As we raced down the mountain for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t help but think "How did I wind up skiing behind this pregnant woman on a day like today." As usual the tale is a meandering one filled with glorious joy, wrenching heartache, noble struggle, and ultimately redemption.
This trip started with the simplest of plans and seemingly the most accommodating logistics. Tony was set up in palatial digs for three weeks in February at the Terra Hotel with enough room for all of us. We merely had to pick a week and go. Alas, complications quickly arose. Steve was just returning from a family vacation, which required him to drop off the wife and kids in New York and head back for the mountains overnight. Stan was wrapping up the new Windows program with deadlines galore and frequent fires that required his immediate attention. My time was limited by Barb’s every-other-week work schedule, which included only one week off during the 3-week window of opportunity. We all struggled through and committed to the plan with dreams of last year’s epic trip still fresh in our heads.
Steve arrived first, fresh off his trip to Vail and feeling good. I surprised them by arriving that same night (a day earlier than expected), so that no one would poach my lines. Stan was deathly sick with fever, but hoped to join us within a day or two. Things were promising; the forecast called for 6-12 inches overnight with another foot expected the following day. The atmosphere was electric with anticipation.
The next morning brought heavy snowfall with minor accumulation over the previous night. Steve and I bought our four-day tickets knowing that this trip would be something special. Steve, Tony, Paul and I raced up the hill anxious to get the goods and anticipating great things with the oncoming snowfall. The electric high of this moment was soon extinguished by the warming temperatures, and later completely harshed-on by the rain that started by the early afternoon. Still, there was reason for hope, it was still snowing at the top and we could reasonably expect it to snow hard overnight with cooler temps.
The next morning did bring 3-4 inches of snow, but the weather was still quite warm. Tony decided to stay in and work; Steve, Paul and I hoped for the best as we headed out into the 40-degree weather. Unsurprisingly, the mountain was not crowded. Very surprisingly, we found fresh creamy snow on the Moran face and raced laps there throughout the morning. On one run Steve and I nearly collided, so we stopped and gathered ourselves. I watched carefully as Steve headed left, waited a few seconds, then I headed right, into the dense trees. The snow was buttery smooth, predictable, and easy to control. I quickly gathered speed darting between trees, absorbing terrain, and flying over shallow obstacles. I picked a tight space between large trees, and aired gracefully off the top of a bump, pointing my tips in for a soft landing. Suddenly, a blue streak appeared in my periphery, sending a jolt into my rhythm. I blurted some deep guttural emanation as I realized the hopelessness of this situation. I wish I could report that it all happened in slow motion, but in reality, it all happened so fast, only bits and pieces are clear. My right ski hit Steve in the forearm/elbow area as he raised his arm for protection. It hit with enough force to rip the ski off my boot as I flew helplessly behind him. I lay there stunned for a few seconds gathering my wits, than raced up to see if I had killed him. Steve too was stunned and bruised though not seriously hurt. Paul apparently witnessed the thing and filled in details. A scary moment to be sure, but we all skied away unscathed. Surely, this near miss would be the worst of it.
We continued skiing; finding some soft snow off Thunder, but high winds and fog curbed the joy and enthusiasm. We forged on till the end, however, and had a satisfying if not thrilling day. Steve checked the weather and found the forecast called for no snow and continued warm temps for the rest of the week. By all appearances we had been skunked again. Stan was still sick, and we advised him of the current conditions, wondering if he would be coming at all. Steve was further burdened by troubles at home, and he decided to leave early the next morning, disregarding the bad karma that comes with early withdrawal. As each of us in the group has discovered, if you leave early, the gods will make you pay and reward your friends. Still, family matters must come first, though the consequences can be brutal.
Sure enough, the pagan snow gods decided to torture our comrade in arms. On Wednesday, it snowed consistently all morning and Tony and I explored the hill finding nice soft spots under mild temperatures and modest winds. In the afternoon, we went into the top of Northwoods, a steep, tight and very soft entry into the North Hobacks. I watched as Tony dropped into an opening, then suddenly went flying by me. He must have caught an edge and been pitched forwards. As he passed in front of me, he was flying headfirst in a horizontal position towards a 30-inch diameter tree, at a high rate of speed. With an instantaneous jolt he came to a stop, wrapped around the giant with his chest and arms on one side and legs draped around the other. I thought he was surely dead and wondered how I would pack him out of these dense woods. I quickly made my way over to the abdominal snowman and found that instead of groaning in agony, he was laughing. We inspected the tree and found sharp branches just above the point of impact. One word people – P90X. The man of steel quickly got upright and we shredded the rest of the hill without incident. Twice now we had avoided serious injury in our group after incredible crashes.
