In addition to everything else, I’m pretty sure I have mild Asperger’s. I wouldn’t wear pants when I was a kid because they made my legs itchy, and certain kinds of long underwear and other clothing materials are still a clear, “Hell, no!” I don’t eat bread because I loathe the texture. I can listen to the same song on repeat for hours on end. Most damningly of all, it took me an inordinately long time to figure out certain social graces, and those only when my mother yelled at me that I was not supposed to, say, stir my tea while a waiter was telling us about the dinner specials. Even now, I’ll say or do something in a public setting that’ll result in me going, “Oops. Hope I’m allowed back into that establishment!” three hours later.
I also have a few obsessions that are apparently not shared by enough of the general population to make me anxiously page through revisions of the DSM when they arrive. One of those raisons d’etre is my combined love of maps and the US roadway system. Sure, maps are probably popular enough, but my inability to go past my RTD bus system map on the wall without perusing the route of the 83L to the point where I forget that I was initially walking past that wall to go to the bathroom…well, even I’d have to admit that it’s probably not what a mental health professional would deem typical behavior.
It’s been enough to strike terror into the hearts of those around me. On Monday, I took a bump clinic at Vail to see if I’d learn anything different from what I’ve been getting from Beaver Creek’s clinics. As far as the skiing goes, I now have a whole host of new techniques to try and balance with what I’ve been (re-) learning. As far as relating to others is concerned, I have learned that I am an intractable nerd.
“Don’t go over I-70,” I warned a classmate at lunch when she was discussing the best way to get from Vail to Winter Park in the raging snowstorm that had set in for the day for her certification exam the next day. “You’ll have to go over Vail Pass, which sucks, then the approach to the Eisenhower–actually, on the eastbound side, it’s the Johnson–Tunnel, which sucks harder, THEN Berthoud Pass, which will simultaneously suck and blow.”
My poor classmate’s face was now a shade of minty green. Our instructor frowned and pulled out her phone. “Hmm, surely there’s got to be a better way,” she murmured as she pulled up Google Maps.
“Not really. You can get off at Route 9 in Silverthorne and head north to reach US-40, at which point you’d just turn right. Can’t miss that one, since that’s where 9 ends. Still have to do Vail Pass, which is CDOT’s favorite part of the highway to close, and there’s one bridge ten miles north of Silverthorne that’s a straight sheet of ice…You have fairly new tires, don’t you?”
My classmate’s face was the color of the neon sign at one of our state’s numerous medical marijuana facilities. The instructor was shooting suspicious glances my way.
“Or, you could backtrack to 131 in Wolcott and avoid Vail Pass…but then you’d have to go over Rabbit Ears Pass, which is where I spun out one time when conditions weren’t even this bad.”
“Here’s what Google Maps pulls up,” the instructor said hastily, showing her phone to my classmate. The site’s first suggestion was I-70 to Berthoud Pass, a.k.a. my worst nightmare on a snowy day. Option # 2 was I-70 to Route 9 to US-40 with the icy bridge. The third option I’d suggested wasn’t even on the list.
Once we’d reached a grim consensus that Option # 2 was the least awful, the man next to me flashed me a look of wide-eyed admiration. “How do you know so much about the roads up here?”
I shrugged sheepishly. “Uh…I’ve lived in Colorado most of my life? You, uh, just kind of figure out alternate routes to places after a while.”
I neglected to mention that I could spend and have spent hours in the car with my Rand McNally road atlas poring over its guide to Colorado’s highways. He really didn’t need to know that I’ve gotten so caught up in that on occasion that I’ve forgotten what I was doing in the car to begin with, which might’ve been starting it to go to a doctor’s appointment that I’d had to wait three weeks for.
Luckily, I have other obsessions that keep me relatively healthy. I don’t know how my intrepid classmate fared on either the drive or the exam, but I do know that the snowstorm that was causing her so much grief deposited ten inches on Beaver Creek over the course of that day and night. Thanks to a friend who let me stay at his house so I didn’t have to brave Vail Pass myself, I awoke bright and early and eager for fresh tracks.
Larkspur Bowl was a breathtaking sight to behold at 8:45. I’d had, however, two encounters with fresh powder in recent weeks that left me bracing myself for the prospect of getting snow in every orifice I had and maybe some new ones besides. Not to mention that Larkspur Bowl was where, according to family legend, my dad had the wipeout of his life on a powdery day fifteen years ago. The bowl was all tracked out by the time he found his skis, poles, goggles, and hat, he said proudly, but those ten turns leading up to the yard sale were totally worth it.
