Two men enter, one man leave.
Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome
It started innocently enough. While entertaining my sixth or seventh stout on-tap, the women at the nearest table began pelting me with popcorn. The primary attacker, an auburn-tressed Viking goddess, had caught my eye when I entered the tavern two or three hours earlier. But I decided to treat all four women equally – flicking ice cubes from my friend’s bourbon-on-rocks glass at each one in turn. The popcorn barrage escalated, and Xavier acquired more ice quickly.
My last under-handed projectile found the goddess’ cleavage. Surprised, she jumped up with a shriek. Another mystery factor in the equation – she had a boyfriend who instantaneously lunged from the shadows in a direct beeline to my position. Fortunately, the goddess’ friends, Xavier, and a waiter materialized between us.
“Sorry,” I blurted. “We were just having fun. She started it.”
That didn’t placate Mr. Seething Boyfriend. “You dissed my girl! We gotta settle this.”
Sounded like unnecessary trouble to me. I have lived here for many years and had presumed all Neanderthals were extinct. “Death slalom, buddy,” the trogdolite muttered.
Duels with swords or pistols were a thing of the distant past. I had read that in the 1950’s disenfranchised young men and teenagers faced off in vehicular duels. “Chicken” was a later day version of horse-back jousts of medieval times. I then remembered an old movie, Rebel Without A Cause, in which two guys ‘settled their differences’ by driving cars in parallel off a cliff. The winner was the last one who bailed from his car before sailing off into oblivion. Or was the winner the one who bailed with the car?
The last Deathslalom was alleged to have occurred more than 30 years ago. Quite similar to the Rebel’s gunfight at whatever corral, the duelists hurtled on skis down a steep slope in the ‘back bowl’ area of the nearby Dos Cerebros ski area. Whoever schussed the furthest, without going over the three-hundred-foot drop at the slope’s bottom “won.”
It was the stout which accepted the challenge. I certainly wouldn’t have. If my BAC had been anything less than 0.1, reason would certainly have prevailed, and Mr. Trogdolite’s challenge gone unaccepted. “See you at the Back Bowl Boundary at nine,” he growled.
According to the legends of Deathslaloms past, the ritual began at the Back Bowl parking lot. Stepping groggily out of Xavier’s car, I hoped that the other guy wouldn’t show up. I hoped no-one else would, either.
He was already there, his Kniessels jauntily over his shoulder. Maybe two dozen people standing around. The somber could be cut with the proverbial knife. I pulled out my old Head rock skis. No big loss if they made the plunge.
“We go now, buddy.” He had either done some homework or actually knew how this was done. In the past, only the slalom participants made the trek up a short slope to the ridge above the bowls. I turned, scanning the other people present. Perhaps someone would talk me, or him, or both of us, out of it. Darn. Things were pretty quiet. A woman in a green parka pushed up her sunglasses. I looked into her equally green eyes. It was the Norwegian princess. Her face betrayed no emotion.
The edge. The mid-morning updraft had already established a miniature standing rolling cirrus cloud of ice. We both deeply inhaled.
“Robert.” The cave-dweller had a name. Caught off guard, I almost fell over in grasping his extended hand.
“I don’t ski much,” I confessed. “Do we just go straight down or do we make turns?”
“We’re supposed to try to stay sorta close together. Until the bottom.”
I should have asked him where that was – the bottom. I squinted at the scraggly timberline trees along what appeared to be the bottom of the hill some fifty yards distant.
“That ain’t it,” Robert chuckled. “It’ll be four or five stretches. I don’t remember. ”
Re-assuring. He either means it or he’s stringin’ me along. He snapped on his skis, looped pole straps over his gloves, and re-positioned his sunglasses. I tried to act natural in doing the same, but felt like my motions were echoes of his actions bounced off distant peaks.
Robert turned and gave me a brief intense stare – as best as I could ascertain from beneath his opaque eye-shields. Planting his poles, he pushed off.
When I was four or five, my parents took me skiing for the first time. I could feel, at first my father, then my mother, holding my back from behind, each hand under my underarms, their skis outside mine. I wouldn’t realize it for several seconds, but from time to time they’d let go, and I’d be skiing on my own. When I realized this, I would start to fall but usually my mom or dad would catch and hold on to me again. I could feel them now.
We passed the first false precipice. The next pitch seemed twice as steep. I bent my knees, locked them, and tried to pay more attention. Robert skied upright, whistling an unrecognizable tune.
I tried whistling too, but a peak across the way told me to stop. No more echoing, it seemed to say. Mom and/or dad held on tighter.
We got a bit of air as we segued onto the next pitch. “This one’s really steep,” I marveled aloud. Any steeper than this, we, or I at least, would be in serious trouble. I managed a quick glance his way, tried to penetrate his concentration with an arrow of my focused attention. He was in his own zone now.
Twenty yards from the edge, I started to brake. If I fell, the momentum would carry me over. I dug the ends of my skis into the crust, bearing down on my heels like I had never done before. Robert seemed to accelerate. Without a sound, not even a whisper nor a whoosh, he glided over the edge.
I stared at the ski tracks to the edge of the precipice. Unseen ice crystals borne on the updraft from below cut my cheeks like tiny razors. Continued silence. I began the weary trudge back uphill.