by Bob James
Stephen and I stood at the edge of a steep incline and stared down into the bank of fog fifty yards below. To our left stood the Piz Gloria, the revolving restaurant propped on top of the Schilthorn, and up whose slopes we had hiked earlier.
We had taken some cardboard boxes from the back of the restaurant, fashioned them into makeshift sleds, and the plan was to ride them back down the mountain.
It was the middle of August, the peak of summer. Stephen had done this before in April. On lunch trays. And it was at his encouragement that we were here now, holding onto our bits of cardboard, looking at the fog, and wondering what might lie beyond. For all I knew, the edge of the world might have been buried in there. The journey back down, he assured me, “will be the ride of your life.”
Looking back, I don’t know why I paid any attention to Stephen. He was from New York. What did someone who lived on 61st Street, whose only brush with the outdoors was when he crossed Central Park to pick up bagels, know about mountains? I don’t know if he had considered that conditions might be different at this time of year or not, but if he had even hinted at how melting temperatures during the day, combined with cooling temperatures at night, would replace the soft powdery snow of earlier in the year and leave this part of the mountain wrapped in sheets of ice, things might have been different. I like to think that if he’d mentioned this sort of detail, I would not have sat down on my strip of cardboard.
But he didn’t. All I knew was that he’d gone down on a tray earlier in the year and that it had been an experience worth repeating. And I knew that I wanted that experience for myself. If I were a smarter person, I might have wanted something different. But I’m not. So I got into position and sat down on the cardboard.
I’d figured that if I just sat there, a step closer to launching myself down the mountain but still able to back out if I chose, I’d get a better feel for whether or not this was something I actually wanted to do. I distinctly remember that at that moment I had not made up my mind to actually go anywhere.
I knew immediately that I’d made a mistake, and it wasn’t anything intuitive. It wasn’t like I’d gained a sixth sense and could see beyond the present. It was the very real knowledge that during normal everyday activities – like vacuuming or ironing a shirt – I did not suddenly accelerate from zero to sixty at a rate that would outstrip a Maserati.
There was no warm-up to this shift in scenery, no gentle gathering of pace during which I might have looked around and enjoyed the view. There was no moderation at all. It was instant, life-throttling speed. There was nothing, and then there was everything. The Big Bang of sliding down mountains.
I’d like to say I had thoughts as I shot like a heat-seeking missile toward the village of Gimmelwald some five miles below. I’d like to say I gave thanks for not being seated on a polished, restaurant serving tray. Or that I wondered if I hadn’t possibly misheard Stephen, and what he’d actually said back there at the top was that this would be “the last ride of your life.” But all that existed on that lonely mountain as I was pounded against the ice was the very real sense that this was not going to finish well.
My instinct was to somehow get off. But I was 10,000 feet up, and the only way to get off was to get down. I was already heading down. I realized that the only thing I could do was to keep hold of the cardboard. That seemed important.
I was moving very quickly and getting pounded against the ice. Deep ruts had formed, and I would go down, slam into the other side, and come shooting up again out of the crevice.
Until I arrived at a stretch of ice that stood like a tsunami frozen into place ahead of me. When I smacked into it, my cardboard went in one direction, and I sailed off in another. Sometime later I landed, bounced on my back and slid for what must have been a few hundred yards, and eventually came to a stop. I don’t know if this was because the ice ran out, or if it had been the cardboard the whole time that had kept up my momentum.
I found myself alone on the mountain, and in pain. The grey fog was above me now, the day bright, the sun warm on my weathered face. My leg was on fire. When I looked, it appeared twisted at an odd angle.
I shouted up the mountain. “It was an experience!” But I didn’t mean this in a good way. I hadn’t intended it as an enticement to follow me down. They were simply the first words out of my mouth. If I’d had time to reconsider, I would have said something else. But it was too late. Stephen had heard me.
Let me explain something about Stephen. He had landed in Europe from New York with a train ticket and a plan to stay two months. Fourteen months later, returning to New York in the foreseeable future was still not on his agenda. His goal was to take in every blade of grass. He wouldn’t be finished until he had collected a lifetime of experiences. There was nothing that meant more to him than the experience. The experience was everything, the paint to life’s canvas. So when he heard me shout this word back up to him, he didn’t give it a second thought, and unknown to me, leaped onto his cardboard.
The first thing I saw emerge from the fog was a couple of apples. They were still gathering speed when they passed me. And then a peanut butter and jelly sandwich came sliding down, and I realized the bag Stephen had been carrying must have burst open, and now the contents were in a race to the bottom. I looked at the fog, and wondering what might be next to appear, tried to visualize the exact contents of the bag.
The next thing to appear was Stephen’s hat, and this surprised me because the hat hadn’t been in the bag. Stephen had been wearing the hat. And then Stephen’s cardboard appeared, without Stephen on it. And for a brief moment, I might have actually started to worry.
But of course, Stephen finally did emerge from the fog. He was on his back, and spinning in circles as he slid over the ice. He was also obviously bleeding, and by the looks of it probably quite badly, because he was leaving a red trail in the snow.
And because he was spinning, the effect was quite striking. A kind of naive but bold art.
About the author
Bob James was hitchhiking in Europe when he met Stephen in a Luxembourg youth hostel. It’s because of this meeting that he now lives in New York. He has yet to forgive Stephen for this. Recently, Bob started his own website, bobjamesink.com, where he writes about whatever he wants.