As it turned out, my inner Cassandra needed to go pouting back to her temple. I had two runs in which I got to make beautiful first tracks, and I was able to find little stashes throughout the morning to claim as my own. To top it off, the stormclouds had briefly cleared away, leaving the fresh snow to dazzle beneath bright sunshine and bluebird skies.
I spent three hours skiing my ass off (almost literally. I’m able to fit into jeans that were a bit snug before ski season started) before my leg muscles turned the consistency of unrefrigerated Jell-O shots. It was only with effort that I was able to turn my legs at all on the last groomer down to my locker, but it was well worth it. My faith in first tracks has been restored long enough for me to find a new way to lose my shirt, skis, poles, etc. after the next big storm.
In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to find a profitable use for my detailed knowledge of Colorado combined with doom-and-gloomery. Maybe Fox News Denver is hiring.
Forget about the thoughts running through the guests’ heads. Working at Beaver Creek is, to cop Vail Resorts’ catchphrase, the true experience of a lifetime. Where else is the motto of a training ground for a sport that people associate with high speeds and gravity-defying stunts “Not exactly roughing it”? Where else can you get lobster tacos for lunch–and that’s just at one of the cafeteria-style dining establishments? And delicious lobster tacos, I might add. I’m not sure which dark gods Spruce Saddle’s chefs sacrifice to, but it must be an effective one to keep the source meat fresh and tasty in spite of Colorado not having possessed any beachfront property for the past few hundred million years.
But there are times when I miss the flavors associated with the bare-bones, no-nonsense sort of atmosphere that still lingers around Colorado’s oldest ski areas, even if the rope tows have been replaced with chairlifts. Okay, so the chairlifts in question are other ski areas’ sloppy seconds and were old enough to merit replacement at their home resorts, but that’s beside the point. There ain’t no lobster tacos for lunch here. Hell, even regular chicken or beef tacos merit the designation of “Special!” with perhaps an extra exclamation mark or two for emphasis.
I’m talking specifically about lovely Loveland. Which is why I was eager to flash my Professional Ski Instructors of America card for a lift-ticket discount last Thursday under the pretext of taking pictures for a ski area guide I’m writing. The true reason for my ascension to the Great Divide was the opening of Chair 8, with its promises of snow yet untouched this season. Because attending Chair 8’s opening last year went so smoothly.
But let it not be said that a few electrical issues with the lift are enough to stop the intrepid heart of a powder hound. I waited patiently for Ski Patrol to drop the rope at 9:30, and I blazed ahead as the front of the pack when the anointed half-hour arrived. My breath froze in my lungs, although not literally–the sun gleamed through the blue sky and warmed the glistening snow, promising one of those powder days that even we residents of the true Sunshine State (fuck you, Florida. We don’t have hurricanes, so there) can only fantasize about. As I got off the top of the lift, feet itching to feel silky softness beneath them, I bit my lip to quell my squeals of anticipation. I flew down the groomed track. Unable to resist the call of untracked, ungroomed snow, I darted off to the side as soon as the rope would allow, my body surging triumphantly into the brilliant whiteness.
* * *
Maybe I should simply stop trying for first tracks, I thought woefully as I removed my head from the snow in much the same way an ostrich would remove hers from sand, or a Warner Bros. cartoon character his from solid rock. After all, my last attempt to chart seasonally new territory hadn’t gone so well, either. This time, however, I placed solid blame on conditions rather than operator error. I’d been in a forward-leaning athletic stance, a position from which to attack the hill, just like my trainers at Beaver Creek had pushed. They emphasize this stance because it works on 99.9% of all terrain you will encounter.
Chair 8’s snow, whipped by gusts which create an effect not unlike day-old cake frosting spread across sand dunes, was solidly among that 0.01%. Lunging forward in my boots caused the front of my foot to break through the cake frosting and go straight down into the snow below, sending my head and torso over the tip of my ski and straight into the ground. It was less a faceplant than a headplant, and as I looked up to make sure I’d dumped all the snow out of my goggles, I noticed it had garnered an audience of about one-third of the now-packed chairlift.
Well, I thought cheerily as I retrieved my ski, at least it’s all downhill from here!
* * *
In spite of Loveland not fucking around when they posted signs advertising “Variable Conditions,” the next run went better. So did the run after that. I dared to think I was learning what to do on the cake-frosting-sand-dunes, and I knew I was having one of the best times I’d had all year. After all, first tracks! Even if they were pretty wobbly!
And I’d also forgotten how friendly people are at Loveland. Granted, it’s the Colorado way to strike up conversations with perfect strangers on a trail or chairlift, but there are occasional times when your chair partner is heavily engrossed in music or in engaged with his buddy in a contest to see who can say “dude” the most times in a single sentence.
Not so here. I found out a little backstory on everyone I rode up the chair with, including, to my delight, a snowboard instructor at the Luv.
