“Left…Go Left!” Yochi is wasting his breath. “Your other left, damn it!” But Arad* has yet to figure how to control his board. Soon, a dozen of us veterans form a spectacular dog pile at the mountain’s powdered feet. Each additional collision goads cursing and laughter from our increasingly bruised bodies.
We climb back on the lift, without pause, to take the plunge again. There’s no rest. There’s no stopping these guys. Each of us – all Special Forces operatives – had been wounded, albeit well before latching on our gear. Gabi had his teeth knocked out, his skull fractured when Hamas blew up a building on top of him. Arad took two bullets through the knee, but no one found out for hours; he continued to cover his friends without saying a word until they completed their mission. We all have stories like these. We all know where to dig for determination, the type of resilience that helps us conquer many forms of mountains.
Do you think spending a week learning how to snowboard would contribute to your recovery?
I stare at the blinking cursor. It’s our first email correspondence, Shlomie’s and mine. I’m confused. I’ve already been accepted into the program, Ski to Live, so what does this guy want from me?
Nahhh, I feel pretty good… Unlike the others who would soon fly to Colorado from Israel, I’m an old hand. I’ve been injured for years.
OK, so tell me a bit about your expectations of this week.
I was invited. I accepted the invitation. No expectations. And it’s true. I expect nothing. A few days of snowboarding aren’t going to bring back my missing hand. What kind of miracle recovery does he expect me to expect? I’m no starfish about to grow back an arm. The only reason I agreed to join this initiative – established eight years ago by Shlomie, and Aspen’s Chabad Rabbi, Mendel Mintz – is because I know that everyone else coming this year was injured during Protective Edge, the last Operation in Gaza. In fact, this year’s veterans all come from the same elite reconnaissance unit, and they were all wounded during the same two devastating assaults that left some of their friends dead.
I’m not about to turn down an offer to spend a week with the proud, few, Spartan Jews. Not a chance. But, I make a surprising discovery when I hit the hills the following week: There’s magic on those mountains, Buttermilk and Snow Mass, both.
Of course, Shlomie and Rabbi Mintz are not in the business of regenerating starfish arms at 8,000 feet – but there are other kinds of healing. This kind reaches me in a place I didn’t know was injured. A fuse snaps into place. A current of energy fires up synapses I didn’t know were atrophied. As I suddenly gain control over my board, it etches my wandering thoughts on the fresh powder beneath me. I slice back and forth, leaving a trail for all to read.
The big day arrives. My domestic flight to Aspen hits the tarmac an hour early and I wait alongside the exuberant community members who’ve come to welcome their heroes. When the veterans finally land, I’m reminded how shockingly young the defenders of the Jewish state really are. Boys. Handsome kids between the ages of 20 and 22. But they already know more about pain than most people learn in a lifetime. This truth is written subtly; I find it in places only a fellow carrier can read: Itzhak glancing repeatedly at his clamped fist. Avi flinching, just barely, each time Arad grabs his shoulder.
The following morning, the 12 of us meet our instructors who fit us with boards. These practiced mountain-slayers are legit, and then some. They’ve been skiing with disabled vets from America and Israel for more than a decade. Patiently, they watch us tumble down the bunny hills, challenging us with tidbits of advice on how to perform better during our next attempt. “Arad, hit the breaks, buddy. No. That’s okay. We’ll try again…”
I mostly focus on my own disastrous, numerous belly flops — trying to act cool each time a fall bankrupts my breath account. “I’m good, really. I’m sure that looked painful, boss, but I can go all day. Crying? Me? Pfff…” When I do find the strength to look elsewhere, I’m amazed at how fearless these veterans are, slicing down the hill despite the bullet wounds and explosive damage that pepper their bodies with fresh scars. By the time day one is over – by the time the jets in our fairytale lodge’s massive Jacuzzi massage our aching muscles – I can’t imagine attacking that hill again, or rather allowing it to attack me. I feel as if I’ve just hiked the 40 miles to earn my combat beret.
Alas, the next morning shakes us awake. Members of the Aspen community – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – join us on a slightly steeper slope to watch us fall. These people are ecstatic to spend time with IDF forces. “Mind if we tag along? We won’t get in your way, we promise!”
We all fare better than I expect on our second day. During the final hours, most of us even manage to reach the bottom of the drop with a minimum amount of self-destruction. And then we go back to the Jacuzzi, which, by the way, sits outside, surrounded by snow and the most spectacular green and white mountains. We use the encompassing powder to cozie our beers as we watch the steam climb off our shoulders. The moisture stretches for the sky but disappears well before it. Sometimes we sit quietly, taking it all in. Mostly we laugh, though, at Dani’s legendary spill, and the way Arad doesn’t even try to slow down, since he hasn’t learned to stop. He typically just waits until something solid enough, like a wall, manifests to bring him down. He always bounces right back up to go another round, which earns him the title, Robocop.
“What’s your goal for day three?” Shlomie asks me, as he cups his hands to squirt Jacuzzi water at Dani’s face. By now I know this man well. I’m used to seeing Shlomie break out a smile wide enough to crack his face in two.
“I want to hit the bigger hills,” I admit, “to go from top to bottom without falling.” Shlomie asks each veteran in the Jacuzzi the same question, and although we all word our hopes differently, I notice we’re saying the same thing. We all want to conquer a real mountain.
But what are the chances? Even if we spend the entire next day practicing on the bunny hills again, there’s no way we’re surviving the drops notched into the mountains above. We can’t protect ourselves from the steeper edges. Well…I hadn’t considered something: There would be no more practice runs, no more bunny hills, not for these Israeli Special Forces. We’d head straight to the top, bright and early. Hard to keep up with these damn Spartans…
So for the first time in my life, I’m tearing down a mountain unhindered, a fresh experience through fresh powder. I lift my goggles and let the wind drag frozen moisture from my eyes. I release my pent-up adrenaline with a few unchecked howls. I feel that exceedingly rare jolt of a first time – like that first kiss, that first taste of red velvet cake. I’m so utterly hooked for life. I’m alive again, my muscles, my mind. I understand, right away, that I have to experience this rush – many, many more times.
I don’t want the day to pass and, of course, it ends far too fast – as do all three days. By the time we sit with the Aspen community for a Friday night meal hosted by Chabad, I can barely think. And that’s what I needed, I realize, sitting among veterans I’ve grown to adore. A few days to turn off, to literally think about nothing but cool powder and scalding jets. Chabad and the Aspen Jewish community gave us that, an experience never intended to grow back limbs, to remove shrapnel, to erase the memories, the fear, the pain. Sometimes, snowboarding is just snowboarding… Other times, though, it’s remembering we’re alive. Remembering to breathe. Sometimes, we ski to live.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the soldiers.