Black Diamond Fall

Joseph Olshan

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Black Diamond Fall, by Joseph Olshan. In the following passage, a dangerous ski slope becomes the catalyst for a dark journey into the past.



If you could be given your youth back, it might have true meaning for a few days, or maybe even a week. A month might allow you to forget that you were ever old, but the whole point would be never to forget—to understand that your visit back in time would expire almost as soon as it began. Sam is thinking this as he and Mike soldier the last ascent up a trail in the Wasatch Mountains, skis on their shoulders, notching their ski boots into steep snowpack, eyeing the flat table above where they’ll soon stop and put on the rest of their gear. They’ve been hiking for an hour in whirring, wintry silence, punctuated by groans of shifting snow and ice and by the soft wailing of the wind. The sun is high, and it’s a bluebird day. Looming constantly to their left is Black Diamond Fall, whose headwalls are built up from ice melt that has gathered layers of snow; the slope looks almost vertical in places, dark dashes of rock to be avoided at all costs. It’s an extreme descent that only solid, expert skiers can drop into and be confident of surviving. The adrenaline blast of a run to the bottom of the canyon would, to those below them, be almost meaningless. The night before, pointing to the image of the Fall on the computer screen, Mike said, “You can get into it one of two ways. You can sideslip in, ski straight down the first headwall, then check your speed and pick your way for a bit until it gets wider”—then he grinned maniacally—“or you can just jump off the cornice, which I don’t think either of us wants to do.”

Looming constantly to their left is Black Diamond Fall, whose headwalls are built up from ice melt that has gathered layers of snow; the slope looks almost vertical in places, dark dashes of rock to be avoided at all costs.

At forty-five, Mike, Sam’s best friend, is four years younger. He lived for three seasons in Tahoe, tuning edges, adjusting bindings, and skiing almost every day, and that regimen has given him a confidence, a fluidity of motion, that never seems to falter, even when his skis combat the eastern ice. He’s a tough little guy of French Canadian background; one of his eyes is blue and the other is golden green. Last night, he watched Sam staring slack-jawed at the screen.

“You with me, bud?” he said.

“Yeah, I’m with you.”

“Don’t overthink this, Sam. You overthink everything. You know the terrain. Now you just have to nail it.” Together they had skied all of New England, including Tuckerman’s Ravine. In the west they’d conquered Gunsight, Palmyra Peak at Telluride, the Baldy Chute at Alta, Courbet’s at Jackson. Black Diamond Fall was not far out of that league and Mike said so.

Sam disagreed. To him, the Fall presented a higher degree of difficulty. Plenty of lesser skiers take on Tuckerman’s Ravine’s forty-five-degree plunge, which is pretty short and can be dispatched with five turns. Courbet’s Couloir in the Tetons is admittedly very steep, requires a ten-foot drop into soft snow, but still a trail marked in bounds—whereas Black Diamond Fall is miles off-piste.

“But whatever you do,” Mike spoke up again, “try not to think about him.”

Think about him. “About who?”

“About you-know-who.”

But how could he not think about Luc? Doing the Fall together was what they’d talked about from the very beginning, was what they’d talked about when Sam had shown Luc the YouTube footage accompanied by a heavy-metal soundtrack of skiers tackling it. “We’ll do it, together, we’ll do Black Diamond,” they had promised one another, hugging tight and cringing, as they’d watched Billy Poole’s final moment—miraculously captured on video—when, scouting for a ski film, he died there in ’09 at the age of twenty-eight.

Mike and Sam finally reach the top, and without acknowledging their arrival, look around at the sweeping expanse of summit vistas, sheets of snow draping the peaks and folds of mountains nestled close to them, and then begin the mindless drudge of putting on equipment. Sam had been sure to ski several days at Solitude on his rented powder skis so that he was used to them. Mike, who’d brought his Atomics out from Boston, felt he would not need the advantage of extra wide skis. They check their stowed avalanche gear—their probes and miniature shovels— turn on their transponders, secure their backpacks, and approach the lip of the cornice, staring down into what at first appears to be a crevasse but is actually just a break in the fall line. As Mike has pointed out, dropping in off this major cornice is not an option because you’d begin with too much air and might hit a rock face below. You have to jet in from the lip at the side and, once in, ski straight down a headwall through a narrow gate of two squat boulders, then jump-turn down a slim ribbon of skiable terrain and continue until you drop lower into the bowl that will widen before you’ll finally be free to turn widely. Nervousness and adrenaline are fine, as long as your brain doesn’t go numb.

“Okay, it is a little tricky,” Mike concedes as they stand there, studying the slope, “but just set your skis, aim for between the boulders. You’ll probably be going fast when you get through, so start turning as soon as you clear those rawks.”

His South Boston accent sounds quaint in these western provinces. And for a moment Sam centers himself by taking deep breaths and looking out at the graduation of peaks in the distant part of the Wasatch that unfurl toward western Colorado, and the white parentheses of Solitude’s downhill trails, where they hiked in from. Mike, who is pretty laconic, seems slightly on edge, and Sam knows that even Mike is worrying about those first ten or fifteen seconds of the run.