“Yeah, snow’s not as soft as I was expecting,” he said mournfully after we talked shop a bit.
“Tell me about it. My first turn in the powder resulted in my head getting stuck in the snow.”
“That was you?!” he yelped. “I saw that! Hell, I think the whole lift saw that!”
Seeking some snappy first aid for my bruised reputation, I quickly cobbled together my theory about there being some times where you need to sit back and let your skis do all the work, using enough references to joint flexion to automatically win a contest for who can cram the most PSIA terms into one sentence. Thankfully, this led us back to talking shop. I reassured him that working at Beaver Creek was pretty legendary (did I mention the lobster tacos?!), and he reassured me that all conditions, even the ones we were seeing today, were much more easily managed on a board. It was with a bit of sadness that I got off at the top.
“Have a good run, Beaver Creek!” he shouted as he headed fearlessly for a grove of trees. I waved back and went in search of more variable conditions of my own.
It took more traversing than honest searching to find some. As I paused at the top of a small pitch, looking into its not-particularly significant depths in search of the smoothest route, a snowboarder cut smugly into the snow to my right.
“Hit it, Beaver Creek!” my fellow instructor called out. “This is one of my favorite pitches back here!”
My bluff called, I shot down after him. My fearlessness guided me through three sharp turns so even and so shapely that even Warren Miller would turn the color of the blinding snow with sheer envy.
A pity it was a four-turn pitch. At the top of my grand finale, still in view of the Loveland instructor and still with something to prove, my foot sank through the snow and I found myself neck-deep in snow for the second time that day. Alas, just like the first time around, “neck-deep” was top-down rather than bottom-up.
I’ll say the snow was really deep where I was skiing, I told myself as I shook snow out of my hat, goggles, collar, pants, and bra. Nevertheless, I sternly lectured myself, I’m done trying to prove anything to anybody on this hill. Let them come to Beaver Creek and experience the, uh, experience of a lifetime for themselves under my steady guidance!
I made another two runs back there. And wouldn’t you know it, given the conditions back there, they were the most impressive sets of turns I made all year. I only wish I’d been close enough to the lift or that snowboard instructor for someone besides myself to take note.
At least I got some good pictures. And the pork green chili served by a man who called me “hon” and was short-staffed because he’d sent all his employees for a lunchtime run or two was just as well-deserved and tasty as any lobster tacos.
This is the first season I’ve worked on the slopes. After spending a week post-Christmas guiding guests across varied green-to-blue-to-easy-black slopes, all I can think is, “Why didn’t I think of applying years ago?!” My dad likes to crack, “The worst day of skiing is still better than the best day at work,” a saying he probably lifted from a fellow snowchaser on the lift. I’m not entirely sure where I fit into that dynamic, since I’ve been in uniform or in training to wear that uniform for most of the days I’ve been on the hill this season, but I can say that my work involves skiing. Which is pretty awesome. Extreme to the max, even.
I’m now doubly kicking myself for not hopping on the free (imagine that word surrounded by roses and sparkles, if you will) train to SkiPassVille as soon as I moved back to Colorado. My first job after returning to the Centennial State was teaching remedial reading and writing to incoming community college students. And while I have nothing but admiration for the students who come back after years of being away from school and the instructors with stronger guts than I who come back year after year to teach them, I noticed a few differences in attitude toward teachers and students alike that make me more willing to be on my feet for up to six hours in an environment that can range from -10 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit on any given day than stand for two hours in a climate-controlled room.
For one thing, the students (or guests, as Vail Resorts prefers to call them) are given different approaches to reaching their goals. At Beaver Creek, it’s not so much that failure is not an option–the word doesn’t even exist. Even the guest who’s never been on skis and ultimately wants to beat his World Cup-racer father down Golden Eagle, the double-diamond race course, leaves at the end of the day feeling like that goal is within reach. Today the green run from the gondola, tomorrow the groomed intermediates, next year’s vacation the Super-G race course!
At the community college, I was warned that some, if not most, of my students would fail. Bachelor of Science in Nursing? Yeah, nice goal. Too bad you can’t pass this reading class. Granted, most of the students who failed deserved those Fs; no matter how many times they begged and pleaded, turning in zero of the homework assignments wasn’t going to result in a passing grade. But the students who convinced me I didn’t have the stomach for community college were the students who stayed after class, attended tutoring, tried their damnedest, and still couldn’t muster up an understanding of the material. As much as I wanted to give them credit for trying, the standards the state’s community colleges set were unwavering, and as much as it pained me to adhere to them, I knew deep down that I wouldn’t want to be admitted to an ER where my nurse hadn’t been able to puzzle through a basic biology textbook.
