Metal on Snow

Metal on Snow

Metal on Snow

Story by Heather Caulfield Mills
Photos by Ashley Herrin

It is difficult to reach this trail, hidden on the mountain’s north face and guarded by cautionary “Expert Only” signs. The slope below is so steep that I can’t see beyond the ledge. Around me, ice-wrapped evergreens huddle together against the wind, perhaps against gravity. Nudging my snowboard forward, I can see that the terrain drops away to a minefield of ice-capped moguls. My heart plummets. I grew up on this mountain, dodged rock-falls in places like Tuckerman Ravine, and I’ve been on my snowboard nearly every day for months. But this trail is a legend, and I have avoided it for years.

My companion, a fellow-instructor, arrives a second after me. He pauses to glance my way before disappearing over the ledge. As panic sets in, pep-talks scroll through my head, things I tell my students every day. “Speed is your friend, lean into the turn, commit.”

I used to be afraid of this mountain. In a “skiing family” where everyone from Grandpa to my littlest brother was a great skier, I was the shy, acutely cautious eldest child: desperately worried about going too fast, losing control, and falling. Sometime in my teens, I won a free snowboarding lesson. While everyone else in the group seemed to be naturals, I fell constantly that first day and was sore for weeks after. But something had clicked: this was my snow sport.

For me, snowboarding is an escape, a kind of meditation. I join my siblings as they straight-line each run (no turning), and race back onto the lift. Miscalculations can be dangerous at such break-neck speeds, but fear even more so. I let that part of my brain shut off and my body takes over, moving instinctively, by feel.

Much about this sport is counter intuitive: facing sideways strapped to a piece of wood and fiberglass, for one thing. For me, practicing techniques like riding “switch” (back foot forward), requires all the concentration of my first lesson. In these moments, my mind guides my body, performing split-second calculations of torque and weight, rotation and momentum: gravitational experiments in metal versus snow.
In New England, snowboarding means skin-melting wind chill, skimming over ice, jumping around bare patches, and slogging through slush. Powder days are that much more beautiful: an incredible silence and the feeling of weightlessness as your board floats, almost hovers, atop the surface. This must be almost like human flight: the sheer exhilaration of speed, such breathtaking landscapes.

I teach my students how to fall safely. I encourage them to let their bodies and eyes do the work. “Wherever you focus, that’s where you’ll go. Look in the direction you want to move.” These phrases repeat in my head as I hesitate at the top of the trail. Beyond the drop-off, I can hear my friend’s board scraping rhythmically through the ice. Across the valley, the river (familiar by sight rather than name), curves like a sea horse below clouded peaks. Catching my breath, I slide to the edge, visualize my landing, then plunge.