By Ronnell Kay Gibson
A bitter breeze rakes over my cheeks as I step from the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, but it’s not the cold that sends shivers skittering through my gloved hands and up my arms. It’s excitement.
Up ahead, my best friend, Brandon, faces me, a wide smile plastered on his face. He signs the words, “Ready for this, Andy?”
I nod, grinning. After years of training and months of planning, we’re finally here. The top of Corbet’s Couloir in Wyoming, one of the most dangerous ski runs in the world.
Though my feet follow the shuffling mass of well-insulated bodies off the platform and toward the queue, it’s the view that has my rapt attention. Snow-covered mountains and blue sky as far as you can see. I gulp back a lump in my throat.
But the beauty is marred by the chatter of my fellow skiers. I can’t hear their words, but I can see them. Spewing from their lips into the air. Phrases such as, “My wife’s gonna kill me,” “New skis,” and, “Gorgeous day for a tumble,” float above their heads, then disintegrate.
When I was little, I thought seeing spoken words was just a part of being deaf, but in my twenty-six years, I’ve never met anyone else who can see conversations… besides comic book characters. In crowds, sentences tornado into a jumbled mess. Confusing and overstimulating.
It’s why I love skiing. Just me, adrenaline pulsing, swooshing past all the words, turning letters into swirly dust.
At the peak, I drop my skis and click my boots into place.
Brandon shouts, “YOU GOOD?” his words, in all caps, thrown from his lips.
I pound my chest twice. I’m good.
We watch, transfixed, as the first skier of the day drops twenty-five feet into a mass of white powder. He’s in perfect position in the center chute and makes a fast right turn to maneuver around a granite wall, then a quick left to avoid the boulders on the right side. He then bobbles a little, loses control, and tomahawks, somersaulting the rest of the way down the hill.
My stomach—and my resolve—tighten.
I’m next. As soon as I’m in position, I glance back at Brandon. He smiles and pounds his chest twice. His words swirl into the wind. “I’m right behind you.”
My skis hover over the edge.
I take a deep breath and jump.
The free fall stimulates my reflexes. I nail the landing and turn into the chute, letting my body do what it was trained to do. I swerve right, then left, narrowly avoiding the rocks. My speed continues to spike, as does the rush of adrenaline. I lean aggressively forward as I make the next turn into the rest of the chute.
I’m passed the steepest part of the run, ready to sidewind to the bottom, when my skis begin to quiver. The ground is rumbling.
I struggle to keep my feet steady as I crane my neck, glancing up and over.
My heart races into overdrive. I use my poles to gain more speed, plowing toward the bottom, every muscle straining as I try to stay erect.
Finally, the run flattens as the chalet appears on the horizon. People are running, pointing, the ski patrol mounting their snowmobiles.
I stop feet away from the commotion and swivel on my skis to stare up at the mass of snow. Though we are in the avalanche’s direct line of destruction, it’s already started to settle. I breathe a deep sigh. We’re safe.
Yet, words continue to fly around me—“One skier,” “Trapped,” “No hope.”
Cold washes over my neck. Brandon.
I fumble out of my skis and try to get the attention of one of the patrollers. He doesn’t understand my signing. I try to speak, but my voice, which I struggle to use on a good day, just comes out in grunts. The patroller brushes me aside and takes off.
I debate just following on foot, but my mobility is limited in these clunky boots. If Brandon is still alive, and if he was able to create a pocket of air, he’ll have a total of thirty minutes before he’s out of oxygen.
Spying another patroller firing up a snowmobile, I race over. It’s a woman with weathered pink cheeks.
I steady my hands as I sign, “I can help.”
She nods and signs back, “Jump on.”
Keeping to the right of the massive snowfall, we fly past teams with probes and dogs starting up the mountain.
She parks the vehicle halfway to the top. I slide off as she fiddles with a receiver she had steadied between her legs.
I trudge toward the edge of the drift, scanning up and down. As I step closer onto the mound, my boots sink deeper and deeper, but I have to get closer.
There! A couple hundred yards up. Puffs of smoke—Brandon’s words disintegrating.
He’s alive. Heaving a sigh of relief, I fumble back to the patroller. “I see something.”
She turns and looks. Although she doesn’t see what I see, she trusts me. The snowmobile bumps over the uneven terrain as I guide us toward the words. Though they’re faint, I can read them, “ANDY… I’m down here.”
I grab a shovel off the backpack and charge ahead.
Another few minutes and I drop to my knees and start digging. So does the woman. Then two more guys. We’re about three feet down, when we uncover Brandon’s glove. His fingers wiggle.
A patroller yells. “We’ve found him!”
We drop our shovels, digging with our hands. Brandon’s extended arm goes limp as soon as we free it from its icy trap. We scrape back more snow to reveal his face, his other hand cupped over his mouth.
Brandon shakes his head and coughs. The words swirl around his head. “I knew you’d hear me.”