Photography by Zak Emerson
There are rare moments when the drudgery of normal life spills from your thoughts, like water tumbling from a high fall. It’s in these moments, these fleeting glimpses we so infrequently see, that a life lusted after becomes reality. When our inner core screams out to the stars and beyond:
‘I’m here, I’m alive, I’m free!’
Now is one of those moments. I’m awake, truly awake, my senses heightened beyond fear, beyond reason. Fear left me this morning when I stepped onto the snow at the water’s edge and commenced my climb. Fear has no place on the mountainside. Respect, yes – but fear has to be cast away as an unwanted layer of conventional thought. Fear leads to errors, and the consequences of an error in this harsh environment can be severe.
As for rational reasoning, the justification of putting myself in danger, the time for questioning myself – these passed long ago. Why visit the far north and struggle all day though pristine snow for an off-piste descent, when I could have chosen to simply step off a chairlift in the Alps? That decision was made on a hot day back in England last summer, when, beer in hand, sheltering from an unforgiving sun beneath a laden plum tree alive with wasps, the phone had rung. The idea was proposed and accepted within the first moments of a long-forgotten conversation that shifted to the subjects of family, friends, work…
Now, I’m simply here. It’s as if I’ve not been anywhere, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m simply here, now – here on this ridge in Iceland, with white horses dancing upon a wild sea and the sun skimming the horizon on its long search for a mountain to set behind.
My history and experience keep me calm, yet the specifics of my life are blanked from thought, forcefully barred from clouding my concentration. The hug of my daughter as I left for the airport, the face of my wife as she held up my son to the window to wave goodbye – these are life’s true joys. But they’re not for now; not for here.
As for the future? The far future is currently irrelevant, yet the prospect of the immediate future elates me: the thrill of the decent, the face full of powder as I slash a heelside turn, the numbing of my skin in an Atlantic breeze, the adrenalin stimulating my senses beyond the capability of any drug I’ve known. These may well be the reasons, the justifications – and while shared by friends and fellow adventurers, these are my reasons alone, my very own selfish personal reasons. They have brought me here to this very point in time, but even they aren’t for the now.
The prospect of the immediate future elates me: the thrill of the decent, the face full of powder as I slash a heelside turn, the numbing of my skin in an Atlantic breeze, the adrenalin stimulating my senses beyond the capability of any drug I’ve known.
This now that I’m in is a simple transition. It’s a mountainside metamorphosis of skis to board. The substance of the practical, becoming the object of my outdoor passion. My ascending skis click, slide, pinch and ratchet together to become my chosen instrument of descent.
There are thousands of us out there, pushing our own limits and skills to a self-judged acceptable edge. Some push expectations beyond most, becoming pioneers in their disciplines, listing firsts, longests and deepests. I’m not one of those people. I tread where others have passed before, but it’s still adventure; it’s still pushing my limits. Right here in this all-encompassing now, on this wind-battered ridge of northern Iceland, it’s verging on my own personal edge.
The wind is ferocious and I’m having to lean into it to stay upright. On one side the mountain falls over exposed rocks and patches of ice towards a dark and turbulent sea far below; on the other there’s a steep slope of ice-crusted snow. If I drop anything now it will be gone, taking a ride over the hardpack, never to be seen again.
I work methodically, going through my own well-practised system as a pilot runs through their pre-take-off checklist. First I pack my telescopic poles to the outside of my bag, then remove the skis and peal away the skins. Next the bindings are removed and replaced on their chocks. As the skis revert to their snowboard form, tail and nose clips are fastened to reduce underfoot vibration. Lastly, I click my feet back into the bindings.
I’m ready now, ready for the thrill of the descent. But before setting off I unzip the trigger toggle of my avalanche airbag. Just as a base jumper practises the muscle recognition of reaching for the pull cord, I reach for the toggle on the left shoulder strap with my right hand two, three times. I’m ready. Raising an arm, I shout, ‘Dropping!’ and I’m in. Navigating the first icy pitch before rolling over a blind spot into a pristine couloir of deep powder, my speed increases and I’m flying over the landscape.
I’m free, truly free.