A two-inch by four-inch piece of celluloid imagery stood defiantly at the top of the pile. I knelt down, reaching for the photo, and studied its image¿two pleasant faces, topped by beautiful blond free-flowing hair. Newspaper clippings, Super-8 movie film, library catalog listings, longhand dictation, all stuffed inside a manila envelope. They were pieces of a puzzle, long forgotten through the rambles of time, documents tired and battered with remembrance, nearly drowning in four decades of dust.
The front of the packet wore a six-inch slab of masking tape scarred with permanent black marker. The tape blatantly read, “CASE CLOSED,” but underneath I could make out a more subtle script. I peeled back the tape and etched with a less than steady hand. “The Cottonwood Sisters” silently remained in black ballpoint pen.
The package divulged a story of disappearance. I flipped through the missing persons’ reports of 1959 wondering how men before me could have left this mystery unsolved.
It was in the early winter months of that year when two beautiful young ladies vanished from the canyons southeast of Salt Lake City. Witnesses testified that they had accompanied the two to Brighton Ski Resort on that ominous day, yet a completely different group feverishly claimed that they were with the two women at the same time, on the same day, on the national forest service land that is now Snowbird.
I had finished exploring the Mormon Church archives, so I gathered the various media, and ran up two flights of stairs, escaping the inadequate ventilation. As I slid my key into the car ignition, steadily turning up Black Sabbath, I vowed to get to the bottom of this mystery.
I would need a good crew¿sturdy, insightful, and educated in the art of winter wilderness survival¿to assist me. We would have to be able to ascend various frozen pitches rapidly, descending with control and power, not leaving jibs unjibbed, or rails unslid, or jumps unjumped, and certainly not an inch of fresh powder unslashed. I would also need a photographer with a keen eye and good judge of lighting for the sake of accurately documenting days spent at altitude.
Carefully, I screened the six-hundred sixty-six professional snowboarders residing in Salt Lake City, as well as an endless sea of winter-sports photographers. In the end I came out with one hell of a crew. The team was clearly diversified, incorporating professional skill with wit, charm, and an uncanny ability to attract women. The group featured Ami Voutilainen, a charter member of the internationally famous Finnish Mafia; Cody Dresser, “the master of dance floor disaster”; The truckin’ Texan, Travis “Two-Pack” Parker; TransWorld accredited lensman and party prodigy Kevin Zacher; and me, certified flavor taster for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. We saw it as our duty to find the truth.
Beginning with the eleventh month of 1998, we scoured the snow-filled terrain surrounding Snowbird, and Brighton. We hit endless trams at the Bird, surfing the white swells across the cirque traverse. We showed our butt cracks, put our visor beanies on slightly crooked, and waited in long lines to ride the “super sick” six-foot walls of the Brighton pipe. We explored the Cottonwood Canyons’ backcountry, dropped amazing cliffs, hit natural kickers, and powered through flat landings in the park. We sacrificed life and limb on an endless search for anything leading to our girls.
Four months later, we had nothing. We were about ready to give up when I cornered one of the mountain sheriffs. We were on the way down the canyon after a day of rigorous exploration when I spotted his stealth parking spot next to the Silverfork Lodge. Upon my initial interrogation, he swore he knew nothing. I stared him down and an evident change in composure suggested he was hiding something. Obviously intimidated under the heat, he recalled a report of two snowcat drivers supposedly gonead from seeing ghosts on the mountain late at night. It appeared that the two men were working in opposite canyons and on the same night made claims of two blond beings floating around the freshly groomed corduroy. The sheriff told terrifying tales of wind flapping nightgowns and lockets of streaming golden hair haunting the cat drivers. The two ghost women, although purportedly from the same womb, evidently bombarded the groggy men with completely independent agendas. One rambled through monotonous monologues in Swiss-German while the other told tall tales of slideable rainbow logs in a land of big skies.
The Sheriff said the last time either one of the men spoke they referred not to the beings of the night, but to the resorts themselves as “sisters.” I stood confused, empathizing with dedicated investigators of the past thrown off-track by this most unexpected turn. I consulted my empowered peers, and after a long night the dense fog began to lift.
To that point in my life I hadn’t really believed in ghosts, but based on circumstance, I believed the cat drivers had seen our girls. It was clear that the two transparent sisters were playing games, a crazed kind of hide and seek, but strictly on their terms. We recognized our obvious disadvantage not being completely sure who else was playing or clearly understanding how to properly access the women’s extra dimension. We were forced to look at the evidence and act.
The secondhand testimony had given us clear reference to a six-way mystic connection between the lost Cottonwood Sisters, Brighton, Snowbird, and two secret locations. Intrigued by the mention of sister resorts, we buckled down for some serious research. We discovered that both Brighton and Snowbird did in fact have sister resorts, however these relationships didn’t seem to mean much in any sort of applicable functionality. Instead, I sensed a corporate association simply intended to aesthetically enhance largely distributed trail maps. In any case, the connections that followed blew the case wide open.
