Crested Butte March 2008
This trip was, for me, a trial that tested my dedication mixed in equal parts with disappointment, despair, and profound joy. We arrived in Crested Butte to clear, sunny skies, huge mountain views and visions of epic steep and deep skiing. Steve and I roomed together and both of us arrived on Tuesday. We both had to leave home in the pre-dawn hours to make our flights but Steve arrived in time to get some afternoon skiing in, effectively poaching us all. We had a nice dinner and found that Tony would arrive late that night. He was kind enough to wake us up when he did. The game was on.
Day one was bright and sunny. The snow was relatively soft, but had definitely been affected by the sun. Steve provided his usual thorough tour of the mountain that included a short "hike" to the promised goods. The hike was really a long traverse through the woods on a sun-baked trail that we will hereafter refer to as the Trail of Tears, in deference to the suffering I endured. The surface along the trail varied from hard, grabby snow to mush, and it featured numerous compressions, sharp turns, and unexpected whoops. In addition, the aspect ensured that we experienced the full might of the sun, turning this seemingly harmless stretch into a steaming inferno, rife with hazards.
Intermittent along the Trail of Tears path were short steep climbs, that were navigated using a side stepping motion. Up we climbed, sideways, 8 vertical inches at a time. It was like taking a two-year old up the steps of the Empire State Building - the task before you looms large while the progress is measured in infinitesimal increments. Tedious seems the most apt description. Adding to the misery created by the poor unpredictable surface, tropical climatic conditions, and tedious progress was the elevation (over 12,000 feet), that could literally take your breath away.
At the top of the climb my well renowned patience had reached its limit. I was sweating profusely, had crashed numerous times, and wondered if the promise of epic skiing could possibly hold. In my own famously mature way I expressed myself with a round of verbal vitriol that would make a Riker’s inmate blush. I believe that the key, oft-repeated phrase was "F**k this Sh*t". My next move was equally distinguished; I proceeded to strip my clothing off down to my skivvies to cool down, both literally and figuratively. To aid in the process I added a "snow shower" to the routine, washing myself with the precious frozen fluid. My comrades patiently waited for me (no doubt laughing at the ridiculous juvenile scene), then we entered the bowl and shredded like the fiends we are. However, by the time we reached the base we were in full sun and again the heat was unmitigated. Again I had to strip down and take my frozen shower. Again the boys were patient with my particular peccadilloes.
By the afternoon Stan had arrived and the Fantastic Four were together again. All in all, we found some good snow and made the best of what we had. Tony was a star, regularly poaching my lines and beating me to the bottom. We skied the steep and the hard, the soft and the mushy. We attacked the most daring lines under the poorest of conditions. But after all we are old pros at this routine. All of our trips seem to start just like this.
The next day held the promise of snow, and sure enough the flakes started to drop, though with no real accumulation. Unfortunately, the wind also picked up and the Silver Queen lift was shut down all day, limiting our options. Also, the cold cloudy day turned yesterday’s mush into today’s hard pack. The snow was shiny, icy, and completely unforgiving. Each attempted turn was met with a withering chatter of edge steel on hard variable surfaces. Still, we persisted, though the day took its toll. By the afternoon, the sun was back out and we decided to end the day with some soft bump runs. Off we went flying through the bump field like madmen, in a kind of Chinese downhill. There were many good turns, some spectacular crashes, lots of incredible recoveries, and plenty of laughs. By last chair though, our group had been beaten up pretty well. There was soreness, fatigue and loose dental work.
Day three was bright, hot and sunny. The snow surface was as hard as ever and made for some very uncomfortable groomed sections that no edge could hold. No edge, that is, except for Stan’s edge. Stan proved to be a star in these conditions. He flew through hard bump sections, launching off the mogul tops and driving his tips into the next turn. It was an impressive show of strength and skill. Near the end of the day, as we scoped for a new line, Stan flung himself headlong into a steep section of trees. This was no marked run, or even a visible line, it was a cluster f**k. For reference, imagine skiing down a near vertical wall made of cinder block with numerous trees, rocks and irregular bumps so dense you could see no way to the bottom from the top. Stan hopped his way down, like a deranged billy goat while we watched in awe and sheepishly skied away, taking an easier line to the bottom. There could only be one name for this barely skiable line and that would have to be Pennington. I couldn’t help feeling that I might have followed him down that path on Day One when I was strong, but by now I was barely surviving the battering, chattering and skidding. My confidence was in danger and I feared a dramatic backslide was imminent.
In fact the team morale was rather mixed. Steve was enthusiastic as always, treasuring any day on skis with the boys as a sacred gift, regardless of the conditions. Besides, he is Mr. Smooth and never really struggles no matter how technical the line or how poor the conditions. Stan, being on fire, also had a great attitude willing to jump into anything, anytime, and shining like the star he is. Tony and I, however, were weaker links. The difficult conditions wore us down. After another climb up Trail of Tears (and the requisite stripping down and cursing), I felt bad for making everyone wait again and sensed some dissention in the group. It culminated in a stooge-like series of events. Tony had dropped a pole, so I tried to reach it and knock it towards him. As I maneuvered, my skis got caught up in Steve’s and I slid onto my backside as my right leg was pulled underneath. I felt my knee stretch beneath me to near the point of breaking. It was like the ubiquitous movie scene with the suspension bridge that gets overloaded. The rope supports start slowly tearing, strand by strand, as the hero looks on in horror. All I could think was that this was a miserable way to go down to injury. At least Theone got some air on her season-ending wreck. Fortunately, the pain quickly subsided and I was thankful for all the pre-hab work I had done in the off season. In gratitude, my next child will be named Plyo.
