The Next Cross
I only count when the going is tough and on this, the second day of our 8-day backcountry ski expedition in northern Sweden, the going is more than tough, it’s nearly impossible. The snow blows directly across my face scratching it like a straw broom across a barn floor. I see nothing ahead but white. Then, in a brief lull, a red X on a metal post appears out of the blizzard. It’s one of thousands of way-finding markers on the King’s Route, but the first the group has seen since the storm began. Placed in a line, 100 metres apart, they mark the 160-kilometre route across the wild and lonely Swedish mountains we are traversing. Perched on the stick like a desperate cardinal, it’s plastic wings bow and sway with each buffeting gust. We, a newly formed group of eleven skiers, are now not lost for another moment and strain against the white curtain to see the next one.
I fight the rising panic of navigating the storm by counting. A defiant act of holding one number and one number only in my mind for the distance between the crimson breadcrumbs. Except when I count my steps between the markers so I have a way to measure distance without seeing. 58 steps. The distance between one and two is 58.
My skis do not slide. Kilometres back, they seem to have traded their slippery base for one of glue. They stick. Over and over again. Each step forward is a fight against friction, gravity, and the relentless wind. My feet move forward in jerky succession against the wishes of the unseen snow below.
We will never reach the hut at this rate. Pulling up to stop. To adjust clothes. To stop and stare ahead. To wonder. To strain to see. Nothing. I raise my zipper to stop my hood from playing percussion to the horrific melody of the wind’s chatter. The wind finds every hole, every weakness in my clothing to burrow through and make home beside my warm flesh, stealing warmth with every gust. 57 steps.
The next marker shed its red bars. A lone sentinel in the wild. Standing lonely. Alone. Harder to see. Harder to be seen. Easy to miss. But there. Even unseen. Bearing witness to countless skiers and hikers who pass this way in storm and sun. In winter and summer. In sickness and health. Lost and found. Step by step.
Pelted. Ice crystals mixed with the wind sting my cheeks. I want to be anywhere but here, skiing 20 kilometres through a raging storm in the wild fells of Sweden with nine others I just met yesterday. Marker five. How many markers until the hut? Until I can stop skiing? One hundred? Two hundred? Another stop. Really? Can’t we just ski? Why have we stopped again? I sway with the gust. I’m cold within seconds of stopping. Some in the group must not have their systems together yet–it’s hard to tell from the back of the line. Five. Marker five. Five. Moving again. Through the white, with occasional bits of precious red.
Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow.
Frickin’ snow. Right up my nose. I’ll have to get my snow goggles out at the next stop. My small and dark glacier glasses aren’t cutting it anymore. Flakes of snow get underneath them and bite my eyes. I am reminded of the Scottish midge. My life partner, Marian, and I met the midges for the first time last summer while camping in Scotland. At our first tenting spot, our friend, Andy threw us out of the van and said, “You’d best put your tent up with military precision.”
We quickly learned that midges are teeth with wings. They swarmed our unsuspecting eyes and ears. We flailed and failed to drive off the buggers with our slaps and waves.
We clipped the tent’s last attachment and dove in.
“What the f––k were those?” Marian swore out loud as we sat safely parked outside their reach.
“Do we really have to go back out there with the midges?” I asked.
A snow midge brings a tear to my eye and brings me back from Scotland to this storm. Wind whips the tear from my lower lid and I long for my goggles once more. How many steps have we gone? Where is the next marker? Can there be any less visibility? There it is.
There is a discipline to counting. I counted to 10,000 once. While skiing across Greenland. Pulling my sled in a storm like this. 10,000. It took an hour to count to 10,000. And lots of focus. Focus away from the storm in my face. Focus away from the storm in my mind. Just 1. 2. 4. 4,000. 8,424. Like today. Counting the storm away. Counting away from fear and towards safety. Counting steps. Counting heart beats. Counting on getting out alive.
