In the winter of 1974 I was 16 and heading up in the dark early morning hours from Vancouver to Whistler with two girlfriends. It was just Whistler then, Blackcomb still a fantasy in Hugh Smythes imagination. We had borrowed one of my dads company vans and braved the narrow highway intent on skiing what even then was the best mountain around.
The three of us had big dreams: I was going to become a journalist, another aimed to be a pediatrician, the third who knows what. That was Robin, the brightest of our lot (I.Q. of 139 I discovered when our English teacher insisted we take the test), the most unconventional (wore no makeup, disdained the fashion rules of the day and said as a child shed found the whole idea of Santa Claus suspect). She inadvertently dissuaded me from journalism for some years, remarking in j-class one day that the profession amounted to "just making mountains out of mole hills."
That morning I skied with the pediatrician wannabe who never would achieve her goal, but instead would marry young, have three children in quick succession, and work in a blue collar job for the next 30 years. But that day she was 16, ferociously fit and taking me up runs that were a far cry from the tame ones wed learned on at Grouse and Seymour. The moguls were daunting, my clothing inadequate and visibility at the top opaque. By noon I was making excuses for letting her take a few runs alone.
After warming up with lunch in the afternoon I went cross-country skiing for the first time with Robin. We had no idea where we were going but it was a spectacular afternoon, the sun shining on crunchy snow, our laboured breathing ("hey, this is way more work than downhill") a duet in an expanse of white. I remember at one point stopping to look across the valley, feeling protected and awed by the mountains stoic around us, Robin leading the way along the unknown trail. For reasons I didnt fully understand my throat tightened up as I looked around me and down at my friend carving through the snow.
After graduation Robin and I stayed in touch sporadically, mostly hearing about each other through mutual friends. She went on to a PhD in forest genetics at UBC and in her early 30s was surprised with a daughter, and then another two years later. I called her around then to compare parenting anecdotes but also to reach out to her because Id heard shed developed a rare and stubborn cancer. She couldnt see me face to face because of the treatment and risk of infection. She died a few months later. I cant remember if I told her I loved her.
This winter is the 25 th anniversary for Blackcomb, the 40 th anniversary for Whistler, and the 32 st anniversary since I skied with Robin. Im older and not nearly in my 16-year-old condition.
Ive adjusted my opinion about journalism and inclined to think Robin may have been overly critical on that point. But still I hope to pick up my courage, ignore the reports local doctors have told me about treating 30 wrist fractures a day (what good is a journalist with no wrist power?).
Ill choose a sunny afternoon, head as high up Whistler as I can dare to say a special thank you to a feisty girl who was never afraid to lead me down unfamiliar paths and somehow is with me still.