Chapter I: Lease on Life
I ONCE READ SOMEWHERE ABOUT THE ALTAI MOUNTAIN RANGE.
I have never been one for geography, but the snow-capped wonderlands had always captivated me. Found in central Asia, it's Turkic name means "Mountains of Gold," which I found quite interesting. I also never saw snow before in real life, so reading about it and looking at pictures were all I had. There were those 'snow-makers' that created this frozen white stuff when you inserted ice into this machine-thing that you could buy at Walmart. Even then, I was always told that the artificial snow paled in comparison to the real thing, a criticism which I found pretty funny because both snow and this cheap knockoff stuff were white! Get it? 'Pale' as in the color...nevermind.
Sometimes I pictured myself standing on that mountain's highest point, existing at the top of the world, not a single care in a million miles, yet never had I dreamed of barreling down the side of a mountain at 60 miles per hour balancing on what I imagined as cardboard.
Sadly, that is the reality of my situation.
I am on Belukha, the highest mountain in Altai, during a snow storm in the middle of the cloud-covered day, marked as Racer #8 in the Altai Back-Country survival race event, one of the many subsidiary racing divisions in the SSX off-League. While most Snowboard Super Cross events are typically safe, most back-country races - off-League events in general - are extremely dangerous, especially when the weather doesn't make it easier. I don't mind it; the higher the risk, the larger the prize money.
Out of the corner of my mind, I wonder how far in the race I am, as I continue to barrel down the side of this mountain. While keeping an eye on the rapidly changing landscape, no doubt dashing past any one of the hundreds of spectator video cameras hidden all around the mountain, I peer at the digital arm brace on my left arm. Next to my documented speed and position in the race, a percentage reads out at 48%. Of course, not even halfway through the track. I wipe bits of ice off of my board goggles and take a hard right before I shoot myself off of a cliff. I've been told time and time again that it works perfectly, but I still don't trust my wingsuit. Or my pickaxes, really. One thing I can stand firm by is the object locked onto my feet.
The SSX League regulation snowboard has changed multiple times over the past years, in some years updating faster than smartphone technology. Current models feature lock-in swivel bindings, controlled by wireless radio gloves. Press a certain combination of buttons on the fingers of your gloves, and your left or right binding opens out, releasing your foot. This allows you to preform a one-foot trick or, if done with both bindings, a no-foot trick, where the board must be held TIGHTLY in your hands. Another button combination will partially detach the base of one of the bindings, giving you the ability on a one-foot trick to spin the board around your foot, for example, an Amazing Spenco.
I turn toward the mountain, and ready myself for a jump ahead. I spring up before the edge of the snow ramp, attempting a forward flip. I grab the nose of my board, pressing a few buttons with the fingers in my left hand to release my back foot from the binding, and kick back as I flip forward. Tricks serve no advantage in back-country racing, being a main function in slopestyle, big air, superpipe, and speed trick events, but other than winning a race, tricks are the only other way to earn hype and potential sponsors. Wearing various logos for easy money is definitely in my best interests.
However, as I prepare to land the trick, I notice that I had overlooked the rider directly below me. Fortunately, he (or a she, maybe? You really can't tell with these heavy black suits) banks to the left, and I hit the ground next to him. Looking towards me, rider #13 kindly greets me with a hit to the neck, swinging his heavy glove-covered hand into my head. I keep my balance, grab onto his suit, and push him back as we approach a tunnel entrance into the mountain. I see the rider hit the wall of the mountain hard as I speed away. My arm brace acknowledges my passing by the racer as the placement counter beeps from 3rd to 2nd. One more, just one more to go now.
I dislike mountain tunnels. The only way out of one is through the only other exit, unless these natural hallways branch out, and then more often then not you choose a route that hurts your time in the race. I try to ride on all the ice I can as I look for any new tunnel that dips downwards, looking for a way out. At one point I enter a tunnel section where one side has no wall, but gives you a bird's eye view of an underground ice cave. Below me to the right I spot a lone snowboarder speeding precariously on a narrow ice bridge. I knew that this one rider, most surely the one in first place, stood between me and the event prize. Before I can think the situation over I find myself veering to the right, off of my ledge of ice and into the middle of the cavern. Soon after my leap I realize that I am going to fall short of the ice trail ahead, and will plummet deeper into the chasm. If I didn't think fast...
