Meet at the trailhead by noon. You can go down a harder route, I trust you, just come back to the start when you’re done. I’ll be waiting with warm cocoa and a smile. I love you darling.
That had been the plan. As I called her name for the second time, it sunk in that it had been the only plan. But the sun was a bit past its peak, and the cocoa wasn’t quite so warm, and I was still waiting.
I reached for my pack. After digging into the small pouch at the front, my hands returned with a notepad and a ballpoint pen. The ink at the tip was frozen, but no matter; warming the pen gave me time to think. The route was difficult. They’d given it a rating of double black diamond. It was far too much for me, but for Janine?
She could make it. She cut through the slopes with ease. She made double black diamonds look like ballet, employing a balance of grace and power that was truly her own. She was already on her way to the trailhead to meet her sweetheart, who sat with a pen in the corner of his mouth, hoping that the cocoa would still be warm when she arrived. Janine could make it. But just in case she couldn’t make it before sundown, I took off a glove and wrote.
If you’re reading this, please go back to the cabin. Don’t wait for me, because I’ll be right behind you, eager to hear about how your day went. I’m glad we could finally make it up to Yukon. Spending time with you this week has been a joy, and if you can stomach a blue square route, I’d love to have you by my side tomorrow. Sorry if the cocoa is cold.
I fired two flares in the air. If she was lost—She wouldn’t be, but if she was—then she would be able to find her way. I set the notepad and the thermos by the trailhead post. Then I reaffixed my skis, faced the mountain, and remembered to smile as I set out to find my darling, my everything, my Janine.
She was out there. I repeated it to myself with each trudge through the incline, because it was the truth. I would spot her soaring around the trees, pushing the limits of her skis. She would make it look as delicate as if she was cutting through clouds. She would stop when she saw me, and I would explain everything, and we would laugh. It kept the smile on my face, just thinking about what a kick we’d get out of the whole thing when it was over. She could make it, and she was out there, and I was coming for her.
Night came, but I knew I would see Janine just over the first ridge. When I cleared it my smile disappeared, just for a second. The valley below was an impossible sight to pick apart. The only light came from the moon, which reflected off the snow and gave the whole landscape a certain radiance. Janine would adore it on our way back out, and with that sentiment, my smile returned. I took off my goggles, trying to gain any edge in determining what each black speck in the valley was. Most were trees, undoubtedly. But any one of them could have been so much more, and unless I could adjust to the darkness, I would never know.
I inched my way down the slope. It was steeper than any blue square I’ve ever been on, and if Janine would have been there to see the way I clung to each tree on the way down, she would have smiled and told me to grow up. I would smile back and ask what the fun in that would be, and then instead of clinging to trees on the way down, I would cling to her. Goddammit Janine, I needed you there.
My ski slipped. It’s ridiculous how suddenly that can happen. One second I was inching my way down, and the next, gravity and the mountain were convening to decide which breakneck speed was right for me. A tree caught my fall, and even if the bark struck like a hammer against my chest, I breathed a sigh of relief. Patience. It was a double black diamond for a reason.
I inched my way downward again, and again, I slipped and collided with the next tree down the line. It was efficient in a brutal sort of way. I was getting the shit kicked out of me by Mount Lucania, but if it was the fastest way down, then I would embrace getting the shit kicked out of me by Everest himself. Inch, slip, smack! Inch, slip, smack! Inch, slip—
Nothing. I tumbled, lurching between the black sky and the shining ground. I was free, untethered from the slope, unbound by my skis, liberated from any earthly control. Nothing stopped me as I rolled down the slope, until something did. My head snapped forward, and my lungs flattened against the tree. I clutched my side, not sure what exactly I’d ruptured, but certain that the tree had left more than just another bruise.
Lightning rattled my cognizance. Whatever was broken inside of me, it made shouting out of the question. Even my breath came in a spasm, and I writhed against the snow, trying to figure out living all over again. My equilibrium had left me, and with every second I laid there, my other senses were following. The cold took my touch. The collision distorted my sight. But the mountain wouldn’t get everything. I would find her. I clutched at the tree, and I pulled myself up, and I clung to it as I looked for my missing skis.
One stuck out of the snow nearby, and I was able to reach for it without letting go of the pine. I snatched it, and as soon as it was in my hands, I nearly dropped it again. It wasn’t mine.
I squinted back into the dark. There were nothing but shadows, and they danced as I staggered every which way, fighting for my balance. I clung closer to the tree. Straining against the night, some of the shadows gained definition. Some were still trees, but this time, some weren’t. Down the slope was a pack, and against it, my darling Janine! The pine left my grasp, my feet left the ground, and I couldn’t have been happier as I tumbled down the mountain all over again. I came for you sweetheart, and I never thought twice. When I touched the base of the valley I crawled, yard after yard, until I could hold you; until I could tell you everything would be okay. Then I saw you.
Oh. Oh, Janine.
I saw that you had fallen. I saw that you had inched, slipped, smacked. I saw that you had tumbled, and I saw that you had crawled. Your eyes were frozen, locked onto the peak of Mount Lucania, and you held an orange pistol against your chest. I saw that you tried.