They’ve already debated who should go first; originally, they thought Mike, but then they reasoned perhaps Sam because he, being the weaker skier, should have somebody sweeping behind him. Their ultimate decision: Mike will lead.

“You’re going to follow me? Right?” Mike asks softly, still scouring the Fall. “You’re not going to psyche out. Which means . . .” He looks at Sam shrewdly with his different-colored eyes.

“I won’t think about Luc,” Sam fills in the blank. “And he wouldn’t stop me, anyway. I will do it,” he insists, still not quite sure that he will in the end.

“You have nothing to prove to anybody,” Mike now tells Sam. “You’ve wanted to ski this since college.” They’d met at Carleton in a ski club when Mike was a sophomore and Sam, two years graduated, was teaching an expository writing class before going to architecture school. “And we’re gonna do it!”

No sooner does the grin on Mike’s face fade than he pushes out and grabs several feet of air off the lip before his skis hit and he’s already jetting down the narrow path toward the rocks. He adjusts his speed beautifully and begins the quick jump turns down the narrowest part of the face. Sam notices another drop that neither of them had anticipated, but Mike, who has remarkable reflexes, takes it in stride before hitting the slightly flatter, wider part of the fall. And then he’s turning great S’s through the new snow—Sam can hear whoops of pleasure—making virgin tracks, as though writing words on a blank tablet. And then, ever so faintly, “Awesome!” floatingback up to him.

As agreed, Mike finds a good place to stop halfway down and turns his face up to Sam. He yells something, but he’s too far below now for Sam to understand it. Sam knows he’s got to jump in, that he’s going to do it, but hesitates just one last moment to collect his thoughts, to review what needs to be done, maybe even to pray because he’s superstitious.

Ever since he can remember, he’s been dreaming of mastering Black Diamond Fall, a notch in his belt before he gets too old to attempt terrain that often intimidates even talented younger skiers.

“I’m afraid,” he admits aloud to the blustering wind. He knows it’s not just fear of the adventure—it’s fear of losing his power, his athleticism, his attractiveness. With Luc gone, he’s even more reluctant to let it all go. Ever since he can remember, he’s been dreaming of mastering Black Diamond Fall, a notch in his belt before he gets too old to attempt terrain that often intimidates even talented younger skiers. Ripping it all the way to the bottom of the canyon will hopefully slow his decline down another arguably more difficult slope. The hardest part is to get off the lip and make it down that first schuss, and to continue strategizing while doing so.

“Come on,” he imagines Luc urging him, and then he’s off the lip and in and knows with a flash of exhilaration that it’s a good entry. He’s following Mike’s tracks, gaining speed down the headwall toward the stubby boulders, zipping through them until his shoulder grazes one of them, throwing him off his game for a second. Instinctively, he bends his knees, checks his speed, and then enters phase two: the slightly less steep chute that’s maybe two feet wider than his skis. Jump-turning to the right and then the left, Sam is about to enter the bowl’s wider field, when one of his edges catches, and with a flash of paralyzing panic, he knows he’s going to fall forward.

His skis, high-tech, designed with impeccable precision, release themselves and jet away from him in different directions. He wakes up to a sky that has cooled, a lower sun, the snowfields taking on rosy color. He’s lying at a critical angle, his right leg folded beneath him. He gasps, realizing something is terribly wrong, then glances around and spies his right ski lower down, sticking out of the snow, jackknifed over itself, snapped in half, shocking. He can no longer feel his leg and yet there is pain pulsing everywhere in his body, radiating from a dead zone. But then it fades for a bit; thankfully, it’s not constant. Soon it occurs to him that it’s more than just the skewed limb, divining a deeper wound. He is losing something, and he’s losing it quickly, and he doesn’t know a quite what it is. And then he hears Mike calling—he’d almost forgotten Mike was there with him. At last, Sam tunes in to the litany, and he’s in an echo chamber: “Sam! Sam! Sam! You okay? You okay? You okay?”

Shifting his head to the right, Sam sees Mike a hundred yards down, skis off and crisscrossed at one side, trying to scale the shallower part of the fall, near an outcropping of rocks, having terrific difficulty. “Don’t try to get up here! Just call Life Flight,” he manages. They’ve rented avalanche satellite phones that have the number of an emergency helicopter service programmed in.

“So it’s that bad?”

“I think so. Stay there, Mike. You can’t make it.”

Mike had once been a gymnast, but this is one of the steepest slopes on the North American continent. “Are you cold?”

Sam takes a moment to assess. “Nah, I don’t think so.”

Muted tones of conversation float up to him and then he hears Mike yell, “Okay, they’re on their way!”

Life Flight is coming. When they’d rented the phones, they were told Life Flight was pretty quick, so maybe he’ll have to endure only—what?—another half-hour of this? It’s in their hands now.

