Faith in the Highest

This article first appeared in The Ski Journal Issue 15.1

ABOUT THE SAME TIME that I saw my first cross atop the mountain, I experienced my first loss from an avalanche. It was before I was really a skier; I was more a climber who happened to ski. There had been an avalanche the week before. Two heroes of mine approached a powder-choked couloir in the Madison Range in autumn. The early season snowpack gave way, as it so often does.

I was in Austria, visiting family, and we were hiking in the foothills of the Alps. I saw something strange on an appealing spire of limestone and started scrambling, then soloing to get a better view. It was a Tyrolean cross, put up between the great wars to commemorate the suffering of soldiers, the majority of whom died from avalanches and exposure while serving in the Alps in World War I.

But was that the only reason they were there? There had to be an alpine spiritualism before ethno-nationalism and full-on bloodshed spread to the mountains. People have always turned toward spirituality in the face of overwhelming uncertainty, tragedy most of all. Those of us who live, play and worship in the mountains have always known to give respect where it is due. Colin Fraser, a historian of avalanches in the Alps, wrote in his book, Avalanches and Snow Safety, an early adage spoken by mountain dwellers, “What flies without wings, strikes without hand and sees without eyes? The avalanche beast!”

In the first millennium A.D., scores of pilgrims perished on their way to Rome under the force of avalanches. In the Middle Ages, alpine communities blamed avalanches on witchcraft. One legend told of an old woman dressed in black seen riding the crest of an avalanche while spinning yarn. Many people who were suspected of causing slides with dark magic were burned alive.

While the majority of Tyrolean summit crosses were erected in the 20th century, their origins are largely medieval, part of a 12th century Catholic effort to replace Pagan superstitions. Alpinists erected so-called weather crosses to tame the harsh storms that battered high-alpine settlers and created avalanche conditions, but the crosses did not wholly supersede Pagan beliefs. In the late 14th century, villagers were still burying eggs at the foot of avalanche paths in the hope they would remain stable throughout the winter.

Skiers have always been the vanguard of winter exploration, and as such they are often exposed to the most tragedy. I learned early that while there are few old, bold skiers, there are even fewer who have not lost bold heroes, bold friends. Standing atop that crag of limestone I tried to imagine a life without risk, a life without the mountains. No single couloir is worth dying for. No line perfect enough, no summit so powerful as to make a life lost worth the endeavor. But rocks do fall and avalanches do happen. Skiing is worth the calculated risk.

In an Old Babylonian version of the epic of Gilgamesh, the hero dreams he is crushed by an avalanche. He describes being consumed by the mountain, it collapsing on him. The hero’s friend interprets this dream as a trial, the gods deciding who lives and who dies. We mortals aren’t granted the gift of foreshadowing. And so we calculate the tangible—assessing the snowpack and making terrain decisions before casting off into the mountains, this way or that, managing our risk as best we can.

Every skier knows we can only hedge so far; we cannot hedge so we cannot erase risk. So we haul crosses to distant summits, take our leaps (and turns) of faith, and pray that today isn’t our last breathing that rarified mountain air.


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