Finding a pulse
“Do you think I should jump?”Josh Malay is asking me this as we both stare down at a shiny, black glove on the ground below us from 20 feet up in the air. We’re riding up to the top of the Riva Bahn Express for a tree run after three runs in the snowboard park.”Look at it. It’s just sitting right there,” he says. “It’s probably been sitting there for a while.”Malay can tell for sure that it’s an old-school Swany glove. He collects them, the same way that he collects old snowboards. He gets boxes of free gloves from his clothing sponsors, but he never wears them.”I’ll just cover up the Swany logo, or I’ll safety-pin a logo on them to make it look like they’re the right gloves,” he says. This makes me laugh. He starts to laugh, too.He decides not to jump. He still stares back at the lonely black glove tempting him as we continue on our way up the mountain. “Maybe it’s a Swany that I’ve never seen before,” he says. “Maybe,” I reply. “Just sitting there, waiting for someone to find it.” BearingsSometimes the weaving trail of life is such that you end up in a place without really knowing how you got there. It can be a beautiful thing – like taking a wrong turn on the mountain and finding a powder stash that you never knew existed, or losing your way on your bike only to end up in a field brimming with wild flowers.
How you got there is not the important thing. To go back is never the same, either. It’s impossible to recreate those pure moments – the unflawed points along the path where everything converges correctly for just a short while. The perfect harmony encapsulated in those moments is something we aren’t entitled to hear perpetually, but it is a tune, nonetheless, that we will always recognize every time we hear it again.That whole morning with Josh was one of those points in my life where I managed to keep time with the perfect beat. My own bio-rhythm matched with that of Josh’s, and everything that surrounded us – mountains, trees, snow and sky – seemed to be following along harmoniously. Undoubtedly, I had found the mountain pulse.Nearly two weeks later, while riding in the Andorran Pyrenees for a Transworld Snowboarding editorial piece, Josh would take a bad fall off a cliff, hit his head on a rock, and die in a hospital in Barcelona Spain from complications to the brain. He was 23 at the time, just like me. Before he left, Josh called and left a message on my voice mail.”I just wanted to call and say, ‘Thank you very much,'” he said. “The article turned out super good and I’m glad that we could do that. I appreciate all the rad stuff that you wrote. Give me a call if you need anything or you want to shred.”Did I know him that well? No.We hung out for a little less than four hours. That’s it. That juncture in my life, however – just those four hours – will always remain a cherished memory.How I ended up on that chairlift? It took just a phone call, a checking of schedules, an early-morning rendezvous at the base of Golden Peak.
How I ended up spending a morning with Josh Malay, prized local pro shredder, a week before he would forever leave Avon – and this world, tragically – is beyond me.And why I saved that message before Josh’s death, instead of erasing it?I don’t know. I don’t believe in pre-determinism. It’s a life philosophy for suckers, I feel.I do believe in that morning, though. Even at the time, there seemed to be a reason for it. Something larger than myself seemed to have put me there in that spot to make that connection. I was looking for a good story, and in doing so I came to a crossroads – a place where there was no turning back.To ponder which turns I took to get there is to take a dead-end street. After mourning for Josh and his family, I came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to continue down the path. I’d have to find the pulse again somewhere else with someone new.DriftingI’m standing in the lucid tail waters of the Yampa River outside of Steamboat making casts at a 24-inch Rainbow trout hunkering down in a hole about 10 feet in front of me. My friend and guide, Paul Killino, of Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon is coaching me while he takes long drags on one of his Marlboro Reds.
The week before we’d gone fishing together for a story – a first-timer’s account of fly fishing – but today we’re in the river with no purpose other than to haul in trophy fish, or pigs as Paul calls them. There are no deadlines, no weighty expectations. The only thing we’re worried about is at which depth the bait needs to be and what nymph fly the fish will take a swipe at.I continue to drift my line in front of the fish, again and again, again and again. We switch bait. I move a few feet to the left. Paul instructs me on how to make a more fluid cast. I continue the routine of casting and drifting. Finally, the fish takes the bait, or as Paul says, “Buys what we’re selling.”It runs with a force I’ve never felt before on the line. “Let out some line,” Paul yells. “Keep your rod up!”He barks orders at me as the muscles in my arm strain to keep the tip of my rod pointed toward the sky. My heart is drumming.The fish is winning the battle. The pig sprints for a hole underneath a downed tree in the river – a safe retreat it seems.Somehow, the line doesn’t snap. Paul takes over and manages to get the line out from under the tree, after a couple of intense seconds. He gives the rod back to me and guides me as the fish continues to try and sprint downstream. Finally, I reel the pig in close enough that Paul can snag it with a net. “Look at this mother (expletive),” he yells as he holds it up out of the water.
