John Rember Remembering a Year with No Snow 

And other inversion diversions

In 1977, I was at an outdoor barbeque in Ketchum, eating ribs and drinking beer. The sky above was bright blue. The hills to the north were bare of snow. So were the ski runs above us on Bald Mountain. People were wearing T-shirts and shorts. They had suntans, and not just on their faces. The temperature had hit 60. It was just like any other May.

Except it was Feb. 10.

Earlier that week, returning from Boise, I had come out of the inversion layer at Mores Creek Summit. In my rear-view mirror were the tops of the Owyhee Mountains, 70 miles away, across a calm sea of shining white clouds.

Boise was under there somewhere, getting through the winter at 22 degrees Fahrenheit, night and day. Streetlights came on by early afternoon. A gritty mist of dust glowed dull above the lines of rush-hour headlights. People who didn't ski were driving up to Bogus just to see the sun.

Bald Mountain had a tiny amount of machine-made snow, but it had all turned to ice, and it wasn't much like the snow we were used to. When a small storm finally dropped 5 or 6 inches, a lift opened that allowed skiers halfway up the mountain. For a day, a bunch of us skied the rocks and brush of the north side runs, leaving streamers of P-Tex wherever we touched down. For years afterward, you could see cars in town with bumper stickers that read, "I Skied Flying Squirrel in 77."

Weeks before that, in search of real snow, I had trekked alone into the Sawtooths, carrying my skis to Hell Roaring Lake and then skiing up to the Finger of Fate, where I found 18 inches of hoar frost and sugary powder. I set up camp, cooked dinner and shivered through the long night in a sleeping bag that had worked just fine the summer before. The next morning, on my first run, I skied onto a snow bridge connecting two house-sized rocks. It collapsed, dropping me 15 feet onto a pile of sharp-edged boulders.

After lying there for a cold half hour, feeling for broken bones and waiting for my head to clear, I climbed out of the hole, packed up and limped out the long eight miles to the highway.

On the way I encountered seep springs on the mountainsides that had formed great globes of optically transparent ice. When I walked out on them, I could see, yards below my feet, trees and bushes and faded summer flowers. Creeks had frozen, overflowed their banks, and frozen again, and the creek bottoms had become glaciers, 10 and 12 feet deep. Giant ice cliffs had formed over summer waterfalls.

It was a world beautiful and freaky, and I would have stayed in it longer if I had been less sore and battered, and if I hadn't sensed, in the impossible black shadows and in the unnatural angle of the sunlight, something cold, foreign and hostile to anything human. It was good to get back to Ketchum, where I had a roof over my head, a warm bed, a job and a paycheck, restaurants to go to and friends glad I'd come back from my trip to the mountains.

I tried to explain this to a friend at the barbeque. " I almost died out there," I said, waving a rib at him. "Something tried to kill me."

"Yeah," he said. "Mr. Stupid tried to kill you. Good thing Mr. Dumb Luck went along for the skiing."

I said, "You'd think in the Sawtooths, in January, you could be alone."

"Never count on Mr. Stupid staying home," he said. "He likes you. Mr. Dumb Luck likes you, too."

"Then why did they try to kill me?"

"Have another beer," he said. "You're not supposed to think too much when you've had a concussion."

That sunny and warm February turned into a sunnier and warmer March. The Sun Valley lifts closed a month early. People dove into summer. Ballparks and soccer fields were filled with people at a time of year they normally were covered with snow.

That May and June, we all expected kiln-dried forests, dead meadows and fire, but it rained hard every week or so. Leaves once again came out on the trees. Hills went from brown to green. Rivers and streams refilled. A lucky summer--full of morning sunshine and afternoon showers--seemed to go on forever.

I forgot that a snow bridge had collapsed under my feet until many years later. Then, in 1991, Otzi the Iceman melted out of an Austrian glacier, 5,300 years after he had frozen to death there, injured and alone. He was found at an altitude far higher than he should have been, had he had the slightest bit of Copper Age common sense.

His story reached down to memory. Otzi must have walked out on a snow bridge that looked solid but wasn't. Mr. Stupid must have been with him that day. Mr. Dumb Luck must have had other things to do. Poor Otzi, broken and helpless when the dark cold night came, must have realized that of the two, Mr. Stupid is always the more faithful friend.

These days, the memory is with me again. The weather has brought another freaky and beautiful landscape to Idaho. Ice is already jamming creeks and making great bubbles on the hillsides. And this time, a million acres of burned forest lie within an hour's drive. You can walk through the burns and take black-and-white photos with cameras designed for nothing but color.

Skiable snow lies at the base of the Finger of Fate. I haven't been there yet, because I'm still trying to decide which of my invisible friends wants to ski with me.

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