Backcountry Love Story

Kelsey and I crest Kessler Peak, and I unstrap my bindings to remove the skins from my splitboard.

“What a view!” Kelsey says. “It’s so clear, I can see all the way to Salt Lake.”

“Recognize any buildings?” I ask, teasing. I know the city is too far away for her to make out much, and all she can see is the many houses of Cottonwood Heights.

“No, but I see those guys we noticed behind us a while back. Damn, they are fast hikers!” she says, puffing out an exhausted sigh. “We better hurry if we want first tracks.” She quickly peels her skins from the bottom of her own splitboard and stows them in their case.

I laugh and clip my board back together along the seam down the center. I put on my hardshell jacket and buckle my helmet, stowing my sunglasses before adjusting my goggles over my eyes. Our gear situated, Kelsey pounds a packet of goo, and we are ready.

We stand at the top of our chosen run as the guys mount the peak behind us.

“Snowboarders,” one says. I hear the eye roll in his voice even though he wears heavily tinted goggles.

“Lighten up, asshole,” another shoots back.

A thoughtful peace offering, so I turn to smile in thanks. His smile is bright, revealing all his teeth and bringing out a pair of dimples; his is the kind of candid smile that has power over people, and I admit I am already falling for it. I cannot help but think he is cute. For a skier.

“You gonna send it, or you gonna stand up here eyeballing hot skiers and let them have all the freshies?” Kelsey asks, hands on her hips in a saucy pose.

I turn away from the skier who now peels the skins off his skis, his friends doing the same, and stuff my hands into my mittens. “Not a chance. I’ll stop on the ridge halfway down and wait,” I inform everyone. “Dropping,” I tell Kelsey, having chosen my line on the ascent, and tip my board over the cornice and drop into Argenta Couloir with a whoop. The snow is perfect, and I feel unstoppable shredding through the fluffy drifts.

Partway down, I pop up on the ridge as promised and radio back to Kelsey. “Ready for you to slay it. The snow is amazing.”

“Roger,” she confirms through slight static. “Dropping.”

She meets me on the ridge with a high five.

“The cute one watched,” she says with a sly smile. I punch her in the arm, and she raises her hands defensively. “Just saying.”

I deign not to answer, and we wait for the guys to descend in silence. When they arrive, Kelsey scoots to the lower edge of the ridge to indicate she will go first the rest of the way down. “Dropping?” She says it like a question, and when no one protests, she dips down the slope.

I wait with the guys, watching Kelsey from above to make sure she stays on a safe line. I glance at the cute skier, curious, and I catch him already looking at me.

“Sweet riding,” he says. “I’m Jackson. The rude one’s Daniel, and that’s Tyler.”

“Aubrey,” I reply.

I slip from the memory and back into the train chugging rhythmically beneath me. The steady motion should be soothing, but my hands grip my teal snow pants until the material is uncomfortably tight around my legs. I force my fingers to relax and press my forehead to the large window, scanning the austere white peaks jutting from the sea of snow beyond. The glass is icy against my skin, but I do not pull away. The sun is bright, making the snow glitter like a million tiny diamonds, and there is not a cloud in the sky. I make myself look. I should be happy, excited even, but my muscles tense with trepidation.

“That’s not the Bluebird I remember,” a voice whispers in my mind. I am not certain if the words are mine or his before I push them away, burying them deep in the recesses of my mind with the recollection of how we met and all my other memories of him. If I do not, I know I will cry; I already feel the pinch of oncoming tears.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath, releasing it slowly and worrying my wedding band as another memory slips free.

The sun beats down on us as we skin up the mountain, Jackson in the lead, cutting a path through the miles of untouched snow. My splitboard grows heavy on my feet after the long ascent, but the ride down will be worth it. I study Jackson’s back, and he glances over his shoulder, eyes invisible behind dark sunglasses, as if he feels me looking.

With a smile, he returns his attention to breaking our trail. “Days like today always remind me of you; the sky is the same blue as your eyes. Plus, I’ve never been in the backcountry with you on anything but a bluebird day,” Jackson says. “Thanks for being my bluebird,” he adds, testing out the new nickname.

“Always,” I say, rolling the endearment around in my mind and deciding I like it.

Although reliving these memories is painful, I cannot stop the next one, powerless to staunch the flow once it has begun.

“Bluebird,” Jackson says, his eyes molten pools of chocolate when I emerge from the bathroom in a little blue dress, his hands frozen partway up the front of his button down shirt.

I do a spin in front of him, and when I face him again, his fingers are working the other direction. He shrugs out of his shirt, and grabs me firmly by the skirt of my dress, pulling me into him. His mouth is hungry against mine, his fingers tangled in my hair. I return his kiss as he backs me towards our bed, his fingers moving to the zipper at my back.

I come back to the present where the train steadily makes its way through calendar-worthy winter terrain. My heart clenches painfully in my chest as we near our destination and the moment I will need to uphold the promise I made to myself and once more delve into the backcountry. Just thinking about strapping my board to my feet again scares me, and tears threaten at the notion that the activity that used to bring me such joy is now just short of terrifying.