Marker at an angle. Leaning away from the wind. It’s tired of fighting, I guess. Like me some days. Had enough fight to last a lifetime. Leaning away. Catching a rest between gusts. Hiding in the numbers. Hiding from my grandfather’s assaults. Hiding in the tree. In the back of the closet. Under the stairs. Hiding in behind the jars of beets in the downstairs pantry. Rows of red cubes suspended in rosy red vinegar like blood on the sheets. Holding my breath. Praying not to be found amid the jars so they and I stay whole, not spilled on the floor in puddles of glass and stinging liquid. When will this f–king storm relent?
We stop. I turn my back to the wind and drop my pack beside me with a thud. I unzip the top lid and reach in for my goggles. They slide easily out of their velvety white bag and I’m careful to tuck it back into my pack and zip up so nothing is carried off by the wind. A hurried sip of water and I hump my bag up to my back once again. With dread, I turn back to face the white nemesis and plod on. One. Two. Three steps forward. That’s better. Goggles always make storms easier to bear. They give a spaciousness to seeing. Seeing more clearly until the snow begins to stick to the front of the goggles making me wish for windshield wipers. Back and forth. Back and forth. Wouldn’t that be nice? Being able to see without any effort on my part.
The storm has a rosy tinge now thanks to my goggles. The midges are at bay. I dare look up for the first time in a while. White. All white. All pinky white. Same as before–just a little pinker. A little warmer. Pink lenses. Why did I bring the pink ones? Clear ones might have been better. Oh well. Nothing to be done about it right now except remember to bring clear ones the next time I decide to ski across a chunk of Sweden. Or anywhere else for that matter. I really should learn to change the lens in these things for efficiency. That’s a skill to put on the list. Funny I only think of that when it’s too late and I need my goggles in a storm. Goggles are like great friends. Take good care of them.
Slide. Step. Slide. Step. Swish. Push. A melodic mantra of movement. Wind plus wooden skis make wood-wind instruments. A ski wind orchestra. Ha! I crack myself up and laugh out loud. Swish, swish, and glide. Swish, swish, and glide. I wish. I wish for swish. No glide today. Just a little swish and drag. Swish, swish, and drag. Swish, swish, and drag. “Dip, dip, and swing, flashing with silver, my paddle is clean and bright, dip, dip and swing.” We sing on the river in Labrador.
Marian and I sing while the boys paddle in rhythm ahead of us. We’re paddling against the wind on a slack section of the Notakwanon River, the place of the porcupine. Singing helps.
It sure does. We sang on the Kaniriktok River as well. Singing is like counting. The rhythm energizes our efforts.
“Dip, dip, and swing, my love, dip, dip and swing.”
What shall I sing today?
“Snow, snow, snow your skis, gently down the route, see the red crosses mark the way and listen to the wind. Snow, snow, snow your skis, gently down the route, see the red crosses mark the way and listen to the wind.”
Oh my, that’s a good one. I’ll have to keep singing that today.
“Snow, snow, snow your skis, gently down the route, see the red crosses mark the way and listen to the wind. Snow, snow, snow your skis, gently down the route, see the red crosses mark the way and listen to the wind.”
Shit! I just about run over Magnus’ skis. We stop so suddenly. Like a train when the emergency brake is thrown. Skis, like the train wagons, pile up dangerously behind the momentum forward. Another bloody stop. I’d just found my rhythm too. It helps to find a rhythm. Precious to find and so hard to maintain. Especially when we f––king stop so often. Shit. I was going so well. What is it now? I can’t tell what has stopped us again. I turn my back to the wind. I stand like a barren Christmas tree on garbage day in January. Waiting to be picked up by the wind and taken somewhere. Anywhere but here. My warmth drains again. I put my hands in my pocket and cower hoping to ski again soon. Minutes pass like hours and we turn to the wind once more. One. Two. Three. What was that song I was singing? Something about snow and rowing a boat…
Wow. That marker is almost covered by the snow. No extension on that one. I wonder who puts these markers in place. The marker squad. A giant line of red crosses across Sweden. Our expedition leader, Lisbet, pauses to kick a bit of snow away from that last one. Someone has placed small trunks from birch trees into the tops of the buried ones. The markers are like buried treasure. Finding one means we’re not lost. Yet.
