Inhale, live…

By Mike Mannelin, Explorebigsky.com Columnist

This morning’s conversations all seem to carry the same tone of exit strategies and summer plans. It’s like the coals in the stove are burning out, but we’re OK with it, because the air is warming anyway.

The population of our workforce at the heli base is about half of what it was a week ago. Every day that goes by sees another goodbye, leaving a tighter gang of willful souls to navigate hopeful groups of people into life changing experiences in the mountains.

We stay as long as we can, knowing that the relative monotony of 14-hour days with no time off is shattered when one of us is elected as the next dream navigator of the magic carpet everyone else calls an A-Star B2 helicopter.

There’s the all-too-familiar fire drill that begins with a radio call from the dispatch room.

“Mannelin, you’re going skiing, get ready.”

The response time is somewhere under five minutes. I grab my guide pack and my skis, and put on my boots, helmet, and goggles. I turn my beacon on, pull out my notebook and pencil, and start forming my group.

Another 15 minutes and the next radio call puts me back on the project I just left.

“Mannelin, you got bumped, standby.”

After three or four rounds, this process is capable of breeding insanity in the most stable of individuals.

Eventually, everything clicks. I’m standing at the sign instructing us to “Wait Here,” the pilot gives me a nod, and I lead my excited crew single file out to the helicopter. A quarter turn of the door handle and it springs open. Skis and backpacks are neatly arranged in the cargo basket. We lift off, commandeering this magical machine toward the peaks we’ve been staring at.

The valley trees soon disappear, and the snow-covered faces fill the Plexiglas windows all around us. The bird delicately hovers above a landing spot as the pilot approaches with the precision of a surgeon.

We climb out onto the snow and crouch over our gear pile. After a look at the doors and the group, I give the pilot a thumbs up. The hurricane blast lasts a short few seconds as he flies away, leaving us in silence in what I’m sure is the most beautiful, serene place on the planet. We haven’t even skied yet, and already I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

Each run one is better than the last. Smiles grow as we all feed of each other’s growing cognizance of a better life. As the helicopter touches down back at the base, we climb out into what feels like a different planet.

It’s as if we’ve been transported straight out of a dream. The air feels warm. The grass and mud on the ground remind us that we don’t have many days left. The gear gets put away and sunglasses are pulled back out. Remnants of winter are fading fast as the snow melts away.

The smell of spring dominates each inhaled breath. The sun rises a little higher in the sky than the previous day. Every 24-hour period lends us an extra seven minutes of daylight. There is light at the end of this glorious tunnel: As closer friends, we put one more winter behind us, and each look forward to the rest of our lives that we are lucky to live.

Exhale, Live…

Mike Mannelin is a skier with roots in Minnesota, Montana, and Alaska. He gains his inspiration in life by spending time in the mountains with friends.