A day on Teton Pass that carved the cold white road to enlightenment.
It was a year after the lust first took hold of me, when snowboarding crystallized to become everything I imagined.
The first part—the desire for something more—arrived after slogging up the Glory bootpack on Teton Pass with my friend Sam. I had been a skier my whole life, and on that day I stood on the summit of Glory with two poles and two skis. Sam, meanwhile, had a SnoPlank—a bamboo snowboard with no edges, the length a child’s sled. After years and years on big long skis, I was sure Sam’s board had the crush-worthy ability of nothing more than a snowshoe.
Back to the bootpack. It was the kind of deep, dark, stormy January morning where the wind is blowing so hard it blisters your cheeks. The creases in the palms of our gloves froze solid. Conversation was futile, lost to the ferocious breeze blurring the horizon between Sam and I as we climbed higher. But on these mornings in the truest part of winter as the dawn breaks the grey haze over the Gros Ventre, the snow is as light as it falls in the Tetons, sapped of almost all its moisture from the hundreds of miles of dry, brittle farmland to the west. Surrounded on all sides, it was the kind of snow you swim through. Instead of floating above it you move within it.
“Dropping!” I hollered. With each turn, the snow climbed over my knees and swallowed me to my stomach. Ecstasy. Then Sam dropped, his board hovering along the snow, not even enough weight to break the surface. The tail of his board would swing out, skimming its shadow above the snow. Sam laid hard into his heels, erupting the snow ahead and all around him in an explosion of white, erasing any trace of him. On my skis, I watched speechless as he repeated this cycle of turn-poof!-disappear-reappear-turn-poof!-disappear all the way to the bottom. It looked like a dream in motion, the way the snow swallowed him instantaneously, over and over.
That was it. I had to snowboard.
A year later, I was hiking the same bootpack on a similar dark, wind-loaded January morning. Cheeks again blistered by the wind, conversation between partners lost to the snow—only this time, that edgeless bamboo SnoPlank was latched to my back. At the top, I strapped into the tiny pow surfer and wobbled down. With only a month of snowboarding under my belt, I jiggled back and forth, struggling to hold an edge on the scoured ridge.
My friends dropped first, their bodies quickly melding with the swirling, powder-washed fall line. When they turned off the run to watch me come down, I inched the tiny board forward, certain I’d tumble onto my face. The SnoPlank began to lazily tunnel through the deep snow. Then, as I picked up speed, the nose reappeared and the board came level with the surface. The increasing speed woke my instinct to turn, and within half a moment of setting that first heel-side edge, I was fully, blindly, head-to-toe, block-the-goggles barreled. I was speechless again, except this time it was my own experience, my own turn that was the subject of wonder.
I couldn’t feel the ground. I couldn’t feel gravity. I lost all focus, and could only catch up enough to experience, on that age-erasing sensory level, the brink of the cold, the batting of the wind, and the bounding of snow crystals as they collided with my face; millions of them on their way skyward.
The board turned back to point straight down the fall line—I’m not sure how. I was only observing what was happening, trying to take it all in, to comprehend it, watching my body shift across the face of the mountain over this sliver of time, and the world reemerged. Brought a little closer to reality, I had the odd thought of breathing again, and my lungs burst out, sucking in air desperately.
But something dry, cold and soft was wadded up in my cheeks, blocking my esophagus. I spat with the bit of breath I’d been able to pull in. A thick wad of snow shot out, falling until it collided in a soft smack with the billions of other crystals below. It wasn’t a movie, it wasn’t a Transworld cover, it was me, right there, on my own two feet, on a snowboard, riding snow so deep I was choking on it.
The entire run—every turn—unrolled in this seemingly endless faceshot-laden dream. Most of the run, in fact, I rode completely blind, engulfed by snow that erupted all around me, that took me away from the world anytime I edged the board even a few degrees from the fall line.
I arrived at the bottom overwhelmed, every nerve ending electrified. There, lying on my back in a snow bank along the highway, snow angel-style, I hollered like a fool, born anew.
I had become a believer.
Aspiring to surf the Earth since 2016, Ryan Dunfee is former managing editor at Teton Gravity Research now working at the Sierra Club.