Tony and I shared a quick moment as we contemplated what else we could do. We could ski rock hard, no grip groomers, continue on the extreme path that was growing evermore dangerous, or we could quit. We rejoined the boys and had a quiet, somber lift ride to the top. We then finished the day with a solemn and completely sketchy descent down Banana Peel, in possibly the worst conditions I have ever skied. Avalanche debris would be an improvement over this.
At dinner that night Tony announced that he was going home early. He had many things to do and he had checked the forecast. The next day was supposed to be 43 degrees and raining. Rather than lose another day in his crazy-scheduled life, he decided to leave the following morning. Who could argue, the prospects looked bleak. Things could only get worse. I felt a tear in the group dynamic now accompanied by a sinking feeling. The adversity was taking its toll. I also worried about my skiing ability and wondered if I could rise to the challenges without completely losing my confidence.
That night a remarkable thing happened. Each night prior to this we would dine together and then get to bed to heal and prepare for the next day. This night was different. We had dinner but then went to Paul’s house in town for a get together. We had a bunch of laughs as Tony showed his incredible feats of strength and flexibility. The atmosphere was light, joyful, fun. It reminded me of earlier trips when we would spend each night hanging in the Peruvian or the Cliff Lodge, playing poker and name that tune. I went to bed that night laughing and appreciating the time we spend together by sharing the sport we all love, but also enjoying each other’s company. The group dynamic was revived, saved by ourselves.
The next morning brought an unexpected surprise. There was three inches of fluff on the ground and it was dumping hard. Tony was in a terrible spot; he had already changed his travel arrangements and now had to decide if it was worth changing them back to partake in the day. What would the day be like? Would it rain later, as predicted? Would the snow be chunky and hard underneath? In the end he decided to go and cut his already formidable losses. He was the first man down.
Steve, Stan and I ventured into the morning with renewed vigor. The mountain was empty and we found numerous untracked lines. My confidence was building as the snow conditions reverted back towards my favor. We hooked up with Todd, an employee of the resort who offered to be our guide. Our first run with him was a short hike near the Trail of Tears with two important differences. First, the fresh snow pack made the traverse easy, and second the falling snow made the tedious ascent exciting as we anticipated the reward. There would be no stripping down or cursing after this climb. The descent was pure butter; by far the best run of the trip. We floated through powder soft and light and the joy of the addiction slowly reasserted itself.
Stan had to leave just after noon for his four-hour drive back to Denver (in his stylie mini van). He showed a commendable level of responsibility by leaving in mid stream on a near epic day. I don’t know that I could have acted with the resolve he so bravely demonstrated. Nonetheless, he was the second man down.
Steve and I skied the rest of the day, racing for last chair only to be thwarted by mere minutes. It had snowed all day, accumulating over 6-inches and filling in our tracks as we shredded. We had a quiet dinner and reflected on our group, our lives, and our remarkable differences. We come from the corners of the country, with seemingly nothing in common but a love for skiing and a desire to excel and push ourselves to the limit. Somehow we get along famously, tolerate each other (OK you all tolerate me), and genuinely enjoy each other. It is remarkable and I feel lucky to share in the dynamic that makes the addiction so much more enjoyable.
Steve left at 5AM - third man down.
I woke to bright skies and light snow mixed with rain. I quickly got ready and braced for a dense, heavy snow pack fearing that the temperature had risen too high. I was pleasantly surprised to find 4-5 inches of new light fluff. The previous day was terrific but we had to be careful because the subsurface was hard underneath the fresh snow in most places. On this day there was no bottom. There was no chattering. There was no skidding or backsliding. I roamed all over the mountain shredding areas we had struggled with only days before. On this day, it was butter, smooth and easy. I launched all of the daunting rocks we had stayed away from earlier in the week. I reveled in my good fortune and felt my confidence grow with each huge turn, each drop, each high-speed descent.
At the end of the day I knew that there was one thing I had to do. I drifted over to Penningtons. I cranked up my music, and a song that fires me up came on. Blurry by Puddle of Mudd. It’s about resolving emotional confusion. I hopped up and down at the edge of the precipice as I mentally prepared for the drop and the terrifying "run" beneath me. My first turn was cautious, but as I felt the light snow give way, I looked farther down the hill. After a few more tight turns, I suddenly saw that there were no obstacles, there were only the openings between them. I felt the flow, the effortless drift from turn to turn; the feeling I live for had returned to me. I continued with precise turns and slithered down the wall as effortlessly as a snake moving through smooth desert sand. At the end of the pitch, I peeled off a huge arcing turn and glanced back up the hill. It was all so clear now - I was back.
I raced to the nearest cat track and gathered as much speed as I dared. I flew off the edge and launched upwards as high as I could go. I slowly brought my legs towards my chest, crossed my skis and drove my hands back towards the earth. In that instant, time froze. The moment lasted less than a second, but in that position I recalled the whole experience of the trip, not unlike your life passing before your eyes. I had gone from confident and unflappable to self-doubting and flirting with despair. At this moment I had come all the way back. The joy was fully regained, and in the next instant I alighted like a colorful mallard landing on a smooth clear pond.
I was the last man standing, and I wish you all could have been with me right then. Till next time my brothers. Remember you never get too old to ski, you get too old by not skiing.