The Ski Gene

For Nick Paumgarten and his father, skiing has been both a blessing and a curse, taking the lives of some family members while giving others every reason to live.

Among the clouds in Bella Coola, British Columbia, June 2007    

Paumergarten

Nick Paumgarten Jr. and his father, Nick Sr.

Paumergarten

Floating the Bella Coola River

Paumergarten

The author's brother, Xander, carves perfect corn on a glacier in Tsini Tsini Valley

Paumergarten

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON: on King Richard

Paumergarten

Nick Sr. and guide Jim Knudsen fishing the Atnarko River

ONE MORNING IN February 2006, my father skied into a tree. It was a dead one—limbless, barkless, grayish, like the light, and perhaps partly hidden behind a bigger, healthier tree, which he had just swerved to avoid. He hit it flush, face first, and the impact sent him sprawling down a steep open face, trailing gear and blood.

 

At that moment I was standing out of sight, in a glade down and across the slope, waiting for him to come bobbing happily through the firs. We were among a group of 12 guests that day at a cat-skiing outfit that operated in the Kootenay backcountry, outside Nelson, British Columbia. Our guide, as is customary, had urged us all to pair up while skiing through the trees, in case someone got lost, buried, or hurt. For years, my father and I had been a little lax on this score; fiendish about powder snow, we'd each hurtle through the woods and only on reaching the bottom of the run wonder, sheepishly, where the other might be. But this time I waited; I'd wandered away from the group, as a fiend will, and had had to cut back across the fall line to find the guide's tracks. I wanted to be sure that my father made the turn.

He didn't quite. It's possible that in reacting to my tracks he'd failed to see the dead tree. I can't say. I didn't see it happen. He came to rest about halfway down the face. Blinded but still conscious, he began to moan for help. After a few moments I heard these moans and climbed back up and across the slope toward him. The tail gunner, a kind of deputy guide who skis down last (and carries a radio), reached him just as I did. My father was sitting up, in deep powder. He had not been wearing a helmet. At the first sight of him—his face bloodied and mangled beyond recognition, his eyes suddenly plum-size and swollen shut, nose and mouth gushing, his remarks incoherent in a subtle, haphazard way that seemed especially ominous—I had a foreboding that he'd be dead within hours.

Three days later—after a difficult evacuation by sled and helicopter, a series of ambulance trips to bigger hospitals in bigger towns (Nelson, Trail, Spokane, New York), many dark hours, and then one piece after another of encouraging news—I was able to pinpoint when this feeling had left me, when I felt that he might be OK. It was in the hospital in Nelson, four hours into the ordeal. The nurse tending my father in the emergency room told him, in that loud talk-to-old-people voice that nurses sometimes use (my father was only 60 and otherwise in excellent shape), that she was going to cut off his ski clothes.

"Oh, no, you don't," he said, rather clearly for a man who'd fractured his skull and nearly every bone in his face. They thought he was kidding, but he wasn't. The man loves his gear.

MY FATHER HEALED UP WELL. He got a new nose; the old one had acted as a kind of airbag, softening the blow, and could not be deployed again. The forehead, it turns out, is especially thick between the eyes. He emerged from the whole thing virtually unchanged. Maybe he looked a little older, and he'd lost his sense of smell and taste, but the wattage and the wise-assery remained intact. He felt very lucky to be alive and newly appreciative, as if he hadn't been already, of how dangerous skiing can be.

He learned to ski when he was three, in Austria, where his father was from. My grandfather was a ski racer and alpinist who competed for Austria in the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics. He came to the United States after the Olympics. While teaching skiing in New Hampshire, he met a woman from Philadelphia; they married and had five children. After the Second World War, he bought a house in St. Anton, Austria, and brought his children over during the winters. My father, the youngest, spent two winters there, skiing with his father and his aunt, who also was a racer—a world champion. But when he was six, his father, skiing by himself in a steep gully in St. Anton, was killed in an avalanche. Two decades later, in 1972, one of my father's sisters, a mother of two, died in another avalanche, in Aspen. She, too, had been skiing alone; a search party dug her out after dark. There is a sense that bad mountain luck hounds us; it can feel reckless even to mention it.

I also learned to ski at three, first on a dog run in Carl Schurz Park, behind Gracie Mansion, in Manhattan, and later in the hills of Vermont. My parents did all the teaching; they never put my younger brother or me in ski school. Some years later, they started taking us out west and then to Europe, where we all acquired a taste for skiing out of bounds, first by our own wits and then—after my father, while skiing with me one morning in Verbier, got caught in an avalanche—in the company of a guide. This did not always keep us out of trouble—I'm still haunted by my memory of dangling in a weakling's version of an iron cross over a crevasse near Zermatt—but it enabled us to try more ambitious and remote runs. This became our favorite thing to do. Over the years, we have had many sublime days and weeks in the mountains. It is hard to think of anything that brings us as much pleasure or as close together. We live for it.

