Does this word seem to be missing something? Is it sticking in your throat? If you’re undecided, let me needle you a bit. I first came to know this word as the name of a run at Sunshine Village ski area in Banff. Like so many of the black-diamond runs at Sunshine, it’s just a quick steep plunge from a moderate slope above to a nearly flat runout below, and there are few trees in sight – few but not none.
Did they misspell it? Surely it should be larynx, no? No. In the end it is voiceless. It is named after something you might happen to get a glimpse of while you’re there. Is it a rock, like onyx? Or a wildcat, like lynx? Or an ungulate, like oryx or ibex? Or a furry little critter, like hyrax (or its Seussian reflex the Lorax)? Or part of a bird, like syrinx? Or a shrubbery, like ilex? Well, you’re getting closer.
How close? Let me put it this way: If you’re busy trying to spot some elusive creature while skiing down Laryx, you might just run right into a laryx. And you would probably be hospitalized if you did.
It’s a tree.
What is a larch? It is a tree with needles – like a pine or spruce – but ones that fall off every fall: it is deciduous. When I was a kid, we would hike every fall to Larch Valley, above Moraine Lake near Lake Louise, farther up the highway from Sunshine, to look at the larches as they changed colour and dropped their needles, and to eat cold Shake ’n Bake chicken roughly the colour of those needles.
At the Lake Louise ski area, they have a much larger run (and a chairlift) named Larch. Not at Sunshine. Sunshine Village, which for me has always had the most classic ski-bum-hippy vibe of the Banff areas and which is probably the most family-friendly area there, has managed to insert an uncommon Latinism into its trail map. And an uncommon spelling at that. The normal spelling is larix. The y version is just by analogy with… well, see above for words that might have influenced it. As you may have suspected, larix and larch are etymologically related.
They are quite similar words. And yet there is something of the lurch and starch and large in larch, while laryx seems a curious spry item sitting tensely in wait in its lair or at least relaxing rakish and sparkling (perhaps like a cup or its contents – a calyx or pyx). Larch, naming one of Louise’s most popular wide blue-square intermediate freeways, is a common word. Laryx, naming a short, steep, lightly trafficked slope off the back of Standish abutting the boundary of Sunshine, is a rare small jewel. And it is an expert run, black diamond – perhaps there is onyx there too after all. But more likely you will find the skier’s white elixir: powder snow.