I have not boarded since the accident, and I am not sure this journey is a good idea. My hands tremble, and I look to Kelsey who sleeps on the seat across from me, napping in her usual fashion before the long hike ahead of us.

Jackson should be the one here with me, his thigh pressed against mine as he tells a lame joke that will undoubtedly make me laugh anyway. This was supposed to be our trip, our “Alaskan adventure” he called it. Jackson planned the whole thing: our train ride into Alaska’s wilderness for a day of sightseeing and backcountry riding, our scenic flight to Valdez where we would have access to some of the most iconic mountains in the world. Jackson was so excited, smiling so hard his dimples were out in full-force; he should have been here to share it. I smiled with him then; now I feel only an uncomfortable weight in my chest that steals my breath.

I could not bring myself to commit to snowboarding in Valdez my confidence is so shaken, so I have to do at least this much. I steel myself with resolve. I need to do this, not just for Jackson, but for me. Fear is keeping me from moving forward. I make myself look out the window at the magnificent mountains.

I do not think I can do it.

The memories are still too fresh, the pain too present in my mind. I fight it, but the memory takes hold and will not let me go.

“What a day, Bluebird!” Jackson says with a wink for me as the four of us do a beacon check before dipping through the backcountry access point on the back side of Canyons Resort, Kelsey, Tyler and I following Jackson onto Dutch Draw.

“Couldn’t be better,” Kelsey agrees, zipping her beacon up inside her jacket and settling her goggles into place.

“Jackson’s going first, and I’ll take up the rear,” I remind everyone, tapping on my radio, a match to the one Jackson wears on his shoulder.

Jackson takes off down his chosen line, gapping over an exposed boulder, and my heart flutters. “Showoff,” I say into my radio, not expecting an answer.

“Hey, man!” Tyler yells from my left.

“The hell?” Kelsey exclaims only a beat behind him.

Moments later, a skier drops in front of me, carving across the terrain so hard my heart lurches in my chest.

“Avalanche!” I warn Jackson as a slab breaks loose and begins its descent, ripping away everything in its path.

“I love you, Bluebird,” he says.

I choke on a sob and rip the zipper on my jacket down all in one breath, yanking my beacon from its halter on my chest. I vaguely register the sound of Kelsey and Tyler doing the same as they too register that there is nowhere for Jackson to go. Breath hitching in my throat, I watch my husband get swept away in a terrifying wave of snow.

We switch our beacons into search mode, and fan out, working in circles, but all the backcountry training in the world could never prepare me for the real thing, not truly. It’s one thing to practice searching for a hidden backpack, another completely to search for a buried friend, a buried husband, who has only minutes to live.

My heart pounds hard in my chest, adrenaline forcing me to work efficiently through my fear. We canvass the area quickly, locating only one body; the other skier must not have worn a beacon at all, but I do not think of him for more than a second so strong is my concern for Jackson.

“Here!” Kelsey yells, her probe shoved into the snow.

Tyler and I rush to where she already digs and drop to our knees to help. Soon, Jackson’s red hardshell jacket is visible. We dig harder. I uncover his face. His body is unmoving, his chest still.

I begin CPR, alternating chest compressions with mouth-to-mouth, Tyler taking over when my arms grow weak. Eventually, Tyler ceases his attempts.

I wail, pulling Jackson’s head into my lap.

“Jackson,” I plead, shaking him gently, then harder.

“He’s gone, Aubrey,” Kelsey whispers.

My face is wet with tears I hardly notice, snot running down my lip, my life broken and lifeless against my bent knees. Ski patrol arrives and they try to pull me away, but I grip Jackson harder, afraid that when I let him go, everything will be real and he will truly be gone.

The train eases to a stop, the change in momentum bringing my attention back to the present where tears are hot and fresh on my face. I swipe at them with the backs of my hands.

“Don’t cry for me, Bluebird,” says my subconscious in Jackson’s voice. “Be strong, and live your life.”

As I look out at the beautiful landscape, I realize he is right. When Jackson died, I stopped living, but the train has delivered me to where I will face my future.

Kelsey wakes up and gives me an encouraging smile. “You are the toughest person I know, Aubrey,” she says. “You can do this.”

We gather our things from the racks overhead and pull our splitboards from under the benches. My hands shake as I grip my board, the skins I applied early on the train ride prickly against my bare fingers, and exit the train, my feet sinking into the snow.

My pack weighs heavy on my shoulders as we hike. With each step, some of my fear washes away. Kelsey leads in silence, allowing me space to work through my anxiety on my own terms.

When we reach the top of the peak leading down a much mellower run than anything I ever boarded when Jackson was alive, I feel my heart skip one beat, then another. I want to turn around and hike back down, but I take a breath and resist the urge to unclasp and kick out of my bindings.

Kelsey squeezes my shoulder in a mittened hand. “Take your time.”

I look down at the blue and gold train in the distance and edge my snowboard forward before stopping with my board just this side of the drop.

“You can do this, Bluebird.”

I don’t know how, but this time I know it is Jackson, wherever he is now, and his voice fills me with strength.

With a warrior’s cry, I slip my board over the edge.

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