“Between the crosses row and row, the poppies blow. That mark our place. Scarce heard amid the guns below, we are the dead. Short days ago, we lived. Felt sunset glow. And now we lie in Flander’s Fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe. To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be it yours to hold high through poppies blow in Flander’s Fields.”
Not sure I have that all right. I don’t think I have recited that since a Remembrance Day Assembly in high school. I’ll have to check out the words again when I have Google. I wonder how the soldiers lived with their fear? Did they count? Did they count the bullets? The bombs? The days they lived? The days they hoped still to live?
They had little choice but to keep going. Keep living until they died or until they lived. Young men far from home. Wishing they could be anywhere but there. The cold. The wet. The letters they wrote home. The letters they read at our latest remembrance ceremony. Letters from soldiers on both sides of the war all wanting the same thing. To return safely home. To their loved ones, their parents, their children. To make home. To make a life beyond the battlefield, chosen or more likely otherwise.
War wages still. Families displaced. Cities destroyed. Refugees on the move. How do they go on? How do they make life? Make a life? Find food? How do they overcome the grief that rises each moment? The fear that overwhelms each task? How do they find hope amid the rubble of their lives? How do they begin again? In a camp? In a new country? In a new language? In a new life? Second by second? Minute by minute? Step by step? Such courage to go on in such circumstances. Perhaps there is no choice but to go on because to stop means to die, to stop, to perish.
19. Or is that 20? Have I lost track?
The wind eases a bit and visibility lengthens. I see the next cross already. I must have a snack at our next stop. I’m beginning to feel hungry. Food is fuel in the cold. Need to keep my furnace stocked in this cold. Tinder, kindling, and fuel. That’s what I always tell my students in my outdoor education classes. Simple sugars are the tinder. Complex carbs are the kindling and fats and proteins are the fuel. What is in my pack that’s easy to reach? Hmmm. A Snicker’s bar. Yes, a Snicker’s bar – everything else requires that I open the top lid. Too windy for that. Packed with peanuts. Yup, that will do. I ski to eat. I eat to ski.
Snickers. Jenn’s dog is named Snickers. A Jack Russel Terrier and so smart. A great trail companion but wouldn’t last long out here without a doggie jacket. A doggie parka really? Ha.
Snickers in a down parka. Now that would be a sight. Might need to be waterproof down since he’s so low to the ground. Snickers in a purple parka looking like an Easter themed hot dog. Ha.
Jenn would like that image. Snickers decked out in a purple nylon cocoon of down complete with little holes in the hood so his ears can poke out. With that and some aviator goggles, Snickers just might survive out here with us.
King. King’s Route. King. King. King. What about the queen? Jack? Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. One. One. One king. Two queens. One jack. Hoping for the five in the cribbage. It’s been a while since I played cribbage. How do you make that perfect hand again? Three jacks. One five. Or is it three fives and one jack. Hmmmmmmmmm. Three fives… that’s it. Three fives and a jack. With the jack matching the cut which is the fourth five. Fifteen for two, fifteen for four, fifteen for six, fifteen for eight, fifteen for ten, fifteen for twelve, fifteen for fourteen, fifteen for sixteen, twelve for 28, and one for the matching jack. That’s it, 29 points. The perfect hand. Saw one once, a 28 too. Oh, the marker, that was quick.
Ahhhhhhhhhhh! Stopped again. Travelling in such a large, newly-formed, group is so frustrating. I wish Lisbet would split the group in two. But she won’t. She, in her most authoritative leader voice, told us we will always ski all together. Eleven of us skiing in a line until we must stop for someone to adjust a pack or zip a zipper. The wind blows through me as though I am no longer solid. Brrr. I wish we could just keep skiing. I just got my rhythm. Sigh. Stomp your feet. Swing your arms. You’re fine. Have a snack. Snack. Snack. Snack. Time for a bite of Snickers. The bar. Not the dog. Packed with peanuts. I throw my pack down and retrieve my Snickers bar. I bite the corner off and stow the rogue corner in my pocket before it can be taken to points north. The bar is frozen. I clamp down on the bar with my back teeth and wiggle it back and forth. My warm breath softens it enough to get a bite without removing any teeth. Oh. Packs are going back on. I re-stow the bar in my top lid and shoulder my pack. Brrr. Ski. Let’s ski. Just ski.