The next day we joined Steve Holmsen, JH instructor extrordinaire. It snowed hard all day, filling in the ruts, smoothing the bumps, and bonding with the death crust below. As the day wore on, the conditions got better and better. We regrouped after lunch and joined Rob and Kit Deslauriers for a few runs as the snowfall grew heavier. We followed them around the hill and explored areas we had never been to before. We skied hard until the lifts were shutting down. By the last few runs the conditions were epic. The underlying crust and bumps had been eliminated and the entire mountain was a fresh slate. On our last run, we headed down Pepi’s, an area that had been practically unskiable due to its southern aspect. We ventured in tentatively, but after three turns opened it up. I heard Tony hooting behind me as we blazed through the boot deep powder. Steve H was a great guide and he led us the rest of the way home. The forecast called for another 6-inches overnight and the next day was looking to be huge. We devised a plan where we would hire Steve as our instructor for the day to gain preferred lift privileges. We also were able to secure a tram box before the official lift opening. My only thoughts were that tomorrow could be really big.
We woke early on Friday and our group was like a Who’s Who of the mountaineering world. The resumes were impressive. In addition, to Rob and Kit, two of the best skiers on the planet, Jimmy Chin, the extraordinary photographer and mountaineer who accompanied Kit and Rob on Mt. Everest, would join us. In addition, we had Dave Ballard who is an accomplished local climber of great renown. Then, there was Tony and I – and he is Mr. Power 90. I felt small. I was star struck and nervous. As we waited for our early box, we saw Rob chatting with Chris Davenport and Rick Armstrong, ski stars in their own right. At this point, I was really just hoping not to embarrass myself completely.
At the top, Rob led us to the Alta chutes. We were the first there and as we arrived, chivalrous Rob held an imaginary door open for Kit, who is five months pregnant. She slayed the untouched smooth canvas, and we all followed her into the glorious chute, hooting and hollering the whole way. The general population had not yet made it to the top so we advanced our fast moving group to the Hobacks. Like a scene out of a ski porn flick, we charged down the hill at a fast clip. On either side or just in front of me were the pros skiing the same powder on the same glorious day as my buddy and me. The pace was high and there were no stops. 4,000 vertical feet of non-stop fun. At the bottom, I felt that I would babble like a fool, instead I breathed just one word through the widest smile I’ve ever had – WOW!
By using Steve’s jacket to load the tram without waiting we were able to string together an impressive number of runs - all of them top to bottom charges. I soon became exhausted after a full week of bell to bell days. However, any lethargy was removed by yet another collision. As already indicated, our group moved really fast at all times on the hill. On the narrow cat track to the Hobacks, a group of snowboarders had pulled off to the side, waiting to drop in. Tony came through at 30 mph in a perfect tucked glide when suddenly one of the kids cut across his path without looking. The snowboarder actually cut straight across Tony’s skis, pinning them to the ground and causing an instant double heel eject. Unfortunately, Newtonian physics prevailed and Tony continued at his given speed, flying through the air, coming to rest only after a terrific crash some 20 feet from ground zero. In what could have been a great promotion for P90X, Tony popped up without injury, much to the astonishment of every witness. Fortunately, he didn’t collide with the snowboarder who seconds earlier had been moving across his skis less than 2 feet away from him. The body to body collision would have been horrifying.
When riding the lift with Rob, I was impressed that he was nearly as giddy as me. It was revealing that this man who has skied all over the world for his entire adult life could still get the type of buzz I had right now. I used to worry that someday, if I ever mastered this skiing thing, I might lose the love I have for the addiction. However, on this day I realized that if Rob, who has nothing left to prove to anyone, hasn’t lost the love, I won’t either. I also learned something from him. It wasn’t about hip angulation or ankle flexion; it was about life. He shared the realization that in his business there were a few things he could control to gain a certain outcome, but that there were many other things that he couldn’t control. Rather than battle these elements directly, I got the impression that he used his time in the mountains as a respite to renew the spirit and to let the things he couldn’t control sort themselves out. I instantly realized the brilliance of this idea, and though I never expressed it this way, I think he is right. I think back on all the times I have faced seemingly intractable problems with work or life and found that after I cleared my head by doing the thing I love most, the problems have mostly solved themselves. Maybe it is all about the karma after all. Maybe skiing is about more than sport or mere physical activity. Perhaps it’s about spiritual renewal and healing. After all, the thing has a definite mysticism about it. From the miracle of a good productive storm to the unpredictability of the weather, to the perfect combination of calm and focus required to do it well. Maybe at the highest levels, when experiencing the perfect ski day, the world itself is healed just a little bit. I know that after this day, it felt that way to me.