It’s been nine years since I witnessed Tony Romania’s screams as he went down Snow King Mountain. His raw wail was a sonic maelstrom, a raw, beastly blend of fear, confusion and profound self-realization, unlike anything I’d ever heard before.
For seven seasons I worked as a ski patroller on Jackson Hole’s town hill. Usually reserved for townies, high school ski racers and lunch breakers, Snow King Mountain provides a service for all the locals who don’t have the time or money to ski the world-class Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Here, the chairlifts are rickety, older than the majority of skiers who ride them. The base lodge is a large, single room that, in summertime, doubles as a makeshift classroom for new residents going for their real estate licenses (which they all seem to be doing). And the cafeteria is the culinary cousin of 7-Eleven. Many people come here to ski for the first time when new to the sport or to Jackson. Still, Snow King has something Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s glossy Teton Village will never have: hometown sincerity. Not everything about hometown sincerity is good, but what you get is genuine.
Enter Tony Romania. Barely five feet tall, the rotund Romania was clearly new to skiing when I first saw him on that cold January day. Goggle-less and clad in antiquated black Descente insulated pants, a no-brand charcoal ski parka, a dark stocking hat and convenience store mittens, he was nearly as wide as he was tall. He stood on top of 1980s-era rear-entry boots (not an uncommon sight at Snow King) and 65mm-waisted skis. What was going through his head as he poled off that day for his first taste of glisse was between him and God. For a minute, anyway. Before long, though, he shared it with everyone within two miles.
I had loaded the Cougar chairlift with another troller when the screams came howling from above. By the sound of it, I thought someone had snapped a femur—a worst-case injury for would-be rescuers. Muscles spasm and constrict, buckling the bone, and push it out of alignment, at which point fragments can tear into an artery and the victim could (potentially, anyway) bleed out in minutes.
When we finally made visual contact with the screamer, though, my mouth dropped slightly. Here was a newly minted skier traversing the slope side-to-side, desperately summoning the will to turn where the skill didn’t exist, lest he crash—and violently—into the hundred-year-old trees that line the run. We grimaced for him; our mouths puckered and brows creased as we shrank involuntarily, empathetically.
Whether or not he made the turn without falling, his screams of euphoria and conquest reached every corner of Snow King, and maybe as far as downtown. It’s as if his vocal chords stretched beyond the human limit and tore wide open, shredding the soft tissue in his throat, which surely must’ve been bloody by the time he reached the bottom of the hill. If this man was as rapturous during intercourse as he was skiing, he should be having sex with tigers.
Of course, Tony Romania is not his real name, and I have no idea what it is. When we caught up with this short-armed, weeble-wobble of a man on the slope, he spoke in what we took to be an Eastern European accent. He told us it was his first day skiing, and he was having the time of his life. Surely, we thought,Tony Romania had arrived.
A second time, as we rode the lift above him, we shouted encouragement to our new friend, who met our cheers with rabid fist pumps and shrieks of giddy discovery. “I’ve never seen anyone this happy learning how to do anything,” I said to my partner. Tony Romania, it seemed, could’ve single-handedly torn down the Berlin Wall with the conviction of his joy.
Infected by Mr. Romania’s enthusiasm, we radioed our Patrol Director to be on the lookout for an ecstatic Iron Curtain carver. Always official, always on point, the Director was one step ahead of everyone when it came to keen observation and poignant analysis. He patiently listened to our reports over the radio waves, but he already knew what we were dealing with. He channeled the late Alex Lowe, a gifted climber who, despite his own celebrity, always maintained “The best climber is the climber having the most fun.”
This diminutive, beguiling, foreign phenomenon was making his way through the snow—through the great wilderness within himself—like no one before him ever had. The Director’s words crackled over the radio, the timbre of his voice filled with absolute resolve, “Snow King has never seen a skier as good as Tony Romania.”