Vagneur: Finding a port in the storm |

Vagneur: Finding a port in the storm

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore
Tony Vagneur

It’s that incredible, gray time of evening, the light dull but not flat, with big, soft, quiet snowflakes filling the view. Alone in my cozy log house, the approach of darkness is somehow galvanizing, providing the impetus to turn thoughts inward, to let the day’s events disappear behind the translucent curtain of disappearing light, letting darkness wrap its arms around me, providing soulful comfort.

When I’m at the cow camp, there’s no light switch to flip, no thermostat to turn up, and, still, it’s nice to sit and watch darkness fall around the cabin. Feed the horses, fire up the woodstove, find a comfortable seat, keep a match next to the unlit lantern, and, as you gaze out the window through the encroaching obscurity and into the snow-covered wilderness, let your mind fall and tumble into unused spaces, finding new thoughts and dreams.

One of my other favorite things to do, other than watching the world get dark, is to wait at the top of Aspen Mountain until the last moment, just ahead of the patrol, and make an end-of-the-day run down the hill. There’s something about hitting Corkscrew Gulley or Strawpile after the sun has gone down, well past reprieve, just as darkness begins to signal its descent. To some, it may sound counterintuitive, but invigorating is what comes to mind.

And, it’s there, in deepest, darkest winter, with the glint of rising sun off the blanket of fresh, sparkling, untouched snow below you on a steep mountainside. The juice pumps from your adrenals just as you push off, the ballet of man in nature, making cold smoke out of snow crystals, the unmistakable hiss of steel edges as they slash through millions of tiny snowflakes, no two alike. It has to be steep, and it has to be fast. If you could capture that feeling of exhilaration, along with the vision and sound, you could sell it to non-skiers for priceless sums on the thrill market.

Years ago, Gene Clausen (GAC, as we called him) and me, on avalanche patrol, standing near the top of Short Snort Cliffs, bombs inside his patrol jacket, caps and fuses inside mine, and, before we put the makin’s together, we stand there in total silence, in awe of the place, of our mission, listening to the building depth of soundless snowflakes against the forest floor. It’s a quick, early morning respite before we’re back to business at hand, trying to bend nature’s snow to our will, making it safe for skiers below.

The early winter storm has been moving in, following us on our way to the cabin, a lonely trek for me and my good horse, Willie. We’d been there the day before, packing our gear in, and now, we’re going back for the week, looking for bovine stragglers and for the rush it gives. 

It’s now been a blizzard for a couple of miles, wind howling around us, visibility difficulty to determine, darkness coming down quickly, and then, we’re into the first wide-open meadow, the line of usually green firs barely visible in the distance. There’s no chance for a shortcut — we’d never find it in this storm, so we continue across, hoping we’ll find the narrow trail through the trees without trouble.

One miscue and we could die out here; no one would know there’s trouble, and, with that, comes the special feeling of aloneness one gets when in a cocoon of storm, no sky, no peripheral landscape to give meaning to your location. And, no choice but to muster on.

We at last pull up to the cabin, darkness all around, and the wind has finally died down. As I dismount into a foot or more of snow, hoping I can stand from being so cold, the mournful wail of a coyote is heard, close enough to be comforting. A shiver goes up my spine, standing the hair up on the back of my neck, and, deep within my being, there’s a magnificent feeling of aliveness by simply being in the experience.

The snow will melt; we’ll make our last run down the mountain, skis put in storage; we’ll hide our boots from ourselves, so we aren’t tempted to chase the mountain tops; the days will become longer, saddles pulled from tack rooms, horses gentled for riding, irrigating water burbling down awakening ditches. And so, the seasons change, but let’s not forget the special joys of winter! 

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at