Of course, mastering Beaver Creek’s Talons Challenge runs and getting your first shift at a prestigious hospital aren’t on the same level in most people’s eyes. The former is only a worthy career goal for true obsessives like me. For most people, it’s a source of personal pride, an addition to an impressive list of accomplishments already attained in the work and family arenas.
But personal pride must have some meaning for people to keep coming back and aiming for figurative and literal new heights. Which is why happy instructors are essential to the operation.
I don’t mean just the base wages, the tips, the free ski pass, the discounts at ski shops, and the unlimited free classes and clinics that most people would have to pay the cost of a group lesson to receive. These are all great perks, to be sure. But Beaver Creek also cares about its instructor-guest relationships. On one of the last days I was scheduled to work over the holidays, I noticed I was scheduled for a 3-hour private lesson. The notes said I could expect a “4-years [sic] old boy, beginning alpine skier.”
I turned as green as the signs advertising those beginner runs. I work out of the Adult Ski School for a reason. As I’ve mentioned in my other blog, I’m not particularly fond of pre-elementary-school-aged children. With older children, I can ask about favorite sports (a really good conversation-starter, as I can frequently relate skiing concepts to other athletic activities), books, or singers. Once they’ve warmed up to me, I might murmur sympathetically at a story about a nasty teacher or, since my sense of humor hasn’t matured much past third grade, guffaw appreciatively at a fart joke. Young children don’t have the coordination for team sports, usually can’t read, have a limited understanding of music, and would make their parents livid when they chirp, “Mommy, I learned all about farts from Miss Bree today!”
The best-case scenario I could imagine from teaching a four-year-old was my back screaming in agony while I pulled the student down by his Edgie Wedgie while he stared stolidly ahead with a look of bovine complacency. Worst-case was me smiling moronically at parents and other instructors in the area while the kid had a fists-and-feet-flying, top-of-the-lungs-shrieking temper tantrum as I mouthed, “I was only trying to get him to put his skis on!” while the onlookers stared murderously and wondered what particular variety of hell-bound child abuser I must be.
Fortunately, I found out about this assignment two days before it was to take place. I walked into the Ski School desk, voiced my concerns to the indoor supervisor, and was reassured with a friendly, “Thanks for seeing that and letting us know. We’ll put you on something else!” And indeed, I was rewarded with an eager ten-year-old boy who appreciated my lowbrow humor and was game for every suggestion I made.
In a classroom setting, there is no screening. If you and your students clash, you’re stuck with them for fifteen weeks unless they decide the aggravation is mutual and switch out. And even if you and a student bond as people and seem like you’d be great beer buddies, that still won’t prevent you from noticing how few assignments and tests have been completed and doling out the dreaded F. Only this time, you feel like Lando Calrissian for having no choice but to turn your buddy over to the ravages of the Colorado Community Colleges system. In skiing, every day where your guest has fun and learns some new trick, no matter how small, is a successful day.
I’m not entirely sure what lessons ski instruction could give to the traditional classroom. The fact that ski instruction is purely for-profit naturally affects the balance of power–when I phrased my concerns about teaching a four-year-old in terms of the parents not wanting to pay for me to test my possibly non-existent nurturing skills on their child, I’m sure I saw better results than I would have if I’d come in with vague terms of uncertainty. But I can’t advocate for such a model in higher education, since it needs to be accessible to anyone with the determination and drive to attain it. As much as it pains me to say it, with so many other healthy activities out there, skiing is not, nor does it need to be, a universal right.
Still, one would think there has to be a way to make sure the needs of both students and teachers are better met in a traditional classroom. Until somebody figures it out, however, I’ll maintain my office hours on the sweet set of bumps located in Chair 9’s new run, Kestrel.
My cousin’s boyfriend knew a decent restaurant in West Vail. I pulled off the exit and circled around the Holiday Inn lot, trying to find parking.
“Dammit,” I grumbled. “Looks like everyone else had the same bright idea we did.”
Fortunately, due to all the fresh snow being dumped on the ground, a parking space that probably wasn’t supposed to be appeared soon enough. I’m pretty sure I actually parked on a lawn, but with all the snow, nobody was able to tell.
The restaurant had a forty-five minute wait–everyone else had, indeed, gotten the same bright idea as we had.
“Put us in,” my cousin’s boyfriend (whom I shall now address as Milo, for confusion’s sake) sighed.
We got some coffees and a chai from the coffee bar attached to the restaurant. Milo paid for my chai to thank me for driving.
“Thank me if we get home in one piece,” I remarked, though I certainly didn’t turn him down.
My boyfriend hadn’t come with us to the Beav because he’d felt a little stuffy and lethargic. “If we were just going to Copper, where we have a pass,” he explained, “I’d do it. But those tickets are too much to waste if I’m not feeling well.”