A huge grin creases his tan face.The fish is the biggest trout I’ve ever seen, a full 24 inches.As I grab it out of the net and wrap my thumb and my fore finger around it’s slippery right flank, I can feel it shudder in my grasp as it gasps in the open air. We snap 10 pictures and then place the trout softly back in the water to swim away. My heart’s pace slows.Trying to find a pulseIf the feature had a generic name like, “Outdoors and Recreation,” maybe I would sleep better. My editor would probably sleep better, too.The “Mountain Pulse” title torments me. To write this feature each Friday is seemingly to take on the responsibility of finding the pulse of this place. Who thought up the name, I’d love to know?I am not a physic, or a paramedic or a certified mountaineer. I’m just a 24-year-old English major who was born and raised in Colorado – both things that my editor assured me would suit me well for this task.I’ve wrestled with the role ever since, even though my editor continues to say, “This will get easier.” Each week I find myself searching for something – anything – as I try to find the answers as to what gets people’s hearts pumping up here in this valley.Why are we in this place? What drives us here? What keeps us breathing?
I’ve failed miserably at times. One article on disc golfing – a favorite sport of mine – possibly captured the pulse of the mountains, but it also captured the wrath of a disc-golf chat room made up of club players on the Front Range.I got 12 nasty, querulous e-mails, essentially because I wrote, “Disc golf is golf’s younger, trashier cousin.”I was trying to be creative. The chat room junkies thought I was a hack.Some stories had pulses, but if anything, they were fading.Others were missing something.There were times, though, like when I was in the halfpipe with Josh, or on the river with Paul, that my heart seemed to beat in tune to the rhythm of the mountains.I’ve found the pulse in bizarre places – the cozy living room of the Bidez family in Minturn while doing a story on 17-year-old snowboarding phenom Clair; the conference room of the Vail Daily while chatting with local U.S. Freestyle Ski Team star Toby Dawson; or on the phone with adventure racer Mike Kloser’s wife Emily while Mike frantically packed for the grueling 2004 Primal Quest.Sometimes, I feel, my own pulse is lagging. Aside from the uber-wealthy, it’s hard living up here in this valley, and I have my moments where I wonder why I am here.Is it really worth it to work two jobs just to keep gas in the car? Rent’s a lot cheaper somewhere else, isn’t it?Whenever I get burned out, I think about the pulse of some of the people I’ve met here in this place and my heart picks up again. I think of professional triathlete Lisa Isom, who balances a full-time job, a young daughter, a marriage, and a burgeoning pro career all at the same time. I also think of Chilean import Alejandra Aldunate, who, despite working full-time at the Riverwalk in Edwards and taking classes for her medical degree, completed the world’s toughest foot race – The 150-mile Atamaca Crossing – across the world’s driest dessert in Chile last summer. The people in my stories always set me straight, whenever I seem to lose sight of the path I’m on.
A racing heartIt’s Wednesday and I’m gliding in close to 2 feet of powder on Ghengis Khan in the Back Bowls.My roommate Tom is lingering behind for his girlfriend. As I wait atop a tiny cornice, I remember that there are no friends on powder days. I turn my board downhill and take off. I head to Blue Sky Basin and paint fresh lines through the trees of Montane Glade with the muscles in my left leg stinging all the way down.I find Tom again at the top of Earl’s Express and we carve tracks together, jumping off a little 4-foot cliff on the way down each time.On the last run we head over to a bigger 12-15 foot cliff to the right of Champagne Glade. After Tom checks out the landing, I point the nose of my board straight from about 25 yards off and then fly off the rocky face into a well of deep powder. My knees buckle on impact and I cartwheel twice before ending up on my butt. Frigid snow is stinging my face and the back of my neck.I can feel my heart pounding in my chest as warm blood pulses through my veins. Staff Writer Nate Peterson can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at email@example.com. Vail, Colorado