside his ski boots. To warm them back up in the high alpine, Sayers placed his bare feet on mountain guide Jia Condon's stomach. I stood nearby eat- ing a sandwich, pretty glad to just be the writer. But the images Heath captured were stunning, with Laura Ogden scoring the POWDER cover from that same trip.
I'm not particularly religious, yet like a lot of skiers I find a sense of spirituality in the mountains. It's hard not to when the clouds part at the end of a powder day to reveal the golden rays of a sunset, or when the dark of night gives way to the pinks and purples during a dawn patrol in January. Or when the stars are so thick you can scoop them out of the ocean and sky with a spoon. Maybe these natural phenomena don't mean anything and are simply the random collisions of plutons and atoms that occur during our brief planetary cruise through the solar system.
But I like to think these moments do have a deeper meaning, and that we'd be remiss to not pause and recognize them when they occur. If for no other reason than to be thankful for our little spot on Earth when the light filters down to poke holes in the darkness.
This story originally appeared in the January 2019 (47.5) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.