Since I’d likely be putting the ticket on my card, I had to agree. Besides, my boyfriend eats the way perfectionists do everything: at length and laboriously. With him in the group, we wouldn’t have hit the slopes until noon.
I called to tell him he hadn’t missed much. When I relayed the story of the lightning, he made appropriate oohs and ahs.
“Shit, I’m glad I didn’t come!”
“No kidding. Especially since we can’t even get back to the condo. Are the boys back yet?”
“Nah, I think they’re still skiing.”
“Fuck, really? I thought there’d be lightning all over this side of the Divide!”
“Guess not. Haven’t seen any here. Oh, the Eisenhower Tunnel’s closed.”
I swore vigorously. That tunnel was our only conduit home–if Vail Pass opened back up, that is. First things first.
“Well, I’d rather be stuck in the condo. At least I have clean underwear there.”
We shot the shit for another few minutes. I checked the time on my phone. Another thirty minutes until we could conceivably get a table. I wandered over to the counter where my cousin and Milo sat.
“Anything interesting in the news?”
“Crossword puzzle,” my cousin said. I hovered over her shoulder to take a look. It was the New York Times Sunday edition, and I could only figure out a few of the clues off the top of my head.
I needed a break after fifteen minutes, so I wandered off to use the bathroom, taking my own sweet time getting there and back. I still only killed another five minutes.
My cousin and I worked on the crossword puzzle. Milo and I started a new hobby that would occupy us for the better part of the afternoon: calling CDOT’s hotline to find out if they’d opened up the damn pass yet.
“Anything?” I hopefully asked as he got off the phone.
“Nope. But they just shut down I-70 all the way to Georgetown.”
“Fuckin’ A! They’re supposed to open the highway, not close more of it off!”
He shrugged. “Well, if we manage to get out of here, we can at least get back to Silverthorne.”
“If we can get out of here,” I sighed.
Another eternity passed. Finally, we got called back to a table. In spite of our interest in taking our own sweet time here, too, we wound up wolfing down everything put in front of us. After lingering over our iced teas, coffees, and, in Milo’s case, beers, we figured we were running down our server’s patience.
We paid up and wandered into the hotel lobby. All the seats were taken, so we stood awkwardly by the window, anxiously checking the sky. The storm seemed to be lessening somewhat, although compared to “total whiteout,” this wasn’t saying much.
Milo dialed the hotline again.
“Vail Pass closed, Eisenhower Tunnel closed, I-70 closed to Idaho Springs.”
“Well, shit, if it’s moving east, we should be able to get out of here sometime soon,” I mused.
We all turned back to the window. Maybe the ease-up was just a figment of my imagination, because we couldn’t see across the highway.
“You think they’re gonna open it back up tonight?” my cousin asked.
“Christ, I hope so.” I stared out the window some more, looking for any sign of a clearing. “But maybe not.”
“Maybe we should get a room before they all fill up,” she said thoughtfully.
I glanced around the lobby. It had thinned out a bit, probably from people having that exact same thought.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “And the Holiday Inn is probably going to be our cheapest option in this town.”
We stared at each other, lips pursed. My cousin shrugged. “Up to you guys.”
Milo and I looked at each other, then at the window.
“It’s, what, 1:30 now?” I asked. They nodded. “I say we wait until 4:00. If it hasn’t opened by then, we’ll see if we can scramble for whatever they’ve got left. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather get back to the condo if that becomes an option.”
Nods of agreement. “I don’t have anything to change into,” my cousin said.
“Yeah, neither do I. Without clean clothes, I can guarantee I am not up to Vail standards. Not even West Vail.”
“The prices are bullshit,” Milo agreed.
“Besides,” I added, a new thought giving me a sudden ray of sunshine that the view out the window would not, “it’s Sunday night. They have to open that pass back up–this is an interstate highway! Can’t have all those trucks getting bogged down and losing big business money!”
And so we settled back into our crossword puzzle, content in the knowledge that we would be somewhere, anywhere besides West Vail by this evening.
2:00 rolled around and the lack of individual crosswords for each of us grated on our nerves. Milo, sensing that our pleasant camaraderie was soon going to be reduced to, “STOP BREATHING NEAR ME!” wandered out to get his own New York Times. We divided the sections amongst ourselves on his return.
At 3:00, we’d exhausted all the interesting articles in the sections we’d traded back and forth and were now going back to read about exciting new frontiers in the world of wallpaper design.
Periodically, we’d called for updates from CDOT. Not only were Vail Pass and the Tunnel still mockingly closed, the closure gates had been dropping farther and farther east on the highway, first at the junction with US-6, now at Floyd Hill. I stuck to my guns.