“Just keep skiing, just keep skiing, just keep skiing,” to paraphrase a famous blue animated fish.
Swish. Swish. Flap. Flap. Flap. My hood flies loose. Argh. Wrestle back into place. I am pelted in the face while it is down. Happy place, I want my happy place. Listen to your skis. They will take you there. Swish. Swish. It is time for my favourite Buddhist mantra, The White Tara Practice. Swish. Swish. I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha. I will continue to ski until all beings reach enlightenment. I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha. I will continue to ski until all beings reach enlightenment. Swish. Swish. I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha. Sangha. Sangha. Threes. Lots of spiritual practice comes in threes. This group of skiers is my Sangha right now and just like meditation Sangha, they provide so many invitations to practice. Practice. Practice. Sangha. Sangha. Sangha. Moh, my Buddhist teacher, told me it was hardest for Westerners to take refuge in the Sangha. It’s messy. It’s stormy. Like today. The path stops. And starts. And stops.
Moh taught me White Tara practice. Thank you, Moh. It breaks the spin. My spin. When I feel overwhelmed by the task at hand, usually on the side of a steep mountain, when I want to give up, stop, quit, and seek comfort in all of those, I sometimes remember to do White Tara practice. And sometimes I count. Count my breaths. Count markers. Count steps. Count anything. Counting keeps quitting at bay. Each number is an invitation away from the desperate urge to stop. And sit down and curl into a small ball and wail for all I am worth. Small. Counting counters the small. It helps me be big. Bigger than the pain. Bigger than the task. Bigger than the weather. The small voice. The small voice that grates away confidence and motivation, that cuts fine pieces from my soul, that wears me away to almost nothing. Like wood on the lathe. Like carrot for salad. I’m sliced into bits. Until I count. Or breath.
Or notice. Noticing works too. I notice a beautiful snow crystal on my goggle. Look. Look at that. The delicate branched arms. Wow. A single snowflake. On my goggle. Look. It’s melting. No. Stay. Its delicate arms taken into a drop of water. It slides. Off. A gift. One snowflake that stood out. From the rest. To remind me that I am no longer small. That I am no longer fractured. No longer broken. I am whole. Whap.
I bang into Goran’s backpack.
“Sorry. Sorry.” I apologize. “Whoops,” I giggle. “Guess, I was somewhere else.” Lisbit and Hannah check the map. Marian skis up beside me and gets my water bottle out from my side pocket and hands it to me. The cap is stuck. “Shit! It’s frozen.”
I take my ski pole and give the recalcitrant lid a whack. I break the ice’s hold and the lid relents. Cold water stings my teeth and then my throat. I feel the near freezing bolus all the way down to my belly.
“Drink up,” I coach Marian, “it will soon be too solid to drink.”
That was a quick stop. Yay. Skiing again. Swish. Pole. Swish. Pole. It’s still white out here. Very white. Whiteout. It’s white out. I can hardly see anything except Göran’s backpack.
White isn’t a colour is it? Or is it all colours? Or all wavelengths? Or was it lacking hue? Or saturation? I can never keep those straight.
How many words do I have for white? Blank. Pale. Creamy. Milky. Snow. Snow White. And the seven. That’s seven words for white. Anymore? Hmmm. How about words for snow? Flurries. Blizzard. Squall. Slush. Ice pellet. Powder. Graupel. Sleet. Slab. Avalanche. Rime. Rime. Rhyme. No wonder it can be hard to follow English.
Rime and rhyme. The rime on the tree, stuck fast by the passing wind reaches ever skyward, longing to return from where it came. A rhyme in time saves nine. Was that it?
No, it was “A stitch in time saves nine,” wasn’t it?
