I woke up this morning, in this the first month of summer, realizing that I’d just dreamed about skiing in a dump on the East Coast. Night powder feels like finding a bundle of money with no obligation to return it. Like Kelly Slater saying, “Your wave.” It’s not supposed to be, and it rarely it is. But sometimes.
For the first six years of my skiing career, I logged many more nights than days. College, work, distance, budget – those four words pretty much summed it up. I scrapped for time, I scraped for pennies, I conserved my gas, and between classes on Friday afternoon and work on Saturday morning I’d skootch the two hours from Northern Virginia to the closest hill, Ski Liberty. Most nights, it was exactly how you’d expect from a few hundred vertical on the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania: cold, bare, hard, scratchy, and long chair rides on slow doubles for short runs on former rental skis. It was heaven.
On a few occasions, though, it dumped, and that’s when I learned there was something better than heaven: making tracks in soft snow. Though the hill was far too tiny to have anything resembling a stash or overlooked line, the cold airborne spackle was enough empty out the lifts and, mercifully, eliminate lift lines. And since the lights were cheap, dim, and sparsely located, there were shadowed pockets where the cautious were less likely to venture. And there was the woods.
One night, Ski Liberty got about eight inches. I couldn’t afford goggles, so I wore my white Vuarnet cateye sunglasses. I hunkered down in my navy blue CB Sports jacket and tried to keep the wet clumps from sneaking down my neck. The cold felt less like an annoyance than a minor hazing, something to be embraced as part of joining the club. In those early years, when I was forming my identity as a skier, these things counted for a lot. The tang of cold, the CB jacket, the Vuarnets…as I acquired more of the things I needed to be a Skier, the more they confirmed and validated my sense of a new life unfolding. When you first commit yourself, these things become embodiments, talismans. The power in a voodoo doll is nothing compared to that of your first real ski jacket, especially when you leave the ticket on.
Night skiing is a bit like having blinders on, and night powder even more so. You can’t see the sky above the lights, there’s no view to view, there’s just this one pool of light focusing you on what’s more important. You zone out on the mesmerizing streaks of snow falling against the spotlight, watching as wind shifts it from diagonals to swirls and back. In a place like Liberty, where the lifts were so slow, you could become hypnotized by the snowfall and almost forget to disembark at the top.
But on this night of the dumping, there was no forgetting. I practically jumped from the chair. The snow was deeper than I’d ever skied, and though I fell and wobbled, it was the most glorious taste of the future. And I squeezed every last minute out of the night until one last bombing tuck to the chair, arriving at 10:03 only to be waved off by the liftie.
Then I got in my car, damp and flushed, and drove back to school to catch a party, accompanied by the blizzard all the way to the Virginia line, where it turned to rain. By the time I got to the dorms, it wasn’t even raining. The party was in full swing – guys and girls smashed together, beer sloshing out of plastic cups, everyone shouting. I squeezed until the middle of the room, trying to make my way to the keg, and I felt a commotion to my right. Some dirtbags from nearby had crashed the party and were making trouble; the next thing I knew, I was seeing stars, my face was split open, and blood was streaming onto the floor. Someone had sucker punched me from behind, whipping a roundhouse punch and connecting their big ring with my cheekbone.
I was dazed, uncomprehending. A friend, Cassie, grabbed me by the hand and pulled me out of the crowd and out of the dorms. I have no idea what happened to the instigator; I never even saw him. Instead, I stumbled to my car and when I was okay to drive I went to the hospital to get stitched up.
It sounds like a terrible ending to the story, but that’s not the end. I skied again the next Friday night, stoked to see that when I put on my Vuarnets they settled nicely right above the stitches. And now, so many years later, if I happen to glance at the scar, getting hit is the last thing that comes to mind. Rather, what I recall is the eight inches of new snow and the best skiing I’d ever had. I look at the scar and what it says to me is, simply, night powder.
Photo of Niseki, Japan, by Mattias Fredriksson See more from Mattias here.