By Merisa Sherman
We gather quietly at the peak to mourn, staring out at the Green Mountains below. The memorial service is complete, the sounds of whispers can be heard amongst the constant sniffles. A snowball vigil, a moment of silence, and so, so many tears. Someone shares a memory and another shares a simple bear hug. You cannot stop the tears from falling as you feel your heart breaking in half. We are all there, together, in this horrible moment drawing strength from each other in our sadness. The world seems to be changing, right in front of us, falling away right below our feet.
Reluctantly, we move with it. Together, we take a deep breath and simply let our skis and boards slide beneath us. We release our edges and let the mountain take over. Instead of a bottomless pit of emptiness, we can feel the snow. That soft, beautiful snow that we love so much becomes the source of our comfort and our strength. The familiar feeling underneath our feet brings peace, each turn rocking us like a cradle. As the world collapses down around us, we embrace the glissé and find our way down the trail.
The first few turns are scary. There’s too many people, the trail is too narrow and there is nothing to protect us from sliding off the cliff. We can choose to go fast, just getting it over with. Or we can go slow and dive into all the nooks and crannies hidden along the way. By the time we reach the dark tunnels at the bottom, we are making whoop noises that echo as we pass through. Between our friends around us and the snow beneath our feet, we begin to heal.
A memorial descent of Great Northern not only marks the loss of a beloved member of our Killington family but also a beginning. Imagine someone making their way up the gondola for the first time. They, too, are filled with trepidation of what the future has in store for them. Whether they are 5 or 55, that first run from the summit fills them with a nervous excitement that can only be resolved by the rhythm of the turns they have yet to take. Only, they don’t know this yet. They don’t yet know that they can rely on the glissé to heal them. They don’t know that they will be leaving their old self at the top of Killington and finding a new one on the way down.
I know this. Almost eight months after my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 rectal cancer, he and I stood at the summit. He was extremely weak from enduring massive amounts of chemo, but he wanted to ski. Correction, he needed to ski. He needed the comfort that only the glissé can bring. Ten turns at a time. And then he would rest on his poles, hoping that each breath would give him the strength to continue. As we skied along, 10 turns became 20. And 20 became 30. We added smiles to the hunched over breaks and I could see true joy on his face for the first time in a long, long time. At the summit, my dad might have been just another depressed cancer patient waiting to die, but by the time we arrived at the base he had become a skier with hope for the future.
Some call Great Northern the “White Ribbon of Death,” a thin trail of painted snow that wanders from the summit of Killington to the base, attracting way too many skiers and riders. A blue trail in the morning and a double black nightmare by three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. But it also brings life and hope and joy. You can take it fast or slow; the choice is up to you. But one thing is certain – you will be a different person at the bottom than you were at the top. A happier one, a more balanced one, a better one.
Live in the ski world long enough and you will take your own life altering trip down Great Northern. One run that breaks your heart while healing your very being. Someday, you will be the one surrounded by your friends and family, tears pouring down your face as you smile with renewed joy. You will discover that a few turns down the trail can fill even the darkest of days with a little bit of hope. And in that moment, you will feel the spirit of the mountain.
Who you are at the top of the mountain is not who you will become by the time you reach the bottom. At the summit, we may be broken and scared but by the base, we are filled with new hope and dreams for the future. Warren Miller once said that riding a chairlift changes your life forever, but I believe that one run down Great Northern can alter your very soul.