In April of 1983, with my buddy Stan Tener of the Snowmass ski patrol and photographer Del Mulkey, I skied the Haute Route from Chamonix toward Zermatt. For five days, we climbed steep couloirs, traversed high cols, and skinned up and cruised down long, undulating glaciers—60 miles of frozen highway. We did it on “pins.” In those days, this meant three-pin bindings, narrow “norpine” skis and leather telemark boots.
The Haute Route is serious mountaineering. There are steep couloirs to negotiate, the long glacial sections are riddled with crevasses, and avalanche is a constant danger. But we were determined. We climbed fast and descended slowly.
We watched each sunset from a different refuge, shadows pushing the alpenglow higher as the glaciers turned from brilliant white to deep blue and then starlit silver. We set off each day before dawn, following the glow of our headlamps on the refrozen corn. The experience transformed our lives: Soon after, Stan moved to France and got a job patrolling at Argentière, and I left Manhattan for a teaching gig at California’s Squaw Valley.
My daughter Cleo was born in Truckee. She made her first runs at Squaw at age 2. A year later, she was skiing in a harness and telling folks, “I’m pulling my Daddy!” After we moved to Boulder, Colo., she developed her own identity as a polyvalent skier and boarder, which included teaching skiing.
Along with Italian art and English novels, skiing is a passion we share. Like any teenager, she was mortified at her dad’s general cluelessness, but it was still cool to ski with me. Only in her senior year of high school did she become far too busy to ski with Dad. When she had time to ski or ride, she preferred to do it with friends.
Last April, with her high school graduation in sight, I finally got her out for a powder day in Vail. We lucked into a spring storm, with light squalls veiling the horizon most of the day but with good visibility in the woods and an occasional few minutes of brilliant sunshine.
At this point in my senescence, we’re well-matched on strength and speed. I have 50 pounds on her, so I carry momentum better. But she catches me in the steeps and bumps and trees. When she leads, I’m comfortable one turn back. We might disagree on musical genres and keeping cell phones charged, but on the hill we move in nonverbal harmony.
We talked on the lift. She wants to travel before college, and it seems obvious that she’ll spend a winter ski-bumming. She’ll learn to telemark—three-pins. It struck me that she’s searching for the kind of transformative experience I had in the Alps 25 years ago—something that will point her where she wants to go in life. And that’s something, in my youth at least, that the mountains did so well.
Sadly, though, the glaciers that changed my life are shrinking fast—so fast that they might not even survive this century. The Swiss have been scientifically measuring their glaciers since 1874. Since then, the Swiss Federal Office for Water and Geology calculates the glaciers have lost about 40 percent of their volume—and the pace is accelerating.
When first skied in the 19th century, the Otemma Glacier covered 20 square kilometers. When I skied it 25 years ago, it was down to 17. Today it’s less than 14. One day, rocks underneath will start to poke through. Some of the smaller glaciers might disappear within a decade. The famed Arolla Glacier might be unskiable in the not-distant future, and Swiss glaciologists predict it could be all but gone by 2025. My daughter will be 34.
I’m going to take Cleo to ski the Haute Route while we still can. I’d like her to be able to tell my grandkids about the experience. Because my grandkids probably won’t be able to ski Europe’s great glaciers. They’ll be gone by then.
- SKI Magazine, November 2008