“Vision,” says my friend Jackson Hogen, “is a crutch.” This is coming from a man who knows a thing or two about altered vision, so one must take the koan in stride. Still, when you’re trying to get down some big mountain minefield and it looks like two white rats wrestling in a bowl full of milk, “vision is a crutch” can be comforting. Your legs know what to do, so just trust them.
Easily said, though. Once at Argentière, I was following a Finnish girl in a thick soup of swirly nothingness when all of a sudden the slope simply disappeared from below my skis, my stomach went skyward, and the rest of me went downward. In Chamonix, the air could be 20 feet, 100 feet, a thousand. It turned out to be just 10, but that whiteout freefall was the longest 10-foot air of my life.
Another time, I was crossing the Wapta Icefields in Alberta with a group of Alpine Club of Canada officers who hadn’t just done the route, they’d helped build the huts on it. They knew the route, they said. We dropped off the Balfour Col, if I remember correctly, and skied across the gently sloping Waputik Icefield toward the Scott Duncan hut. I asked if we needed to rope up because of crevasses; “No, we’re good,” said one of my partners, who headed into the soup without compass or GPS, just gravity as guide. The fog was so thick, I looked down at my skis to see how fast I was moving and when I realized I wasn’t moving at all, I got vertigo and tipped over.
We got to the hut without major incident. The next morning, the cloud had lifted and I wandered out to the porch to look at the previous day’s route. There were our tracks, running mostly straight from the col to the hut. On either side of them, yawning and blue, were enough crevasses to swallow the population of Canada.