Words by Donny O’Neill

The alarm blares urgently, springing me out of bed and into a clumsy hunt to silence my phone. The awakening is so jarring I forget why I’ve woken several hours before sunrise. It’s always like this.

An internal debate takes place: the devil on one shoulder urges me to text my ski partners an excuse, the angel on the other reminds me of the reward that awaits at the end of today’s journey. I give into the angel.

I keep the lights off so as not to awake the other human still peacefully dreaming in bed, or rev up the dog, who thinks he’s coming along. I grasp for long underwear, midayers, bib pants and a jacket in the pitch-black closet. I step into the openings of the bibs, hoist them upward and trip, nose-diving into hangers before I thump thunderously to the floor. It’s always like this.

In the kitchen, I make sure my travel mug is filled to the brim with piping hot coffee. Then it’s off to the car, where I mentally review the contents of my pack, the trunk and the roof box overhead: puffy coat, snacks, beacon, shovel, probe, skins, axe, boots, skis, poles… check, check, check. It’s always like this.

Down the road, I pick up two friends. We travel up deserted mountain highways before taking the exit to the trailhead. The mood inside mirrors the quiet desolation outside; we sit in silence staring straight ahead, careful not to make noise and announce our travels here. Anyone driving down dirt roads at this hour must be doing something sinister, right? We boot up in the empty parking lot, half expecting the headlights of some local authority to shine on us in suspicion. My coffee mug is still full. It’s always like this.

A walk in the dark with Lorne Paperny in Whistler, B.C. Photo by Bruno Long

Silence is replaced by the zoom-zip of skins slithering along a frozen uptrack, the fluttering of the wind through the trees, and banter about whether that last nightcap a few hours ago was a good idea. The wind sends shivers up and down our spines and we fall silent again while, privately, each of us dreams about the comforts of warm blankets and bodies we left behind. The slope steepens and traction worsens on the refrozen spring snow as I look back to make sure the stray echo of a snapping twig isn’t a creature awakened from the hunger of a long winter. My skin loses hold suddenly, sending me head over heels into the hardpack like Charlie Brown in the aftermath of a missed field-goal kick. It’s always like this.

Zoom-zipping along again, a raspberry scrape throbbing on my chin and off-hand remarks about my touring competence chopping down my ego, we crest another knoll and emerge into the alpine as the sun’s first rays creep over the horizon. Droplets of light trickle from the top of the snow-plastered rocks that surround us—its dull white slowly washed in soft pink. Moments later, the floodgates open and the entire slopeis bathed in alpenglow. Subtle smiles crease our cheeks as we set off, and up into the morning light. It’s always like this.

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