So it was that my father and I returned to British Columbia late this spring, 17 months after the accident. We'd had lunch the previous fall in New York with Beat Steiner and Peter Mattsson, the owners of a heli-skiing operation called Bella Coola Heli Sports. I'd heard a lot about Bella Coola in recent years and marveled at many photographs and ski films shot there. It had gained a reputation for having some of the best alpine terrain on earth: nearly one and a half million acres of jagged wilderness in the Coast Mountains, 270 miles northwest of Vancouver. In light of recent risk-tolerance adjustments and a few other considerations (e.g., time, money), I figured, as Mattsson and Steiner talked about their paradise, that I'd never get to see it. Mattsson, who is Swedish, is an accomplished guide, known far and wide in skiing circles as "the Swede," and he seemed totally nuts: ebullient, brusque, and unaccountably persuasive. He began to talk about June in Bella Coola. The mountains, he said, were still covered, the snow firm, and, if you timed it right, you could find perfect spring snow, also known as corn, for 4,000 vertical feet at a clip. You could hit the high-country steeps without fear of avalanche.

"And no trees!" he bellowed, jostling my father. You skied almost exclusively above tree line, until the snow got too soft. In the afternoons, you'd fish the local rivers, which were teeming with king salmon on their spring run.

"I'm there," my father said. To the dismay of most of the people who love him, he had already started planning ski trips; and, as in autumns past, he'd been laying out his array of ski clothing, in neat little piles in the guest bedroom of my parents' house, on Long Island. Now he was talking Bella Coola. I found myself, despite earlier pledges to the contrary, insinuating myself into this plan.

My brother, Xander, who is 36 and sells real estate in Stowe, Vermont, had decided that my father and I, when skiing together, had a tendency to get into difficulty; that is, he kind of blamed me for having been there, and himself for having not been, when my father hit the tree. He came along to Bella Coola, too, to alter the voodoo.

This trip, like so many others, gave my mother the creeps. She was staying behind. She's a strong skier but is terrified of heights and has great faith in the power of intuition, so she tends to entertain portentous thoughts. And, anyway, skiing in June? It seemed preposterous. But as we flew from Vancouver to Bella Coola over the sprawling icefields of Mount Waddington, we saw that there was plenty of snow. We'd never seen terrain quite so vast. It looked like the Alps, but Jurassically free of any human trace. It all belonged, in a manner of speaking, to Steiner and the Swede, and so, for the next week, it would also belong to us.

WE ARRIVED IN A LIGHT drizzle, summer in full swing—flowers, hummingbirds, thick green grass. In 2003, Steiner and the Swede had set up shop at the Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, an 80-year-old refuge just inside a provincial park 40 minutes up the Bella Coola Valley from the airport, and started taking clients. Most of the winter guests stayed in private cabins around a clearing, where the helicopter picked them up each morning. But as the guinea pigs for the Swede's June skiing-and-fishing experiment—Springs & Corn, he'd dubbed it, in deference to Kings & Corn, a nine-year-old similar program in Alaska—we felt, amid these lush surroundings and our mounting meteorological apprehensions, a little like suckers.

The weather forecast was not good. A gigantic low had stalled off the coast, threatening to send clouds and rain our way all week. All the rain had swollen the rivers, as we discovered that afternoon, when we went out in a small fleet of driftboats to fish the Atnarko, which flows past the lodge. It was muddy brown, running hard. The fishing holes were washed out, salmon nowhere to be seen. Casting with spoons and back-trolling plugs, we thrashed at the water with a mounting sense of hopelessness, and when I looked over at my father, who was gazing glumly up at the mountains, it occurred to me that he hated fishing. I had never before seen him with a rod in his hand.

Before long he began badgering our guide, a sardonic Bella Coolan named Jim Knudsen, about getting a turn rowing the boat. "Sloppy, Jim, sloppy," he said, as Jim struggled to catch an eddy. My father has been an avid, if occasionally battered, whitewater kayaker for 20 years and was a champion oarsman in college. He wanted a shot at the Atnarko. "Not going to happen," Jim said. It had the makings of a maxim. So did the sign in the lodge that greeted us the following morning, along with the dispiriting sound of rain dripping from the eaves: NO SKIING TODAY.

Our luck turned the next morning. The helicopter let us off on top of a snowy ridge at 8 a.m. Droves of clouds and fog drifted along, obscuring and then revealing spectacular massifs—Tetons, everywhere!—and a dizzying sprawl of skiable territory, ranging from benevolent to just plain nuts. Massive glaciers, great granite spires, dozens upon dozens of chutes and bowls. The landscape was an endless and disorienting patchwork of white and brown; the mountains, laid bare, somehow look more complicated in summer. The helicopter flight, which had taken us through holes in the clouds and past several drainages and peaks, had spun me around. We grinned at one another like monkeys. Yes, skiing today. Going to happen.

