Mark Emerson strode out of his home one April morning into an empty Whistler Village. Snowboard in one arm, tattered snow pants dragging beneath him, he saw Village Square enraptured in a silence rivaled only by an empty chairlift at a closed ski run.
At 8:42 a.m. there were Baristas working the counter at Mogul's and weary cashiers minding the till at the Grocery Store, but the only sound was the faint hum of Mountain FM whimpering out into the empty square... a rather pathetic attempt to inject some early morning life into the village.
Mark walked to the lifts behind two others making the trek in a daze, the likely result of an après session at Merlin's they did not think would last so late into the night. At the base of Whistler Mountain they watched empty gondola cabins ascend to the sky. Mark took one alone.
As he headed for the Roundhouse, the gondola swaying with irregular stalls, he pondered his place. He was just finishing his third year in Whistler and, like the year before, had no idea how long he'd stay. He took a hiatus from a degree in mechanical engineering, expecting only to miss a semester.
He took up a job in a local restaurant, washing dishes five nights a week, just enough to supplement the income of a thrill-seeker who spent his days etching relief paintings into mountain landscapes. His nights he'd spend reflecting with friends on the day's turns, how they defied marked boundaries and risked avalanches just to get a last run on Million Dollar Ridge.
He'd go home to the bed he shared with Jed, a Melbourne native... not because they were lovers, but because sharing a bed in a basement suite brought rent down to $300 a month.
He looked fondly out from the gondola at slopes he'd conquered hundreds of times before. His season record was 126 riding days... honourable by Whistler standards. He had shredded every run the mountains had to offer, even some backcountry runs that needed airlifting to get there.
Once at the top, Mark followed a familiar routine: bank right off the gondola and hit the Peak Chair for his morning run along Harmony Ridge. The sky was clear blue that day, the snow blinding anyone who looked to where it reflected the sun.
When he reached the Peak he stopped. Standing in tightly-fastened bindings, he looked out over the jagged landscape that was the legacy of thousands of years of volcanic activity. There was nothing beyond the mountains and Mark felt stuck.
Beyond Black Tusk and the Coast Mountains he wondered whether another life awaited him. Whether he could return to school and become an engineer, marry a good woman and raise a family. Whether he could reconnect with Emily, the girl from Auckland who'd left Whistler just a month earlier to resume her life. Prior to Whistler she was a student of law at AUT University. She took a break when her grades began to discourage her and the prospect of becoming a commercial lawyer seemed bleak.
In two years together they became very close. They had romantic dinners at Araxi, courtesy of a friend who worked in the kitchen. They skied together off a glacier at Cerise Creek and made love in a cabin as the snow piled up outside.
They even had a makeshift wedding on the backyard patio of an employer's home. There were nine guests and a friend officiated, playing a priest by wearing his professor-father's invigilating robes. The union was never meant to stand up in court.
These thoughts fought a headlong battle inside Mark's head against the adrenaline shot that would come from descending his run. He saw skiers and snowboarders fly past him, darting down towards Creekside with a speed and skill that only locals could achieve.
Mark would outdo them all. He would do a frontside 360, then a Japan Air 540 before sliding into Dusty's to tell his friends about it. He'd brag about his tricks over beers and then that would be that. He'd do it all again the next day.
At the base of the mountain they'd be waiting for him. And as long as they were there, the mountains sealed off any prospect of looking beyond them.
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