Yes – that old adage to take care of things that need fixing while they are still small. The rips and tears. The fights and flares. Oh, look. Another one. Tears and tears. How is someone to know whether I am crying or pulling apart? Or both at the same time?
Bleached. Another word for white. This blizzard is bleaching my view. Sanitizing it. Stripping it down. To a small palette. The mountain world often strips me. Humbles me. Reminds me that in the scale of big lands and big hills, I am small. I am but a speck. But a cool speck. A speck with spark. It is a useful reminder for it is so easy to be drawn into the human scale of self-importance. Of taking life too seriously. Of taking my thoughts too seriously. This is why I love being out. Outside. Out in the cold. In the snow. The wind. With reduction, comes simplicity. With less colour, comes the starkness of clarity. With clarity, comes purpose. Purpose. Porpoise. Porpoise. Purpose. Piss. Piss. I need to take a piss. Next break. Ugh. It’s going to be cold. Maybe I will use my funnel. I hope I don’t pee myself. Such a pain. Plumbing. Sometimes out here, I wish for different plumbing. Whip it out and go. That would be awesome when the wind is making it hard to stand, let alone pee, and the idea of exposing my backside to the howling gale and having the wind decorate my lower half with urine makes me want to hold it. Hold it in. For hours. With pressure increasing with each step, until I absolutely have to open myself to the wind and snow and go and go and go.
Shit, I have to go. When are we going to stop?
How come we never stop when I have to stop? Cause you never ask them to, silly!
Need to distract…better to wait for our next stop. Stop thinking about it. Swish. Listen to your skis. Swish. Follow your breath. Swish. Follow. Who am I following? How many folks have traversed this route? I have no idea. The Sami people for sure. They’ve likely walked this land for eons.
On Everest, I was deeply aware of climbing in the footsteps of sherpas. They made the way. Way. There’s another one. Weigh. Whey. Way. They made the way with packs laden with whey which weighed very much. Like my pack now. It’s cutting into my shoulders. I tighten my hip belt. Shit, the strap just compressed my bladder and it screams that is has to go. Must distract. Footsteps. Foot falls. Foot marks in the snow disappear. Like us. All of us. We all go. In Dharma classes, Moh often reminded me that, “Death comes suddenly without warning.”
That was a powerful teaching. It changed everything. Living each day with the embodied knowledge of my impending death makes me urgent. To live. To not waste time. Another one. Waist. Waste away. I’ve stopped tolerating wasted time. It’s like I am on fire all the time. This precious knowledge of my mortality drives me, no, invites me to cherish each moment, each step, each breath. Each will end. This day will end. This storm will end. I will end.
Shit. There’s Göran’s backpack again. He’s going to hate me.
Lisbet stops the group and calls for a 5-minute break. I drop my pack. It’s time. I ski away from the group but I don’t go far. With this lack of visibility, I might not find them back. I brace for the wind and drop my pants. In a second, the warmth is stripped from my lower body and the snow pelts my bum like a thousand small spankings. I step my skis further apart and squat. The stream of pale yellow begins immediately and becomes a raging torrent flying out between my legs and landing near the tips of my skis, splashing off in all directions, freezing instantly when it hits the snow. I watch and marvel at the moving intersection of my excretion and the wind. It reminds me of the many flash floods I’ve witnessed in the desert. Here. There. Gone. In a heartbeat or less. I finish peeing and give my pelvis a quick shake. I draw my pants, now filled with captured snow, up over my hips. I can’t make out the difference in wetness caused by me or the ice pellets but I am happy. The pressure is off and I ski back to my place in line. I wrangle the Snickers bar again for another bite, and put my backpack on again. The rest of the group stands like a herd. Weaving back and forth, from leg to leg, waiting for the slow stampede to the next marker to begin, the group gets colder with each passing second.