Discovery of the two Cottonwood Canyon, Utah resorts’ coordinates, Brighton and Snowbird, convinced us that the correct path lie just ahead. Brighton’s sister resort happened to be Big Sky in southern Montana, and Snowbird’s ended up being the classy no-car village of Zermatt, Switzerland. We couldn’t believe the connection. Clearly the next move was to leave our current position and begin a voyage to the lost lands our ladies spoke of.
We decided to drop in on Big Sky first. It sat closest to our present position, and true to rumor, our Brighton season passes would get us up the lifts. We thought we would be there in no time¿a supposed five-hour drive by rental car¿clearly not understanding the various ramifications of a winterized Yellowstone National Park. After closed roads, a pounding snowstorm, misread maps, and poor navigation, we found ourselves settled for the night at the Lewis and Clark motel in Bozeman, about 45 minutes north of our desired destination.
The next morning I awoke to a seemingly empty motel room. I groggily called Cody’s name, but no answer. I yelled again, “Dresser!” and finally the bathroom door cracked open. He slowly walked out with the eyes of death. I simply stared in his direction, kind of confused, and mumbled, “Holy shit, man. What happened to you?”
He confessed to a night of absolutely no sleep, and blamed it on a very, very, strange dream. Cody claimed he was visited by one of the sisters in the middle of the night, who was obsessed with the idea of sliding logs on a snowboard. She taunted him with tales of “the mother jib” and ruthlessly mocked his skills.
Cody sat facing me with deep bags under his eyes, obviously reminiscing about another time. He was once up-and-comer exploding onto the superstar scene of Vail, Colorado, when it was feasible for professional snowboarders to live on flat mountains and still retain the title. In 1993, and log sliding was it. The true core of snowboarding’s culture was into it, ollieing huge stumps, and gliding up and over long rainbow logs. Dresser ruled it in the bark-flying times, and was obviously pissed at the message behind his midnight visitor.
Like a man charged with the words of Lombardi, he leapt to his feet, reached for his gear, and said, “Call the crew. Let’s do this.” He told his story to Travis, Ami, and Kevin on the way to the mountain, remembering more and more of his encounter. Cody had never been to Big Sky before but said he saw a certain log in his dream and had to find it. The girl in the dream made condescending claims of another life when her sister and she rocked it regularly on warm-up runs. She’d referred to the “the mother jib” and said no man from our era would ever have the balls to do it.
Cody found the log almost immediately and went on a mission to slide every inch. He went bombing into the woods, jacket flapping, knees bent and popped up, off a bump, onto the log, over a knob, slid to the top, and then dropped down between protruding trees to the flat, ten feet below. Hastily, he stepped out of his bindings, looked to the sky and yelled, “Take that! Where you at now, little girl?” But there was no answer.
It was clear at that point that we truly didn’t understand. They had contacted us. They put us to a test, and we responded. Now no answers, no explanations? We needed a sign, some direction. We rode back down to the lodge, and on the way Parker had a vision; it was an unbelievable mental picture of one of the world’s most famous peaks. Panicking, we headed back to Utah, where we canceled all plans, and bought tickets immediately departing for Switzerland. It was our last chance, and our hopes rested in peaks circling the Matterhorn.
We spent the first night in a town called Brig, and immediately dropped a bomb on Europe. Dropped a bomb literally, as in bomb-dropping off everything in sight. Initially, we dropped one by one off a stone wall about twenty feet up into a tight little tranny that handed a reality check to the resiliency left in our arches, knees, and lower backs.
The bomb-dropping continued. On one occasion Travis got a crowd involved by climbing to te top of the mountain tram structure in Zermatt. Fifty- and 60-year-old tourists with flabby butts and big guts asked T.P. to “Wait, wait, just a second.” None of whom, evidently understood the logistics of a 160-pound man balancing on a three-inch wide piece of frozen steel, fifteen feet up from the ground. He stood in this predicament, as the vacationers hopelessly tried to figure out the basic operations on their overadvanced and underused video cameras. Needless to say, most of them missed the shot, but Zacher got it in the bag from two different angles, adding the confused sightseers to the aesthetic makeup of the photos.
After an entire week of scouring the mountain village, we received no contact from the mysterious sisters and were regretfully forced to call off the search.
On the plane home I thought about the questions we too would leave unanswered, mysteries behind the disappearance of two sisters unsolved, results that perhaps we weren’t supposed to find. I looked over at our battered crew and suprisingly sensed a feeling of accomplishment. I guess in the end there seemed to be something rewarding found in the search alone, traveling the world with great friends, chasing a cause we all believed in. Driving, riding, talking, skating, dancing, drinking, laughing, shooting, swimming, smiling. Returning home empty-handed? Maybe. Empty? No.