It’s cold and I can feel the wind nipping at my exposed cheeks right above my mask. Based on the snow swirling at my feet, I cannot tell if the wind is straight smacking me in the face or swirling around me but I don’t care. The air is so clear and so crisp. Above me, the sky has turned the deepest, darkest blue — as if outer space has started to settle lower than the clouds. A cold so clean that we could almost reach out and touch the cold, emptiness of space. It’s that feeling of being alive, that cold that keeps you vibrant and awake through everything.
Taking a deep breath through my mask, I can feel the cold enter my body. My nose hairs become thick and brittle as the water around them freezes and the cold spreads into my lungs, filling them completely. I can imagine feeling the cold enter each bronchiole, spreading like the cracks on a winter window into the furthest tentacles. With the exhale, the cold retracts and my internal heat melts the forming ice and sends out a big puff of smoke that I can see floating away across the summit. It’s that cold.
The snow at my feet is plenty thick enough to cover my plastic boots. If I step sideways off the path, I get the feeling that I’ll be struggling, perhaps the windblown sides would be up to my knees and I would need to crawl back to the trail with my skis horizontal in front of me for balance. With this wind, it’s certainly not champagne powder but that thicker soft powder that opens up the woods after a beater weekends. Peeking into the woods on my right, I know those little stumps would be covered today and Vermont’s playground will be filled with possibilities.
But it’s early yet, with the sun just stretching its arms across the sky. I blink stiffly, hoping the sun’s warm rays will melt the icicles on my eyelashes, a beautiful trophy earned from the sweat of the ascent. The wind forces a tear from my eye and I can feel my eye balls freezing. I reach into my backpack and grab my downhill hat and my goggles, thinking to trap the warmth from the ascent. Next the puffy coat floats out of the bag, whipping out into the wind like clothes drying on the line. I swing it around me and I can just feel the warmth embrace me.
I adjust my mask over my mouth and nose, making sure to protect my face from frostbite in these whipping winds. It’s taken me a while to get used to, having thought for decades that “real skiers don’t wear gaiters.” That one quote, offered by a coach of my childhood, made me strong. The skin on my face was tough, weathered with all the exposure and my goggle tan game is usually on point. Not wearing a mask made me brave, I had grown to love the sting from a tree branch as you skied through the woods and the snowy beard my peach fuzz could make on the right day.
But today’s wind hurt. Even my tough skin wanted a respite from the wicked cold winds pummeling the mountain. There force was so strong, that I was forced to grab both poles in front of me to keep from getting blown backwards. My goggles were fogging up slightly, so I readjusted my neckie the way I had seen my sister do for years. Even as an elementary schooler, she was always the champion of having not even the slightest skin exposed. Behind my mask, I was safe from the cold.
Opening my eyes, I squinted at the fluorescent lighting, a reminder to the reality of my day. Taking one outstretched hand off my shopping cart, I made sure my mask hadn’t slipped down and still covered my nose and mouth. The customer six feet in front of me was almost done paying and the clerk was wiping down the belt for me to load my groceries.
Looking around, I notice the creativity of the masks being worn, so many different colors and styles. I see another skier, tucking their chin down into their neck gaiter, rubbing their face inside the softness, perhaps caught in a winter memory of their own. We make eye contact and smile.
It might be July and we’re obviously not skiing right now — but at least we get to wear our masks and be reminded of those days on the hill. I love my collection, each one serving a different purpose: neoprene masks, crocheted neckies, fleece lined gaiters, fabric buffs, cotton bandanas and even that silly fleece mustache. I used to miss them over the summer. Now, I wear them all year long with pride. Masks — not just for winter anymore.