Riding the Wave

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Or how a surfer-turned-skier taught his friend from the beach how to love flying down a mountain.

We start hiking at 6 a.m. on a Wednesday. It’s 25 degrees outside and the trail has frozen into a crust from the previous night’s slush. I’m tired and more than a little unsure of how this day will end. We’re 3,300 vertical feet and a long, punishing ridgeline from where we’re going. When we reach it, the real worries will start.

Our route begins on a gentle grade and wanders through the forest, passing an 1896 gold mine before entering a sparsely treed powder field. The sun crests the ridge high above, and almost instantly the air turns 10 degrees warmer. We stop and shed our outer shells. The heat is glorious but short lived. By the time we reach the ridge, the wind kicks up and lashes our cheeks all the way to the summit.

My partner on a splitboard, Jason, is a 15-year Breckenridge local and highly skilled snowboarder. We’ve hiked for turns before, but as I will find out later, today’s summit, at 13,684 feet, represents the highest point he has ever been.

My partner on snowshoes, Galen, has snowboarded a handful of times over a span of 18 years. He lives on an island in the Caribbean. This is his second time ever venturing into the backcountry. Like Jason, the summit will mark the literal high point of his life.

Galen and I grew up surfing together on St. John, which tops out around 1,100 feet. He and his family are here visiting me and mine, a rare reunion in the mountains. (My mom lives on St. John and I try to get down once a year, which is when Galen and I usually see each other.) For years, I have wanted to introduce him to the rush and freedom that come from riding a big mountain in wild snow. Halfway through his visit, nearing the end of the worst season in memory, the conditions turned prime at last.

Yesterday afternoon, Galen and I hiked three miles up a creek to scout our objective from afar. It’s a committing line: a 2,400-foot dogleg chute that plunges off the windloaded side of Bald Mountain, high above town. Still glowing from an eight-inch storm three days ago, I’d never seen it so white.

But no matter how good I felt about the snow stability, I worried. Would Galen be OK on the climb, in thin air, with almost no acclimatization? Would the 40-degree chute freak him out? What if I misjudged the snow stability? I didn’t doubt his ability to ride the line—his technical snowboarding talent is remarkable, given his paltry experience. But due to the other concerns, I decided we’d only go if I found a third partner. Luckily Jason was game, which is how we all ended up at the Carbonate Mine at 12,200 feet, strapping our gear to our packs and starting the grueling bootpack up the summit ridge.

Baldy, as the mountain is known locally, has a reputation for never ending. The ridge is like a wave: trough, subpeak, trough, subpeak… for a mile and a half. I keep glancing back at Galen, wondering when he’ll get angry at the false summits. But he just chugs along with a look that is equal parts grin and grimace. His aerobic strength astounds me.

slope style
Galen riding the liquid in the BVI. Galen riding the frozen liquid on Baldy. Photos by Stamford family and Devon O’Neil

Three-and-a-half hours after leaving the truck, we summit. Photos, sandwiches, sun, silence. The chute is out of view from the summit, and I can tell Galen is nervous. He fidgets until we have our skis and snowboards on. I pick my way through a shallow scree field and suddenly we are standing at the entry. It’s big. And steep at the top. With oceans of talus on both edges. It would be a horrible place to get caught in an avalanche.

I don’t dare say that in front of Galen. Instead, we go over safety protocols and route selection once more. When I hear something ruffling, I look down at Galen’s legs. They are shaking like a leaf.

Galen and I have known each other since January 1986. My twin brother Sean and I were 6 when we moved to St. John to live on a boat. Galen’s family arrived from Maryland about the same time, when he was 5. Shortly after our folks met, we started sailing together on weekends. We had bronze skin and bleach-blonde hair and were three of just a handful of white kids who lived on the island, so we became fast friends. We played football after school, learned to ride tubes on boogie boards, ran from wild boars in the woods. About the time we were 7, we all got surfboards.

Sean and I were decent surfers but never prodigies. Galen was. While we were still trying to perfect off-the-lip carves, Galen was throwing his tail and tucking into barrels. By the time he was 18, he was arguably the best surfer in the Virgin Islands—which still holds true at 32.

Sean and I gradually got into more traditional sports like football and baseball. We grew bored with our school on St. Thomas and eventually transferred to a high school in Connecticut, where we could play football for real. We returned every vacation we got, but a new path had been charted. Galen, meanwhile, became a sought-after house painter, an occupation that still allows him to surf when he feels the need.

Little changed as we grew older. My brother and I made lives for ourselves in Colorado and Galen maintained his on St. John. He met Sherri on the beach when he was 18, they fell in love and 11 years later had a daughter named Violet Sky. The three of them live in a house on the hill overlooking Coral Bay.

Last April was the first time Galen brought Sherri and Violet to Colorado. It’s magical to see your friend as a father, and Galen fills the role with a touching gentleness. That’s why the Baldy idea was difficult. As more of my closest compadres reproduce and I remain married with no children, it gets harder to propose the bigger adventures. Inevitably they involve some kind of risk, however slim, which can make me feel like a risk pusher. On the other hand, I also think it’s important to hold on to what you have with a certain few, and never stop suggesting adventures, no matter the trend in their answers. That’s why I brought up Baldy with Galen. I wanted him to feel what I feel. More, I wanted to show him it exists.

There are a lot of similarities between riding waves and riding snow. One surface is liquid, one is frozen liquid. The turns involve the same principles—edge to edge, balance, subtle grace—and muscle memory transfers from one sport to the other. That’s what kept Galen upright as he dropped in from the summit of Baldy. His nerves froze like ice cubes, but his instincts didn’t.

I had descended the top pitch before tucking away to the side about 400 feet below the summit. The snow was easily the best I’ve ever skied in that chute, 10 inches of cold, buoyant powder bonded to a stable base. It flew into my mouth and over my head. When I stopped, I shared the good news with Galen and Jason, but it didn’t ease Galen’s fear. Only around his sixth turn did he realize he was going to live. By the time he got to me, his grin was near his ears. He couldn’t believe he still had 2,000 feet to go.

Over the next three pitches, he started leaning into his carves and dragging his hand like Gerry Lopez at Pipeline, completely at home in a place that had terrified him just a few minutes before.

The three of us reconvened at the bottom of the chute proper, panting. We agreed the snow was righteous, high fived, then Jason took off down the apron. I looked at Galen; I couldn’t get enough of his energy, radiating like sound waves. He slowly shook his head as he gawked at our surroundings, trying to grasp where he was and what he’d done.

“That was one of the highlights of my life,” he said incredulously. “I’ve never felt a rush like that.”

I knew exactly what he was talking about, but my own rush paled in comparison to witnessing his.

Breckenridge-based Devon O’Neil, covers freeskiing and action sports for ESPN.com, and freelances for magazines ranging from Powder to Parade. devononeil.com

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