I reach for the handles on the sides of my waist, and pull them up to my head. My compact backpack, which is tied up and over my shoulders and around my waist, reveals a pair of wing flaps on either side of my upper body. Immediately after this I experience a huge thrust upward, the wind current inside the tunnel pushing against my wingsuit and towards the exit of the cave.
Out into the open air I spot rider #5, the rider in 1st place. As I glide towards my target, I release the wingsuit handles and tackle the snowboarder under me. I land back on my feet as rider #5 rolls out of control in the snow behind.
I look down at my arm brace. Overlooking the 1st place position marker, I look at the percent of the race completed. 83%. The mountain tunnel must have really helped out my position, but I knew what came next. The last part of the track on every back-country survival race features the worst terrain available, and riding through these dense sections trumps most half-decent snowboarders. Good to know I'm not just half-decent.
This last part of the race begins with a steep drop. I am able to keep my board on the snow as I swerve to avoid rock outcroppings blocking the path. Even as I jerk back and forth I accelerate to an incredible speed as I turn back and forth throughout the hill. As the angle of the hill straightens out, my pathway leads into the mouth of a massive canyon. My only option is to continue on ahead.
I journey deeper into the ravine, twisting and jerking side to side at every moment to avoid the frozen walls of the cliff around me. Periodically the position on my arm brace would fall back to third or fourth, and jump back up to the top. Position markers have always been somewhat faulty, and it makes it difficult to tell whether you're winning or in dead last. I reach a turn that slopes down, and gives me the view of a fissure up ahead. Everywhere else is blocked, my only way of moving forward is to either hop over the fissure, which is suicide - since the ledge on the other side is higher than the one I'm riding on - or stay on the track, which appears to bank upside down and back right side up on the opposite side in the form of a, a...
A corkscrew? In the middle of a canyon? ARE YOU SERIOUS? I have no idea what to do next, loops and other forms of inversions are typically rare on SSX tracks. I decide to keep my eyes open and shoot straight for the invert. The ice makes it nearly impossible to balance, the vertical and lateral G's throwing me in alternate directions. I sustain my balance, finish the loop, and stare back at the corkscrew as increasing distance causes it to disappear behind me. I look down at my brace again. "93%"
A single jump into nothingness appeared ahead. At the bottom of this bottomless fall must be the finish line, and with it, the prize money. With haste I approach the ramp, yet before I can begin the fall I suffer an extreme blow to the side. Another racer has caught up to me, who it is I can't say, but is very likely hell-bent on making sure I do not win this race. He holds on to my shoulders as we fall toward the finish hundreds of feet below, if not upright, then most certainly to our inevitable deaths. "94%"
If I don't shake this guy off now, it will be the end of me. I proceed with knocking him repeatedly in the head, without making even a mere scratch on his goggles. "95%"
Through the bits of snow and ice in the air, I see bright lights, focused on the pair of falling boarders above. "96%"
I persist with trying to shake this rider off, but to no avail. "97%"
As usual, I decide to try something dangerous. "98%"
I release the lock on my right foot, and bring my foot above the head of the snowboarder stuck to me. "99%"
With all of my lasting energy, I force my foot down, giving the rider a massive blow to the head. With ease I push him away, after possibly rendering him unconscious, and swiftly place my foot back into the binding. "100%"
My board hits the powdery ground with astounding power, nearly flinging myself into the snow ahead. I can barely stand upright as I cross the finish line.
For the first time, I hear the crowd, the forever screaming crowd, that surrounds the finish line. The announcer booms from the overhead speakers.
"Congratulations to Rider Number Eight! Number Eight will receive the first place prize for today's back-country race event!"
More racers complete the deadly descent behind, but the attention is all on me. A crowd of SSX fans come to hoist me up and bring me to the placement pedestal. Normally I try to avoid this, but I just didn't have the strength to do so today.
I stand on the First Place pedestal for several minutes, knowing that after all this commotion ends, after everything I have done, I will receive my prize. I will receive the money I so desperately need.
My three weeks lease on life.