I am spending more time backcountry skiing (outside of resort boundaries), so I took an avalanche safety course recently to make sure I was skilled at both navigating avalanche terrain and participating in rescue efforts should I ever be involved in an avalanche. If anyone is interested in avalanche safety, I have become a full-blown nerd on the topic, but what I found most powerful about the experience was how skiing avalanche terrain put me into the most intimate relationship with nature I have ever experienced. You’re reading weather reports from out-of-the-way weather stations before the sun rises. You’re testing the snow chemistry by peering closely at the size and complexion of snow crystals. You’re measuring the angle of slopes (avalanches only run on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees) and determining which slopes are wind-loaded with snow. You’re forced to take in the trees, rocks, cornices, and terrain to spot signs for avalanche activity. You’re constantly checking your topographical map, ascribing the smooth black lines on the map to the harsh topography before you. And you’re in relationship with the sky, its looming clouds, its quickening pace.
Whether it’s with nature or with a person, intimacy is a hard concept to articulate. It is defined more by the distance that’s missing between two things than it is defined by something that exists between them, and I have been humbled to witness the shrinking distance between the magnitude of a mountain and the fragility of this small human life.