“If they’re shutting it down that far east, that means the worst of it has to have passed us,” I reasoned. “Hell, they might have crews working on the pass right now. They’ll open this up, we can eat in Silverthorne, and then maybe we can even get back to Denver tonight.”
Milo grunted. My cousin squinted at the crossword puzzle and asked, “Anyone know the name of a major European tributary?”
At 3:30, I called Ethan again. “Fuck my life!” I wailed.
“With a sixty-pound chainsaw?” he asked. I snarled at him. “So, the boys are back,” he said when I was done. “They had an awesome day. Epic pow at Copper, apparently.”
I applied my forehead repeatedly to the table and hung up.
At 3:45, we examined the road with a critical eye. Fifteen minutes to our self-imposed deadline, and still no word on when the pass might open back up.
My cousin and I had the crossword puzzle a quarter of the way done. Anytime my cousin stated a clue out loud, Milo would sit back, cross his arms, stroke his beard, and reply, “Oh, I don’t know. Is it…Poundtown?”
At 4:00, I had started drawing nonsensical patterns in the margins of the newspaper. My eyes had acquired a wild sheen, I had noticed on my every-ten-minutes trip to the bathroom.
Milo dialed 511.
“Nada,” he said.
We looked at each other, glassy-eyed.
“They have to open the pass back up,” I croaked. “I don’t think I wanna drive it if it’s dark, but it’s not dark yet.”
Milo and my cousin nodded solemnly.
At 4:15, 4:30, and 4:45, there was no new information. My cousin would ask for clues to the crossword–“It’s the capital of Uzbekistan,” “It’s an ingredient commonly found in West Indian cooking,”–and Milo would reply, “Poundtown.” Only instead of getting more aggravating with each repetition, my cousin and I would holler and guffaw more loudly, holding our sides and lowering ourselves to the floor to gasp for air.
“It’s gonna be like the sequel to The Shining if we don’t get out of here soon!” I screamed at Ethan.
“At least we have a TV,” he gloated.
“Fuck you!” I shrieked.
At 4:55, something was happening. Milo dialed 511, but this time, they were updating their available information. We held our breath as he hung up and dialed again at 4:56. Still updating. We agreed to wait until 5:00. In the intervening three and a half minutes, we stared intently at the phone, hoping by the force of our gazes to make this pot boil.
5:00 barely registered on the screen when Milo snatched it up and dialed. Confusion, then joy, spread across his face. We held our breath.
“It’s open! Eisenhower’s open, the pass is open! We can go home!”
We screamed for joy and ran out of the Holiday Inn, barely attracting the notice of the receptionists.
As soon as we got to the on-ramp, however, there was a problem. It was closed. “Must not have gotten the notice,” I said as I inched forward with the other five billion cars to Vail’s main highway entrance.
Ethan called. “Hey, so they opened the tunnel.”
“I know! They opened the pass, too!”
“Cool. So…mind if I go home with the boys?”
I was terrifically, horrendously jealous of him for being able to get home before us, but then again, it would be one stop I wouldn’t have to make on the way back. “Sure, go ahead.”
Meanwhile, Milo had dialed 511 to see what all the fuss was about. “Well, shit.”
“Shit?!” my cousin and I exploded.
“Turns out Vail Pass isn’t open. Everything but Vail Pass is open.”
I swore. By now, I was in the clusterfuck of a traffic circle that constituted Vail’s main entrance and exit, and I got in the innermost lane to turn back around to our West Vail haven. Just as I passed the on-ramp, however, I spotted most of the cars that were in front of us getting on.
“If the pass is closed, why are they letting people on here?”
Shrugs all around. I cursed even more vigorously. I’d missed the boat on getting on here.
I drove the mile back to West Vail and went through that circle again. The on-ramp was still closed. Once again, I joined a creeping length of cars making for the Main Village. This time, I followed the rest of them onto the highway. At 6:00, one hour after we left the Holiday Inn and nine hours after we’d left Silverthorne that morning, we were finally on the road home.
Traffic moved slowly over Vail Pass, but that was okay. Even with the plow crews still working the road, the road was slick. Traffic moved slowly past Silverthorne and screeched to a near-halt in the Eisenhower Tunnel.
“Why the hell are we going three miles an hour? It’s dry in here!” After fifteen minutes of what should have been a two-minute drive, we had our answer. Some asshole had neglected to fill his tank before entering the tunnel. He was pushing his Jeep Grand Cherokee out of the tunnel solo, his shoulder to the passenger side door. At least he was almost out of the tunnel when we passed him.
The rest of the road was snow-free.
