The Badass Buddha of Big Mountain Skiing

by Greg I. Hamilton on March 30, 2011

The yellow sign says “CLIFFS.” I watch Kristen ski down past it. She slows only momentarily and then vanishes over the edge.

To the right I spot a traverse: suitably challenging but well within my comfort zone. A voice of caution echoes in my head: “Kristen’s a badass. Who the hell do I think I am to follow her down a cliff?”

I am Buddha.

And so I go for it.

We’re at Ski to Live 2, a clinic from undisputed big mountain ski beast, Kristen Ulmer. The style of the session is Ulmer’s own creation. It has a lot of heart and a lot of fire— like a biker tattoo. As I learned a couple years ago, her cerebral explorations gain momentum from the guided skiing exercises … and vice versa.

Rewind one year to 2010. I was supposed to be at this very clinic: a triumphant return to Alta, a mountain that had never let me down. To be fair, I did make it here. But in a boot. On crutches. With a torn Achilles and soleus muscle. From just one day before. Boo hoo.

That was my first serious injury. [My dislocated thumb back in high school was laughable: I thought it funny that the ski patroller had to put his knee in my armpit and use both hands and all his strength to re-set it; a couple weekends later I cut a slit in a work-glove so I could wear my splint for the state championships; and I sucked just as much in that race as I would have without the dislocated thumb— so, not exactly a setback.]

My Achilles last year was a serious injury. I went the better part of four months without walking on two legs. If it hadn’t been for this movie I’ve been working on (about folks who haven’t let disability stop them from skiing), I probably would have been more discouraged. But here I am, a year later, following Kristen Ulmer past a yellow cliff-warning sign on the Devil’s Castle face. Before my injury it was this sort of inbounds hike-to terrain that won me over to Alta. Right now it’s giving me a funny feeling in the belly.

Atop this cliff— which is not exactly a cliff, but steeper than most runs I’ve ever skied— I’m playing with a concept Ulmer and her guides have just shared with us. Imagine two variations on fear. One is a crippling, totally unworkable panic that makes grown adults curl up into the fetal position. The other is a sort of energizing fear. It is the butterflies in your gut before you walk out on stage. It’s that headrush that makes your knees go weak (but not collapse) just before your moment of truth. It’s— well, it’s this feeling like I’m gonna puke right here and start a little vomit avalanche down this chute.

I don’t mean that in an unpleasant way. You know like when Rod Tidwell hurls on the field before his big game? Or when Rabbit gets the chunky hiccups backstage before taking on a rival rapper? That sounds kind of nice right now. Robert Redford once described skiing as a mix of danger and poetry. Standing atop this chute, experiencing this sense of workable fear, I would describe it as the intersection of danger and power. I know this fear: there is no need to overcome it— because it can be harnessed.

As I glide over the slight cornice into the chute, a river of slough ushers my turns downward. There’s something calming about my uphill knee being around chest-high after each turn while a sea of snow races past me. I like this form of fear. It’s dawning on me that I could live the rest of my life this way. I start thinking about career choices that have loomed like ominous “CLIFFS” signs. Before I know it I’m at the bottom of the chute, feeling like some sort of badass Buddha. I don’t know the Zen term for badass Buddha, but Ulmer did share this one with us: a mouthful that translated as “great stupid-ass Buddha.” It’s fun to ski like him as well.

Thanks for reading. Cheers,

Greg

Photos by yours truly and (((o.kvlt)))

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