Life Flight is coming. When they’d rented the phones, they were told Life Flight was pretty quick, so maybe he’ll have to endure only—what?—another half-hour of this? It’s in their hands now. They’ll know what to do. Sam leans his head back, admonishing himself to rest despite the intermittent screams of his injured body. At first he thinks, Okay, I can handle it, but then panics as he did once far out in Grafton Pond, when he was swimming between two islands, growing afraid of drowning, and then turning on his back and trying to relax and hearing the sound of loons, the birds that mate for life, calling out in their haunting lament. And then he discovers wetness, and manages to unzip his jacket and almost passes out when he spies the tremendous pooling of blood. And dimly wonders: What could possibly be causing this? How much have I lost?

Somehow, Mike manages to reach Sam; he’s there looking down at Sam with composed concern. The pain has preternaturally subsided again, and yet Sam can no longer move, can barely even swivel his head, and realizes, even before he gets alarmed, that his breathing is sharp and fast. And then recognizes he’s gone into atrial fibrillation, something that happens only when he’s under extreme stress: the episodes sometimes lasting a torturous few hours, his heart racing erratically, his blood pumping inefficiently, the beats scattering like discordant music, making it impossible to climb stairs, to lie down. When it happens, he feels like an athlete who has gone down in the middle of a race. Normally, he’d keep checking his pulse, hoping for sinus rhythm to resume, but now he can’t even move his arms.

“How did you get here?” he says, breathless from his fluttering heart.

“I managed—I’m a gymnast, don’t worry. I can climb anything. I couldn’t be down there just looking up at you struggling. I had to get to you.”

“Can’t move very much.” Sam groans.

Mike’s distressed, different-colored eyes are glinting snowy light. “I know, I know. And you’ve lost blood. But maybe I shouldn’t be saying that.”

“Already figured that out.” Sam forfeits the ability to speak for a moment, and then says,“Why did I?”

“I think you smashed into a rawk. There’s an open wound.”

“Then don’t . . . let . . . me . . . bleed!” Sam wants to add, “to death,” but can’t bring himself. Not yet. He debates telling Mike about his erratically beating heart but ends up saying nothing about it.

“I don’t think it’s so bad now.” Mike has unzipped Sam’s orange shell and lifts his inner fleece to study the oozing wound. Then pivots around and checks the sky. “I don’t see them. Where the fuck are they?” The tough little guy shakes his head, and Sam can see tears on his ruddy cheeks.

“Don’t worry, Mike,” he says.

Mike snorts a laugh and says, “Don’t say that. I’m supposed to be telling you that.”

“Well, I’m telling you. Okay?”

Mike’s voice breaks again. “Okay, Sam.”

And then the first of the shadows comes down like a bird of prey with a wide wingspan, or maybe it’s a cloud darkening the sun, but it glides over the white parchment on which he lies, over the glistening gorges that have melted in the midday warmth and are, as evening comes on, cooling into quicksilver ice. He feels it in the part of him that can still feel, and thinks of his mother, dead now for a decade, who he could have sworn was breathing on his neck the last time he was seriously injured: mountain biking. That was two years ago when he was lying in a hospital getting pebbles picked out of his arm.

“Road rash,” he says aloud, and laughs, light-headed.

“What are you talking about?”

Sam peers at Mike, at a face that is familiar yet somehow strange.

Damn, his heart again, fast-beating like a fiend; he wishes at the very least that it would just revert to normal rhythm; all of this would be much easier and the relief would be almost narcotic. Can’t he just deal with one bodily malfunction at a time? He feels stupid now, worrying so much about trivial things, about aging, about being too old for guys he’s attracted to, about being too old for Luc. What does it matter now? Hadn’t he read somewhere that men younger than twenty-five were still developing, which meant their assessment of risk was evolving, their sense of responsibility, their dependability? But Luc believed Sam was the risk-taker because Sam rode a motorcycle and actually carried around a note in his wallet that spelled out where he lived, that there was a dog that would need to be let out, and whom to call in an emergency. Luc always worried that the news of Sam’s motorcycle wreck would never reach him.

The speck of the helicopter grows larger in the sky and is soon hovering above him. Sam vaguely wonders how they’re going to dig him out of the snow and put him on a stretcher. Surely they’ll figure it out . . . his breathing is even shallower, his heart still racing crazily, but he’s no longer afraid for some odd reason, sleepy rather, and it seems as though he sleeps with open eyes. A spider’s web of rope is drifting down; attendants in white jumpsuits seem to be floating toward him. Why are they dressed in white, is it some kind of winter pallor? Their hands seem so soft as they tend to him; miraculously, they are able to create a trench around him and effortlessly pry him out, and he has a halo of snow around him, floating in the air. He’s like some weird, crooked angel who fell onto the mountain when he should’ve been flying overhead on some astral plane. The ropes are finally attached to the stretcher and Sam is lifted gently, rocking in the air. He peers up through the deepening shadows, up at the darkening decline of Black Diamond Fall, and his last lingering thought is: Mike may never be able to get in touch with Luc, the college boy who broke his best friend’s heart.


From BLACK DIAMOND FALL. Used with the permission of the publisher, Polis Books. Copyright © 2018 by Joseph Olshan.

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