Dawn Patrol By: Allison Perry
Words: Allison Perry
Images: Kristofer Noel
On the phone last night with a friend who still lives in NYC, I mentioned that the next morning, this morning, I was awakening at 4:30 am to go skiing with my boyfriend before he had to be at work.
“Ugh. Are you serious?” she asked. “Why would you do that to yourself? I can barely get up at 7 to go to work. You’re crazy.”
Of course she conveyed this all in the good-natured manner of someone who thinks fondly thinks of lunatics, in much the same manner I usually react to anyone who announces they are traiing for a marathon, and while I know she supports whatever insane endeavor I feel I must embark upon, there is no mistaking the fact that she, and many, many others, will never understand the concept of dawn patrol or why we, as backcountry skiers, subject ourselves to its early morning rigors.
Here’s what we sound like: “I’m going to purposefully wake up when it’s still dark out, somehow ski uphill for hours with a bunch of weight attached to my body while gasping for air and alternately freezing and sweating. All this to ski downhill for maybe ten or twenty minutes while risking the possibility of getting caught in an avalanche and/or suffering a horrific injury courtesy of a rock or a tree. I am willingly ignoring the existence of chairlifts and ski resorts, the possible presence of wild animals, and the option to go to the gym for a safe, sheltered, early morning workout.”
As I lurched up the skintrack under the canopy of 5am darkness, I found myself wondering how I could explain all this insanity to my friend in a way that she could understand.
Here’s what I wanted to say, how I thought I might explain it:
While I’ve been on this same skintrack many times, in the space between darkness and waking hours it becomes otherwordly. Nothing exists other than stark white snow and darkened trees, like centurions, lining our path, limbs striving upwards towards straggling stars who stubbornly refuse to blink out as the sky begins to turn bluer and bluer.
As the shadows melt, colors start to come into focus, mountain tops show their faces, the world is revealed. Despite numb fingers and toes and the river of snot pouring out of my nose, these moments are pure enchantment.
When I’m on dawn patrol I feel as if I’ve stumbled upon a secret corner of the forest set aside just for me. The only sounds I am aware of are my skins whispering over the snow and my heart beating solidly in my chest. I easily tune out my partner a little ways ahead of me and watch my dog darting in and out of the dark woods, disappearing, then reappearing. It’s just me and Mama Nature. The shock of cold air moving in and out of my lungs is invigorating, my head is clear of cobwebs, and I savor the feeling of each muscle as it clamors from inertia, warms, and propels my body forward.
While you were asleep this morning, I was at 10,000 feet watching the sun’s pale pink and yellow fingertips gently nudge the mountaintops from slumber, and was so filled up by the stillness of it, the perfection of it and the smallness of myself within the scene that in that moment I understood acutely that there is nothing in the universe that means more to me than this.
I’d also point out that, lest we all forget the point of these missions, that I got to ski fresh powder, something that is not always abundant on the ski resort, and that I got to ski it alone with two of my favorite beings in the entire world.
Then I’d sit back and wait, listening for those three small words to come through the phone and into my ear: “Ahh, I get it!”
Ok. Four words.
In reality, after all was said and done, as I sank into my couch to ride out the rest of my morning, a text message beeped in from my friend:
“How was it?!? Are you alive?”
Here was my chance! My golden opportunity to convert a skeptic!
“We are alive! And I got to eat a cheeseburger and a Snickers bar for breakfast! Booyah.”
There are simply some things you can’t put into words, at least not in a text message, for someone who doesn’t live for the same moments that the lot of us here in Telluride seem to be addicted to.
What can be universally understood, however, is guilt-free meat, cheese and chocolate before 10am.
My friend’s response?
Damn right you are.