Up high, there had been an almost imperceptible dusting of new snow. The surface was firm but buffed, groomed by the elements; on the first pitch, it felt as though we were skiing on pumice, but the southeasterly aspects, the patches facing the morning sun (or what little of it there was), had a granular consistency, portending corn. Spring skiing can get tricky. When you fall, it can be hard to stop, once you get going. Fifteen years ago, while skiing one June morning in the backcountry near Bozeman, I saw a friend lose a ski and go careering down a steep couloir. She cartwheeled through a boulder field and into a snowless patch of woods. It was a horrible mess, requiring a helicopter evacuation. She turned out all right: another lucky one. But still.

My father skis like an eagle, arms outstretched, in the classical manner. He considers sloppy ski style to be a sign of poor character. On our second run, a 3,500-foot drop called King Richard, he was swooping down a vast and moderately pitched snowfield when his ski popped off. He very rarely falls, but this time he went down as though he'd been shot. He began to slide. The other ski whipped off. Little bursts of snow kicked up as he tried to stop himself. There was nothing around to collide with or fall into, and yet the sight of him hundreds of yards away, gathering speed, helpless and prone, summoned up the old recognition—the worry more often experienced by parents than by their children—that you cannot always control what happens to others. The universe will do with us what it will.

After a while, he stopped sliding, of course, and gestured that all was well, and the rest of us laughed and wondered if anyone had gotten a picture. It was really no big deal. And yet it demonstrated that, even in spring, with stable snow and no trees, some little mistake in the vicinity of rocks or cliffs could have outsize consequences. Our guide, Paul Berntsen, kept us away from the technical routes. Later that day, near the bottom of a long and spectacular run called Vishnu, we came around a corner and one at a time nearly skied into a gaping hole—out of nowhere a river, pouring from under the snow and then tunneling back under it again.

Unlike the standard trips at more traditional and better-known heli-outfits, such as CMH and Mike Wiegele, at Bella Coola the helicopters are small and nimble, the program flexible, the guides amenable to suggestion. It is a more customized experience, more extravagant and decadent in many ways—totally obscene, really—and yet also more rustic, more alpine. The terrain is so vast and the number of customers so low that there is no need to farm snow, as they say: no call to keep the tracks tight. Within reason, you can ski the line you want. The groups are small—four or five passengers per flight—so you need not experience the anxiety (unpardonable though it may be) of jockeying with a dozen other jonesers for fresh tracks.

On our trip, one helicopter, an AStar, piloted by a wily Quebecer named Richard Lapointe, who whipped his craft in and out of tight spots as if it were an extension of his body, served two groups. The other group consisted of two British Columbian mining entrepreneurs and a father and son from Scotland, who were there with a Scottish friend, and the son's Icelandic mother and grandmother, who didn't ski. The two groups leapfrogged from one remote drainage to the next, hardly ever having to wait. We took turns giddily crawling in and out of the tight confines of the AStar, jostling one another for the ends of our seat belts. That first morning, in a few hours, we skied a leisurely 20,000 feet.

The day had an otherworldly feel. The light shifted constantly, flattening and then clearing suddenly. Distances were hard to measure. Bergschrunds—crevasses formed where a glacier breaks away from the snowpack—appeared suddenly underfoot. The runs ended in rotten snow, dimpled with what are called sun cups or furrowed by the rain. Often, while we waited for the helicopter, mosquitoes closed in, and the air felt muggy and hot. Our last run was on a rolling glacier snug against a pair of granite towers at the head of the Tsini Tsini Valley. My father and I stood on a hump, savoring the sight of this crazy-awesome amphitheater and my brother sailing through it, a thousand feet below. One minute in such a place can make your year.

IN 1932, MY GRANDFATHER joined an expedition of Harvard students to the coastal mountains 600 miles northwest of Bella Coola in the Fairweather Range, on the Alaska Panhandle. The group, led by the mountaineer and photographer Bradford Washburn, intended to climb 12,726-foot Mount Crillon, one of the highest peaks in the range, and survey its environs. They had the whole summer.

My grandfather later wrote a long account of the trip, which was published in the journal of the German and Austrian Alpine Club. In style it is by turns clinical and operatic, in the manner of the day ("The coast, in its southern part, is frightfully jagged and split into bays that no seafarer would dare enter"). The expedition members arrive in June, chartering a plane to take them from Juneau to a remote bay at the base of the range, from which they begin shuttling 1,500 pounds of supplies up a glacier to a base camp near the tree line. From the beginning they are engulfed by fog and torrential rain. Throughout the summer, the weather hinders their forays into the high peaks. A clearing or two gives them a taste of the mountains' majesty and a chance to have some fun in the snowfields above their camp: "Some of us seeking special pleasure go skiing in the evenings," he writes.