“Why’d they shut this down?” Milo queried as we shot past Georgetown, Idaho Springs, the US-6 junction, and Floyd Hill, able to go the full 65 miles an hour on desert-dry pavement.
“Who the hell knows why they do anything around here?”
At 8:30, I dropped off my cousin and Milo. At 9:00, I staggered up my own stairs. Ethan was waiting in the kitchen for me. He looked me up and down, walked across the room, and gave me a heartfelt hug and kiss.
* * *
Going over Vail Pass is always a risky proposition. Not because there are a particularly large number of fatalities, but because the favorite hobby of CDOT operations managers is closing down that stretch of road for hours at a time.
This doesn’t mean, however, that I will refrain from further pilgrimages to stick my face into the Beav. Far from it–this year, I’m getting an Epic Local Pass almost entirely for the promise of ten days at the Beav and her big sister, Vail.
Coloradans. You can either admire our tenacity or admit the truth: We are just about the dumbest people on earth.
Beaver Creek is a truly epic place to ski, and not just for the jokes. Hell, some of the local business owners must either have a raunchy sense of humor or, in the case of one liquor store, had knocked back too much of the retail. Even though the selection was merely adequate, I still highly recommend that visitors to the town of Avon do their shopping at Beaver Liquors.
The day my cousin, her boyfriend, and I decided to plunge into the Beav last season, we started our day with bagels and distinctly NSFW jokes with our other cousins.
“Hope the Beav isn’t too hairy,” came the first quip.
“Are you kidding? At least the hair keeps that nice, wet, white stuff in. Otherwise, she’s a frigid bitch.”
“If you’re lucky, they’ve groomed the Beav.”
“But hopefully not too well. I like a few bumps on her.”
Having scared off the other customers, my male cousins headed to Copper Mountain. Our car headed out to explore the Beav’s secrets made its way out of Silverthorne and on to Vail Pass, one of nastiest stretches of interstate a car can go over in the wintertime.
It was snowing and the road was slick on the ten-mile stretch of 6% grades and sneering curves, but that was to be expected. “It always snows over the nasty mountain pass,” states a subset of Murphy’s Law, or at least, it should. But I’d expected this.
“Goddamn cocksucking motherfucking son of a shitfucking bitch!” I growled once every thirty seconds or so, gingerly sliding the car around a truck that was more concerned about staying on the road than my eagerness to get to the slopes, goddammit.
“Wow, you’re in a chipper mood today,” my cousin said, perfectly earnest.
We slid into the shuttle lot without hitting anything or throwing anything at the trucks. We had a deceptively easy time gearing up and getting on the shuttle. At the ticket counter, I got my discounted ticket thanks to my cousin’s Epic pass–discounted from a Benjamin and change to $80, but a discount nonetheless.
The snowstorm had followed us over Vail Pass and merrily billowed about while we were on the chairlift, but this was also to be expected. In fact, this was excellent–new snow, especially if the storm stuck around all day, meant a constantly refreshed supply of fresh snow to carve new tracks into throughout the day. We were a little giddy with excitement when we got off the lift that led to the Talons, Beaver Creek’s most challenging set of runs.
At the top of the run that would take us there, two employees frowned nervously at the sky. One pointed at a lead-gray beast of a cloud that advanced at a rapid clip, and in the opposite direction from where the storm had been coming earlier. Our group frowned at it, too, but this was Colorado. Weird clouds and unpleasant conditions came with the territory.
While we could accept ugly weather, ugly snow conditions were another matter. The gentle snow this morning and a season of glorious powder days gave us hopes of soft, silky champagne powder for our first run. We expected–demanded, even–a vigorous warm-up run on a gentle intermediate slope. Instead, the projected swish of skis and boards through soft snow turned out to be a grating skkkkKKKskkkKKKKssskkkKKKK as we dashed our edges against frozen concrete.
Turning was impossible. Sideslipping was slightly better, but not by much. There was nothing to dig our equipment into, no way to keep from flailing across the run and hoping downhill skiers got out of the way. The few flakes that continued to settle on the ground merely added insult to the injury we were already inflicting on our precious skis and snowboard.
After ten agonizing minutes on a run that should have taken three, we reached the longest chairlift in the Talons section. We were out of breath and afraid to look at our waxed fiberglass boards of choice. My cousin’s boyfriend spoke up.
“Man, this sucks.”
My cousin and I agreed.
“Seems like a waste of a ticket,” he said to me.
“Yeah, but their liability notices are pretty clear. They don’t refund tickets for any reason.”
“This snow’s awful! We can’t do shit on this.”
“We could ski somewhere else,” my cousin suggested.
“Yeah, the stuff at the bottom looked like it was slush, at least. Still not great…” I shrugged.