Lisbit turns and begins to ski and we, like lemmings, ski after her. Lemmings! We are lemmings. Geez, I loved that video game. The lemmings had to get from point A to point B with obstacles and challenges to overcome. They just kept following. One after the other. Over the abyss. In the game, they made an awful splat, when I wasn’t skilled enough to shepherd them to point B. We are hoping Lisbit will lead us to the safety of the hut. We follow. Like lemmings. It’s hard being a lemming today, bending my will to our leader, being a follower, going where I am led, stopping when I am told to stop, skiing when I am told to ski. Though there is also ease in being a lemming, in relaxing into the process, of dropping guard, and just moving along like hemoglobin in this snowy vessel. Vessel. Vessel. A ship. A vehicle for marine travel. A network for blood. A container for food or experience. A boundary that allows holding or provides pressure for movement. Vessssselll. I hear my skis sing the word. Vessssselll. Pole. Vesssselll. Pole.
“Pole pole. Pole pole.”
How many times did I hear that in Tanzania?
“Slowly, slowly.” Our Kilimanjaro guides reminded us to take our steps, “Pole pole.”
In fact, they told us to do most everything, “pole pole.” That’s how we are making way today, slowly, slowly. Foot glide by foot glide. Marker by marker.
We are skiing slower now. It is taking longer between the markers than when I started counting.
“Bistarri, bistarri.” Mingma, my climbing Sherpa, reminded me to go slower as we eased our way through the Khumbu Icefall.
I just wanted the terror of being there to be over and my facing heart pushed me to step faster than I could for long.
“Bistarri, bistarri,” he repeated, over and over again. “We will get there faster by going slower.”
I asked Mingma to climb in front so I could pace off him. He moved up and I finally dropped into the precious rhythm that carried me up into the Western Cwm. Bistarri ski. Bistarri Ski. That’s what I will do. Bistarri ski and count.
One. Two. Three.
Three people stopped ahead. Their heads are down. They stare at the ground. We ski up to them. Two women and a man. He’s shivering badly. His face pale. We jump into action. We form a wall to break the wind. Hannah plies him with sweet blueberry soup from her thermos. Jonathan digs in his pack for his parka. Magnus gives him chocolate. Lisbit tries to get him to speak. His eyes are unfocused. He can barely stammer out an answer. This is bad.
“How far are we from the hut?” Marian asks.
I spot the next marker just beyond the group and answer, “We have no idea.”
A hefty gust blows over us. I shudder. Shit, we’re all getting cold standing here. We’ll need to get him moving or we’re all going to get dangerously cold. Jonathan gets the guy into his down parka and turns him back into the wind saying, “Go, just go! Just keep him moving. Don’t stop. Keep him moving.”
I don’t hear his name. I was part of the wall protecting him from the wind. Now I am cold. We’re all cold and we face into the wind and go. I bang my skis together hoping to shed the snow that’s accumulated underneath them at the stop. Swish, swish. Swish, swish. F––k! I wish these skis would glide. This is brutal. Buck up princess! There is nothing you can do about it except ski. Ski. This isn’t skiing, this is sliding sandpaper across a dune in the desert. This is dragging a carpet across hot asphalt. This is the sticky goo of mud season in Vermont. This. This. This is what you came for! Stop complaining and get on with it. Swish. One. Swish. Two. Swish. Three.
What’s that? Is that it? Do I dare hope? I strain to make sense of the dark shadows poking through the white in the distance. Three brownish squares. Are those rocks? Could those be the huts? Could the end of this day be near? Yes. Yes. The huts take form as we ski closer. Thanks be to counting. Lisbit steps aside and we stampede for the prize. Warmth and safety await. 58 steps ahead. My breath rises as I ski quickly towards our last marker of the day. With all patience abandoned like stale bread, I ski up the last hill to the hut. The hut warden leans out the door and calls us in. Another warden steps out with a broom to brush the blanket of snow we are wearing. I stare back into the white. I strain to see the three folks we helped. Where are they? I hope they get here soon. We tell the warden about them and a young, fit Italian offers to go find them. He heads out into the storm and leads them in. We’re all in. All safe from the storm. I notice a clock in the hut. 12 hours? We skied for 12 hours! 12 hours of seeing nothing but ourselves and those blessed red route makers. “Where did the time go?” I ask myself aloud.
TA Loeffler is a Contributing Writer to Panorama.
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