But then the rain comes again, for weeks at a time. "We are totally discouraged by the dismal weather," he reports. "We cannot accomplish any surveying, nor can we begin to take our packs higher up." During their ascent a nasty storm blows in and forces them to turn back. They have no choice but to pack it in; September arrives, and a boat awaits them in the bay to take them home. My grandfather, a health nut and teetotaler, ends the account with a final observation: "Even the Indians who settled here were destroyed by the humidity, although their demise was certainly hastened by the destructive influence of vodka and whiskey."

Oh, the humidity. Of course, our setup was way more plush than my grandfather's, 75 years previous. We weren't mountaineers; we were paying clients, indulgent recreational skiers. But our window was much smaller—a week, compared with his two and a half months—and so we too got totally discouraged by the dismal weather. It may be, though, that our time amid the humidity was enlivened by the ameliorating influences of booze. During the week we had many more down days than up ones, and we drank a ton. The other guests seemed to accumulate a pile of empty beer cans wherever they went—it was like Pigpen's cloud of dirt. Our group did its best to keep pace but came up short on the final evening, the night of the solstice, when the Swede, costumed in a blue velour tracksuit and heaps of plastic novelty-shop bling, badgered his guests into a competitive round of drinking songs. We Americans realized we didn't know any—the price we paid for growing up singing along to Bruce Springsteen.

Day three was a wash: no skiing, not happening. "Here and now you could grow moss on cement, eh?" said Richard, the pilot. Instead we floated a long stretch of the Bella Coola River. We saw bald eagles everywhere but no salmon. Jim, the guide, still would not let my father row, and my father would not let it go; every ten minutes he made a bid for the oars. "You missed a feather there, Jim," he'd say. "Did I tell you I was a national champion?"

There were three boats. One was guided by Les Koroluk, a voluble local with a young Thai wife, who claimed he could tie 24 flies in an hour. The lead guide, a grave figure named Kenny Corbould, barely said a word. Occasionally he'd dip a toothbrush in the river and clean his teeth. We wondered if his mouth contained some kind of salmon attractant. All three guides were vexed by the high water and the absence of salmon, as was the Swede. "I don't know about this fishing thing," he barked, Swedily. He began threatening to hire native fishing guides, so that we could use nets. But that evening, Woody Tribe, one of the ski guides, reported that he had gone out on his own, on a pontoon raft, and hooked a 40-pounder. "When it banged into the shore, it was like an earthquake," he said. After a long fight, he lost it in the current.

WE FLEW THE NEXT morning, poking up through clouds and mist to sneak in a few runs. The variable light and temperatures were still wacky, but the runs were splendid, including the finest of the trip, a 4,500-foot glacial drop called French Connection: a pitch of fresh winter snow on top giving way to a mile of perfect corn. We wound up in a meadow and, removing our skis, milled around with a kind of postcoital contentment. My father gave Xander and me a squeeze, a gesture indicating the emotional equivalent of planetary alignment. He had tasted the good stuff, and he was with his boys. Also, he had been jittery on top, spooked by a fairly exposed landing spot. "I didn't like it there," he said.

"I know you didn't," Xander said. "I didn't either."

"You know who really wouldn't have liked it?"

"Mom."

She'd have liked the snow, though. Corn is like heroin. The more you get, the more you need. But on our next run the snow turned—wet slides creeping down the steeps—and the morning abruptly ended. We would not ski again.

Still, our spirits held. We knew enough to realize that this is how it goes sometimes and that to have had any time together in these mountains at all, without mishap, was a gift. And, it being June, winter, the next one, was not terribly far off.

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On our last full day, we went back out on the river, floating the lower section of the Atnarko to its confluence with the Talchako, where, the Swede announced, the salmon were sure to be. We fished the pools there but to no avail, and so we resigned ourselves to another scenic float trip. My father resumed his pestering of Jim, once again ticking off his oarsman bona fides: "I was in Sports Illustrated—twice!" He told a story from his college days about rowing on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia and coming upon a dead body in the river. He said, "It was the guy who wouldn't let me row."

About a mile from the take-out, during one of those silences that settles on a riverboat, Jim said suddenly, "You ready?" He vacated the oars, and my father took over. Jim sat down next to me in the bow and announced that he did not know how to swim.

My father steered us past a logjam and into some fast water that Jim had urged him to avoid. The boat pitched its way through a wave train, the river lapping at the gunwales. Jim sat bolt upright, palms on his thighs. "Nervous?" I asked him.

"I was born nervous," he said.

Our new captain was all smiles.

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