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Spectators began materializing along the trail in increasing numbers; they would have had to park their cars along the highway and hike a good way. But maybe we were closer to civilization than I imagined. We were at the bottom of a beech-grown ravine, and maybe Route 108 was above us, whitened and salt-stained above the trees. The truth was, never having skied this stretch of the course before, I didn't know where the hell I was.
I started down a long drop. Racers ahead of me were sledding up a short, steep rise, teetering a moment before skiing out of sight down the other side. I wondered what the basis of their hesitation was. I tailed a skier who at the top of the rise gasped "Good God!" and then was gone, and I was on the crest of the rise.
Whoever had tracked the course—and word had it that it was Olympic racer Joe Pete Wilson's work—had taken it right to the junction where the West Branch River flowed under Route 108 and turned it 90 degrees at the last available moment at the base of the knoll on which I now stood. You either skied down the knoll and instantly hung a sharp right, or you fell into the river. It was as simple as that. Spectators, sensing that this was the place to be, had gathered on the amphitheatric embankment above the river. There were at least 100 of them, arrayed across the slope in vivid ski wear. Most were grinning. They knew it was just a matter of time until somebody fell in.
They all cheered when the racer before me successfully executed his turn.
Racers were coming up the rise behind me; I skied down the knoll. Besides being devilishly steep, it was glazed with ice. I tried, with all my first season's skill, to lift my right ski, plant it to the right, lift my left ski and make it follow. But my muscles failed to execute my brain's message. In terror, I felt my feet whisk out from under me, and my skis went parallel to my face. I was airborne. I was over the water.
Gleefulness marred the crowd's spontaneous a cappella accompaniment to my flight. I fell in the river, displacing a volume of amber water with a splash, the water's iciness instantly penetrating my sweater. My ski tails speared the riverbed, jerking my legs into makeshift traction, and my ski poles twirled to the 9:05 position on the face of a giant invisible clock. I was up to my rib cage in river. My race had come to an unexpected halt.
"Don't touch him!" A woman's voice froze a Samaritan in the act of scrambling toward me down the embankment. The voice belonged to a course spotter. "If anyone touches you, you're disqualified," she said, approaching me. "Do you want a hand out of there?"
"I don't think so."
"Are you staying in the race?"