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Star Power

Deep thoughts
posted: 08/16/2002

The month of september marks the quiet but predictable return of Orion the Hunter to the North American sky. Most people probably don't notice this great constellation creeping up the southern horizon and wouldn't care if they did. But for me, its arrival is one of the joys of autumn. Not only is Orion home to some of the most brilliant sights of the night, but it is also the celestial beacon of winter, which means only one thing: Skiing isn't far behind.

Indeed, where Orion goes, there goes the snow. Come spring, when the North Pole tilts toward the sun and summer takes hold, Orion heads south, invisible from the Northern Hemisphere but radiant in the sky over Las Leñas, Portillo, and Wanaka. Once things start getting patchy down below, Orion moves northward like a migrating skid, ever in search of the pow, sliding in just before the snow flies. Its arrival in the North is one of those subtle but significant signs that winter's on the way. Catching that initial glimpse of its brilliant stars always triggers an anticipatory jolt, a flip-flop in the gut that says something big is on the horizon.

But Orion is much more than just a sign that summer has waned and winter is waxing. For me, it's an inextricable link to skiing. This is because of one of the quirks of being a powder skier: I spend half my waking hours scanning the sky. Always, always, I am looking up, hoping for the gift that falls from the clouds. Sometimes, oh, man, all I see is a gray shroud, and a big, fat flake hits me right in the eyeball. But sometimes, so many times, the sky is clear from here to Andromeda, and I take in the laser burn of the stars and my jaw drops and I forget, for a few minutes, that what I wanted to see was a thick blanket of clouds, not a black field of sparkling glitter.

Stars push me to the outer edges of my comprehension right quick. And few collections of them are as impressive as Orion, which contains more bright stars and looks more like its namesake-a tragic character from ancient Greek mythology-than any other constellation. Even those who take no interest in astronomy recognize the pronounced shoulders and studded belt of the great hunter. And people who really dig the stars appreciate the riches that lie within. Floating just below the three stars of the belt, in Orion?s sword, is the intensely glowing gas cloud called the Orion Nebula, where stars are constantly being born and 13 new planets have been discovered. Just up the sword, (186 light-years away, actually) is a swirling cloud of interplanetary dust shaped like a horse?s head. And up in Orion's shoulder is Betelgeuse, whose light, which is 60,000 times more luminous than the sun's, reaches Earth 600 years before the light does from Rigel, in Orion?s foot.

Of course, no matter how rad it is, stargazing isn't skiing. And it's a testament to the addictive power of the sport that a bunch of stars can provoke such a Pavlovian response in me. The fact that Orion's arrival is often accompanied by vivid powder dreams says almost all I need to know about the constellation as a stimulant and as a harbinger. But Orion is also a kind of companion, comfort, and memento. It's been there above me on so many ski trips, so many adventures, that it?s become as much a part of the fabric of my skiing as hot wax, avalanche forecasts, and the rustle of a Gore-Tex parka.

Now when I think of Orion, it brings up skiing memories: of an alpine start on a Mexican volcano, when I stumbled to the 16,000-foot snow line beneath the blackest night and brightest stars I?ve ever seen, icy glacial snow underfoot. Or of crawling into a sleeping bag on the side of a cliff in the Pantheon Mountains of western British Columbia, eager for a breakfast of corn snow in the morning. Or of an unforgettable day in the Tetons, when it snowed and snowed until the sun went down, then cleared and left fields of powder on the ground, micro-crystals in the air, and a bowl of celestial diamonds above.

Mostly wwhen I see Orion, though, I think less of specific memories and more of the collective buzz that comes with being a skier. Finding it in the sky is like stumbling across an old season pass and tapping into a stew of emotions. It?s like catching a whiff of a girl's perfume and thinking, "Ahhhh." It's like hearing a song and being transported back in time. It is, at its simplest, a way to reconnect with skiing.

So, I'm glad Orion's back. I'm glad it's September. For now.

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