It was piercing, even in memory; the bone-chilling, blood-curdling scream is hard to forget. But that’s what sticks out in my mind from a trek years back, spring skiing above Horseshoe Lake.
We left the trailhead in the upper Red River Canyon just before daybreak, slipping on our backpacks with cross country skis bungeed to the sides, heading up the East Fork Trail. We set out at a brisk pace to counter the brisk air.
A childhood friend, Itchy Butt, another Norwegian, flew up from the Texas flatlands bent on cooling off skiing in the Wheeler Wilderness Area. It was May 17 – Syttende Mai, Norwegian Independence Day – parades aren’t plentiful that holiday in New Mexico; most folks haven’t even heard of it, including Norwegians. Itchy Butt wore a Viking helmet with horns in honor of the day.
The trail lightened as the morning wamed up. We figured four to five hours to the snowfields above the lake, time enough to hit the slopes before they heated up enough to slough. Old snowdrifts like sleeping bums lined the trail. The creeks barrelled full-bore down rock ravines. We plodded on.
Finally, late morning, we reached Horseshoe Lake. Light lit the peaks of Wheeler, Walter, Taos Cone and Red Dome lining the ridge. Whistle pigs bolted for cover under boulders.
Dumping our gear, we stepped into three-pins and scaled the edge of the snowpack, climbing, legs and lungs pumping, skins on the bottom of the skinny skis. A beautiful morning to carve slow winding turns on spring corn snow.
After a few ascents, we stopped to snack on goat cheese and crackers. And then it happened: I’d been waiting for it. Itchy Butt got one of his trademark bonehead ideas – build a jump on the shore and launch out over the lake.
I’d seen it a million times before. It was like a disease, where bad ideas bubbled to the surface of his brain. His mind was always crowded with lame ideas – some kind of genetic disorder. And he could be very convincing. I’d get duped into agreeing to the brilliance of his scheme. And always, later, the brilliance would dim, letting the idiocy of the idea shine instead.
Live a little, he’d say. And who can argue with that, even if you’d heard it all before.
So we built the jump at the lake’s edge, a gentle ramp with a kicker at the lip. We need serious air, he said.
I didn’t have the courage, the blind determination he had. I never did. So he volunteered to go first while I clicked the photo. He stripped down to hot chiles and T-shirt, climbed to a takeoff spot, and cinched tight the Viking helmet. Pivoting to point downhill, he signaled “thumbs up” – the kiss of death when you’re about to do something spectacularly dumb.
He tucked on his descent, no hesitation at all, floating on straight adrenaline. His ponytail flopped on his back beneath the horned helmet. When he hit the jump, it was more of a kicker than we thought, and it kicked him out high over the lake. Graceful at first, he looked like an Olympian, leaning out over his tips, hands and poles at his side. But that’s when the scream came, echoing across the water. Everything went haywire; maybe he hit an updraft or maybe mid-air the lunacy of the idea hit him and turned to terror. He started twisting into a broken-winged spread eagle that turned into a full belly flop as he hit the surface.
That there is no photo is totally my fault – I was laughing too hard to click the shutter, something it took a long time for him to forgive. If you’re going to be caught doing something really stupid, it should at least be caught on film.
When he first hit the water, he later told me, everything went numb, from his toenails to his ponytail. He couldn’t move a muscle, couldn’t swim with skis and poles, so he sank. It was too cold even to cuss. When he hit the bottom, he knew he was a goner, thought he was freezing to death but then he started to move. All he could do was start to step, ski after ski, a slow trudge up the slope of the lake bottom, step after agonizing step – the classic cross-country style, only under water.
Not seeing any movement on the water, only bubbles, I stripped to my shorts, ready to dive in. But then two horns broke the surface like dorsal fins swimming. And slowly he emerged, death on his face, hands poling, skis stepping until he flopped onto the bank like a fish on a beach. He peeled off his clothes and skis and boots fast as he could, looking like he was trying to filet himself. I rubbed his back to melt the ice in his veins, hoping the high altitude sun would bake his frozen skin.
It must have been quite the sight for the family of hikers that had just showed up at the other end of the lake; they turned and headed straight back down the mountain.
Vacations here don’t always have to breed stories of heroics, no matter how dumb, but it certainly gives you grist for tales to one day tell the grandkids.
Welcome to the southern Rockies – a heck of a place for any adventure.
— Joe Haukebo, Publisher
This article appeared on page 8 of the 2009 print edition of HighCountry.