Hero photograph
Oban Hansen

Cover Shot - Year 11 Creative Writing

Oban Hansen —

The helicopter was a five seater. Matt and Alex had emerged from the control center carrying nothing but their boots and a backpack with two days worth of supplies. They had been given new clothes to wear.

A strange mix of brightly colored jackets, pants and helmets that would stand out against the white faces and peaks of Mount Alta, perfect for the eager photographer to catch the ideal shot for the cover of the New Zealand Freeskier Magazine. The helicopter took almost five minutes to achieve full power. Eventually the rotors were whipping up grit and the whole thing disappeared in a cloud of dust. The Aircraft Marshall tried to watch but his eyes were raw and he had to fold his arm across his face to shield himself from the blast of debris. The engine increased in volume and the helicopter rose clumsily off the ground, rocked right on its axis and soared into the afternoon light.

Matt spotted the mountain first. From the air it looked like hundreds of shards of glass made smooth by irregular weather patterns bringing large amounts of snow. The helicopter pulled back and hovered above a ledge about 200 meters below the summit. The pilot called out through the headsets they were wearing.

“You get out here! It’s too dangerous for me to land at the top!”

The pilot continued to yell inaudible advice but Alex’s mind was elsewhere. Of course he’d been skiing before. He had recently won the Junior Freeride World Tour in France.

That was nothing like this. This was a goddess. The gates of heaven. Named after the Mongolian Altai Mountain Range, meaning Gold Mountain. The Mountain definitely complemented Its own name. The sun’s rays peeked over the ridge-line, shedding light into the valley as if to show her significance. The helicopter had dropped them off and the small group crouched on the ground waiting for the burning, stinging snow to whip them in the face. A ring of white, invisible ice was thrown from the base of the helicopter while it nose-dived into the basin.

The beating “Thwack, Thwack, Thwack” of the blades had left them and soon they became isolated and more and more eager to start the trek that waited for them the following day.

Alex breathed in. Very little oxygen made its way to his lungs, due to the altitude. Matt found a good, flat piece of rock to pitch their tent which overlooked the Southern Alps. This spot was hopefully out of any avalanches way. They planned to sleep the night here. Two tents were set up. The large tent was for Alex and Matt to share and the smaller, darker tent for a man Alex guessed to be the cameraman. He hadn’t said a word since they arrived. Dinner was made on a pop-up gas cooker which took nearly five minutes to get started but turned out to be quite successful with their two-minute noodles. The tent appeared brand new and inside there were two sleeping bags rolled out on foam mattresses and a battery-operated light hung from the tent pole. Alex didn’t bother undressing. He slipped out of his snow pants and jacket and rolled them up, using them as a pillow then he slid into his sleeping bag and was asleep before he knew it.

Alex was woken by the light shining through the fabric of the tent. He stretched, with difficulty, inside his sleeping bag. The foam had done little to protect him from the hard ground and his back and shoulders were stiff. He thought of staying where he was and trying to get back to sleep but there was no chance of that. He was too uncomfortable and anyway, Matt was snoring. Making as little noise as possible, he crawled out of the tent, dragging his pants and a pair of shoes with him. Once he was outside, he stood up and put them on. It was still cold. Dawn had broken and yet there was no sign of the sun. Alex shivered in the icy, morning air as he took in his surroundings. He seemed to be on the edge of the world. The night’s activity had brought fresh snow and it was hard to make out his own tent. Looking up or down, he could only see what could be sick pillow-like lines for him to ski amongst. The twilight sky meant the stars seemed more intense than ever. They were like light bulbs that were about to fuse. The area he was standing on was flat. Everything else was vertical. It was as if the whole world had been tipped on his side.

The photographer seemed to be already awake, putting together a breakfast of bread and cheese. He had lit a small fire with a kettle but the water had not yet boiled.

“Did you sleep alright Alex?” he asked.

It was the first time he had heard him speak. His accent was Australian and in the new day he seemed to be more like a guide than a magazine photographer.

“Sorry,” Alex said, “but I didn’t catch your name.”

“Oh, right. Yeah sorry. They call me Mike.”

Alex didn’t know who ‘they’ were but guessed them to be his colleagues or friends. Mike and Alex continued to talk for a while longer then Mike left to finish tidying up his tent.

“Alex….!” Matt had woken and was calling to him from the tent.

Behind them a trickle of white smoke from the bonfire rose, uncertainly, up into the morning sky.

