Crystal Mountain

(Cornice control - Chris Morin Photo)

“People may die in spite of me, but they’re sure as hell not going to die because of me.  We live in a culture of try, ‘Good job.  Good game champ.  Great try’.  That doesn’t work as a paramedic.  You think you tried hard?  Try telling that to the family.”

As I drove away from Crystal Mountain in the pouring rain, I remembered the paramedic who’d lectured two days before on basic life support.  On that frustratingly slow and winding road, his words dug into my side; ‘No excuses champ’.

I had spent the week crammed into a small dormitory with fourteen other candidates vying for nine jobs on the Crystal Mountain professional ski patrol.  We sat through lectures, practical demonstrations, and tours side-by-side with the returning pro-patrollers in a hell-week that would have been ripe fruit for a reality TV show.  Who knew on what we were being assessed?  God forbid that they should tell us.  It certainly wasn’t skiing, as we did none of that.  Nor avalanche skills, as we did none of that either.  Sitting bum and packing your own lunch were skills that we demonstrated, as were staying awake in dark rooms, and always smiling, despite the oppressive humidity.

On Friday, as the week was nearing Sunday’s decision point, the pressure became almost tangible.  A few candidates had already been pulled aside and informed that they wouldn’t be considered further.  The odds were improving, but collective blood pressure was also rising.  Brutally, after every 10-hour training day, a senior member of the patrol would host a dinner party, so that the mingling and campaigning could continue well into the night.  Each night I felt like I could sleep for a week, and needed to.

On Sunday, we finally concluded.  We’d finished with a lift-evacuation exercise, and sat through three hours of blathering about risk management.  I felt what I suspected might be an ulcer forming, making my stomach churn as we cleaned up the day lodge that had served as our lecture hall.  The ten of us remaining made our way down to the first-aid room, painfully aware of the pending decision.  As we gathered and forced conversation, one of the supervisors, a lean and tanned mountain guide with more than four-hundred summits on Rainier, walked in with a clip board and looked around the room at ten pale faces.

“Has Paul told you yet? No?…  Well, welcome, everyone, to the professional patrol.  It’s a cool club to be a part of, and hard one to get into.  Congratulations.”

A wave of relief swept through me, cortisol levels dropping for the first time in several weeks.  Dream: realized.

“So long as you’re on our list here, and there’s been no mistakes, please check your contact info, and we’ll be in touch about when we plan to open”.  He set down the clip board on the gurney that we’d encircled.

I looked at the list.  Nine names.  Ten people there.  Who’s missing?


Sixty to zero in 1.5 seconds.

I walked into the office, staving off disappointment in the hopes that there’d been a mistake.  After a brief discussion amongst the bosses, they agreed that there hadn’t been.  I was tenth on a list of nine.  They’d tried to find me before the last meeting, tried to spare me the disappointment in front of everybody else.  It took a long second for me to swallow my churning insides and ask where I most stood to improve.

“It’s not that we don’t like you, there’s no personality issue.  And your skills are just as good or even better than some of the people that we’ve hired.  It’s just that… it’s like a light bulb, you know, and it wasn’t glowing bright enough.”

“I’m not sure that I understand.”

In short, he told me that I hadn’t seemed eager enough.  That other people had made more of an effort to schmooze.  I hadn’t sucked up enough, and that’s what they’d wanted to see.

After letting them know that I’d be available should anyone drop out before New Year’s, I grabbed my pack from amongst my elated peers, who were sorting out patrol packs and uniforms.  Their excitement made me bitter, and I hated the bosses for making me do the walk of shame.  I walked back to my car with a cold heat burning inside of me.  Shame;  Not something that I’d felt so intensely before.

The girl always tells me that I “shit rainbows”.  It’s her way of saying that I’m annoyingly positive about things.  As I walked to my car, I wasn’t. I wanted to beat the hell out of someone to make a point, and I was that someone.  As my shame faded away into disappointment, I only wished that I could wallow in some comfortable delusion.  I wanted to compare myself to those that they’d hired, and convince myself that I was better.  I wanted to tell myself that those making the decisions were foolish, that they’d made a mistake.  But that didn’t fly:  it was abundantly clear to me that I was solely to blame.  The day before I’d written on the internet, “Today I do the sowing.  Tomorrow I’ll be reaping what I sowed, be it enough or not enough”.  It hadn’t been enough.

Worse still, as I pulled out of the dorm driveway and onto Crystal Mountain Boulevard, the meaning of what was happening sank onto my shoulders.  For the first time in a long time, maybe ever, I’d failed to achieve something that I really wanted, and I was the only one to blame.  I’d fallen short with no one else to blame because of a character flaw that my ‘successes’ had thus far hidden: I though that I deserved it.  I expected it to fall into my lap.

“Nice try champ.  Good game.”

This presumptuousness didn’t just apply to the job at Crystal, it applied to everything.  Until now, the world had been good to me, and I hadn’t done anything to deserve it.  Jobs, girlfriends, grades, summits, all had fallen into my lap with little effort on my part, and I’d congratulated myself each time on the ‘success’ that had come of my ‘hard work’.

Time for a reality check.

Assets:  A little over three grand in the bank, a working car, and the ability to shit rainbows.

Liabilities: No home come the end of November, no employment plans, arrogance, and a moving violation (Thanks Officer J. Hicks for making yesterday the best day that it could have been.  I didn’t want that $200 anyways.  I just wanted to get home.)

The story of Zen master Hakuin came to mind.  The work at Crystal would have been amazing, and I’m still wallowing more than a bit in my disappointment, and even more so in the coming uncertainty of how to support myself from here on out.  But at the same time, I can’t help it, the rainbows just keep coming.  Even though the whole experience at Crystal left me emotionally battered, and maybe with an ulcer, I can’t help but feel that the world just dealt me a big spoonful of tough love, and that I’m getting what I needed most, even if it’s not what I wanted.  It might take some time, but if I can learn from my arrogance and disappointment, I may get more that I would have if my dream had been realized.  Yes, I’d be lacing explosives and skiing powder, but I’d still be under the illusion that I’d earned what I have.  I’d be waiting to discover the truth.

Category: Skiing

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