After a moment of thought, Santa Maria issued his instructions. He would ski down one side of the slope and Gammon would ski the other. Then each of us could pick his own line of descent, provided we stayed within the boundaries defined by our guides' tracks. "O.K., nobody wears their pole straps," Santa Maria reminded us. "If you get into a slide, we don't want you trying to swim while you're wearing them."
With the preliminaries over, Santa Maria pushed off in a white swirl, the powder spraying to either side of him as he linked one turn to another on the way down to the valley floor. Gammon went next. After receiving a radioed all clear, we followed, one at a time, with Keller the last to go.
When all of us had reassembled on the valley floor, Santa Maria took the lead again and we set off once more into the woods. I could see that our route would be taking us around the side of a steep mountain.
After about 20 minutes, Santa Maria called us to a halt. "From here we'll go one at a time." he said. "We'll be skiing across a bunch of avalanche chutes. Keep about 100 feet between you, and when you're in the open just keep going. Stop only after you've gotten back into the trees."
The chutes Santa Maria referred to were a series of swaths, 50 to 200 feet wide, cut through the trees by the force of dozens of avalanches. Now covered by a layer of fresh snow, they appeared perfectly tame. But as I looked up the mountain I could sense the hidden power. The thought of a wall of white stuff speeding down from above kept me moving. It took about 10 minutes to ski across this beautiful obstacle course.
At the far side, Santa Maria was standing at the top of the Dog Lake Chute, a narrow bowl covered with a perfect coat of snow. "I don't know," he said. "We haven't skied this all year. There's a lot of snow up here. More than five feet. I have no idea how stable it is." I could sense his anticipation and his trepidation. It was a beautiful day. This was what we had all been waiting for.
Checking that we had safely made the trees, Santa Maria took a short trip across the top of the chute, intentionally bouncing on his skis as he went. If the snow was really loose it would give way beneath him, and we would have an answer we didn't want. It didn't give, and he returned to the group. Then Gammon traversed the entire chute a little farther down the hill. Still no snow movement.
Santa Maria said, "O.K., we'll ski it. The three weakest skiers"—he pointed to make sure they knew who they were—"you'll ski another route." There was disappointment but no sign of protest on the faces of the three who had been singled out and excluded.
"For the rest of you, just remember, try not to fall," Santa Maria said. "A falling skier could set this off. If you fall, I want you to get right back up and keep going. Don't fool around with your hat. Don't wipe the snow off. Just keep skiing." That's when the real fear began to set in.
As Santa Maria plunged downhill I inched to the edge of the slope to watch, but the hill's pitch was so great that I lost sight of him for the first half of his run. When he came back into view at the bottom I breathed a little easier. But not for long. My turn. I traversed the bowl looking for the right place to start down. As I turned downhill I lost my balance. It happened all too quickly. All I could think of was "Don't fall." Somehow I caught myself. I was carrying more speed than I wanted but was still able to begin carving turns as I raced to the valley floor. Making my final turn around a pine tree whose top was barely peeking through the snow's surface, I pointed my skis straight downhill and seemed to be flying the last few hundred feet. I came to a stop next to Santa Maria. I'm sure the grin on my face was a dead giveaway. I had left my fear up top.