After breakfast, Mike put out the bonfire and they all packed up their tents. They had already tied down the spare food and gear.

“We leave now.” Mike said as he came forward carrying their new skis he had found amongst the spare gear.

Alex clipped into his new skis and he wasn’t surprised they fitted him perfectly. He noticed Matt holding his pair with a look of complete awe.

When they were all ready, Mike reached into his jacket pocket and produced a bag full of energy bars, chocolate bars and a stash of gummy lollies.

“They will keep us going throughout the day.” Mike said.

They set off. Mike went first, Alex followed with Matt, gritting his teeth. Although they had only covered a short distance, Alex already needed to rest. It wasn’t the steepness of the slope: the air was already thinner than it had been at their camp. If he walked too fast his head would begin to thump and he would feel the burning in his lungs. The secret was to measure out a careful pace, one step at a time and not look up, as it would only remind him of the distance they had to go. He opened his snack pack and tore at a chocolate bar. Now he understood why he needed it. He just hoped it would actually work.

The sun climbed higher and suddenly he was hot, he could feel the sweat carving streams down his spine. He reached out to steady himself on a track marker and he removed nearly all of his layers. He looked down and they had walked about 50 meters above the camp.

“Just do that three more times and you’ll be at the top.” Alex told himself. He closed his eyes for a moment, then set off again.

They stopped twice for water and Alex allowed himself only a little, aware that the three of them had to share the same supply.

The three companions safely emerged from an outcropped rock. They had made it. On the other side of the ridge-line there was a cliff that looked near vertical and it even overhung in some places. The trio walked along the ridge for a long five minutes and Alex stared into the distance. The sky was clear. A vast mountain range stretched out in front of him, all of the peaks covered in snow. Some of them seemed to be touching the edge of space. He saw that it was raining in the valley but the rain was below them. They had climbed above cloud level, above worry level.

Mike had left them and positioned himself on a level rock, eyeing up the angle. The shot would be known throughout the freeskiing world. Everybody would know their names.

Alex closed his eyes, picturing the line he had seen from the helicopter. Everything looked different from the air. Mike and the boys all had walkie-talkies assigned to them. Of course Alex had volunteered to go first. He’d been waiting for this moment his entire life. His stomach clenched like a closed fist. Going first means fresh lines but it also comes with a risk; avalanches. If there was a danger of avalanches, he would be the one to discover them. Alex clipped into his skis, returned his clothing to his body and double checked his radio transceiver. Time to go.

He radioed to Mike: “Three… Two… One… Dropping.”

Alex felt the snow under his skis disappear as he leaned forward over the edge of a wind-carved lip and ripped into the side of the mountain face. Outcropped rocks, piled high with snow was waiting for him to float into. He did just that.

“Humph, Humph, Humph. Effortlessly flying down the pillow line. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Mike, planted on a ledge, trigger happy.

Alex cautiously approached the drop. He remembered back to his training. A good take off leads to a good trick. He pushed off with his toes had got a nice, explosive pop for the left 360, pulling his skis up, grabbing the tail while crossing his skis in an “X” shape.

Then he saw it. This was not the drop he had seen from the helicopter. In fact, it looked four times the size than the one he’d pictured. Everything happened so quickly, including the speed of the ground rushing up to him. Alex tried to uncross his skis but he landed sideways. He hit the ground hard with one leg wrapped around the other. His head slammed into the snow which suddenly felt as hard as concrete. His legs followed, sprawling spread-eagled down the mountain. Alex was out of control. He’d been knocked out on the first impact and his tibia had snapped directly above his right boot. Some sort of liquid had started to ooze out below, staining the snow. It was dark in color, somewhere between brown and red with the consistency of glue or treacle; except that it was obviously blood because Mike, the first to reach him, could smell it everywhere in the air, sweet and sickly. He carefully rolled up Alex’s pants and took in the wound. Alex’s bone had pierced his skin and was sticking out like a spear. A perfect break.

Alex woke up. A bright, white light had been positioned directly above his head. He was sitting upright in a hospital bed, sealed off by a pale blue curtain. He noticed a table standing to the right of him. There was even a small clay elephant that had been positioned to face him; a magazine with a white cover plus a skier dropping an impossibly huge cliff. Somebody opened the curtain and walked over to him. Alex noticed his leg hanging above the bed, sealed in plaster. It was Mike. He was holding a copy of the magazine identical to the one on his bedside table. It was the New Zealand Freeskier Magazine. The skier on the cover was him. He had got it. They’d done it.