“Shit’s all greens, though,” her boyfriend snorted.
By now, the light snow that had accompanied us got heavier. The wind kicked in, blowing it straight into our faces.
“Crap snow and bad weather? I think you could get a refund out of them,” the sole guy in our group persisted.
“Probably not a full refund, though.” I looked gloomily down at the run beneath us, one of the longest and steepest at the Beav. The moguls popped out of the run in stark, sharp-cornered relief. No indication of fresh snow, or any snow, on those puppies. “You lose a turn down there, and boom,” I added. The other two nodded glumly.
“Up to you,” he shrugged. He turned to my cousin. “What do you think?”
She shrugged. “Doesn’t matter to me. If there’s good snow somewhere else, I’ll ski it.” Doubt hung heavily on the if.
“I think the only good snow’s on the greens. Let’s go down. I’ll see if I can get a partial refund.”
The other two nodded enthusiastically, and not a moment too soon. A gust of wind kicked up, tilting our chair at a 45-degree angle. The lift stopped. The snow that had been smacking harmlessly in our faces before now acquired a bite. Small thwacks rang in our ears and on our cheeks.
“What the hell is this? Hail?” my cousin’s boyfriend shouted.
“Hail is frozen rain,” my cousin yelled back. “This is frozen snow.”
“Snow’s already frozen!” I bellowed.
The wind whipped at us anew, threatening, or so it seemed to me, to blow the cable our chair was on right off the lift towers. I peered at the run below us. We were about twenty feet up, and the pitch and snow offered no mercy.
I took a chunk of ice to the ear. “It’s snail!” I declared proudly, mostly as a distraction from thoughts of my imminent death.
The chair jerked forward a few feet. I started to cheer. Another gust of wind blew us precipitously over to the side, and I squelched the cheer as we ground to a stop.
A flash of light burst to our immediate right. Before we could articulate the first word in, “What the fuck?” however–
All three of us immediately looked down. If we jumped, we were guaranteed to break something at a minimum. The drop was too long and the snow was too hard for us to get away with our bodies and equipment unscathed, and the run below was too steep and bumped out for Ski Patrol to get up with a snowmobile. They’d have to come down bearing litters, which was probably the last thing they wanted to do at this particular time.
On the other hand, we were on a metal-frame chair, supported on a metal cable, right next to a metal lift tower that was about as high as the surrounding trees, and my cousin and I were wearing metal-coated skis. I thought I could smell ozone, and I could tell by the utter lack of downtime between the strike and the thunderclap that it had hit on this peak.
“Oh my God,” my cousin whispered. “Holy shit.”
“It’s gonna be okay. We’re gonna be just fine!” I forced out. It seemed like the appropriate thing to say. The wind continued gusting, but the chair lurched forward. It inched along, pausing occasionally but not for long, and sooner than I thought possible, the top of the chair appeared through the raging whiteness.
We hurtled off the chair as soon as our skis met ground. Though the conditions on this run were the same as our first, we still made good time, urged along by a few more helpful flashes of lightning nearby.
We shook as we pulled into the base area and removed our skis. I marched downstairs to the ticket office. There were quite a few people in line before me, and I was confident that I would get a full refund, no questions asked. Still, when I arrived at the counter, I had my convincing argument fully prepared:
“Hi there was lightning on the chairlift and I thought I was gonna have a heart attack and die can I have a refund?”
The sweet old lady behind the counter pulled her face into a genuine expression of horror. “Oh, no! Well, first I have to ask if you want to ski tomorrow. We’ll give you a new ticket for free.”
I gave it serious consideration, but ultimately I had to sigh. “Stupid job,” I said.
“I understand,” she murmured. She set to work on the refund, and thirty seconds later, the $80 was back in my bank account, ready to be squandered on some new piece of frivolity.
I rejoined my cousin and her boyfriend. “I just got two runs on the house!” I crowed.
The shuttle nudged downhill cautiously through the ten feet of visibility. I remarked, “I hope Vail Pass is still open.”
My cousin’s boyfriend dialed CDOT’s hotline. “Still open as of now,” he said.
“We’re gonna have to make serious time if we wanna get on it before they shut it down.”
Back in the car, I made as much haste as I could with the crappy visibility and the thickening layer of ice on the road. Just another day in Colorado, I tried to remind myself.
My cousin called the Copper Mountain group and got voice mail. “Hey,” she began, giving a wicked grin. “Turns out the Beav was hairier than expected.”
The hoots and hollers that erupted in the car were quickly silenced within a mile of Vail. VAIL PASS CLOSED, a sign read. ALL TRAFFIC MUST EXIT.
I sighed and got in the exit lane. Just another day in Colorado, indeed.
TO BE CONTINUED…