10 Inches? Maybe I Should Stick My Tongue to a Pole (Not That Kind, You Perv)

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.

Tony Montana would be so jealous.

Tony Montana would be so jealous.

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.


From “Not exactly roughing it” to getting roughed up by it

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.

This photo was taken rather easily from the lift. The giant smear mark in the snow represents my literal fall from grace.

The giant smear mark in the snow represents my literal fall from grace. It was visible for enough of the lift ride that I was able to take photos from several angles and focus settings, even tinkering with the f-stop. I didn’t know you could do that on an iPhone.

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.

Second verse, same as the first.

Spoiler alert: Second verse, same as the first.

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.

If I ever start dating again, this is totally going to be my OKCupid profile picture.

“Wait, aren’t ski instructors supposed to set an example and wear a helmet at all times, especially in situations where they might get their heads stuck in a snowbank?” “Uh, yeah, the snow was so hard that it, uh, really compacted my helmet.”


Real Skiin’ at Dizzying Heights

The snow’s kinda sucked this year. After so much promise dangled in front of our collective, fleece-encased faces when Loveland and A-Basin revved up their first chairs in mid-October, the Frost Giants looked at all our eager faces, pointed, and shrieked with laughter.

That finally changed two weeks ago when the Rockies started getting some love from the storms boiling in from the Pacific. 24-hour snow totals topped eight inches at my beloved Loveland several times, and Vail Resorts even put out a Tweet boasting that it was “puking snow” at Breckenridge. The image brought back more Sunday-morning college hangovers than joyful memories of cutting first tracks in champagne pow, which might’ve helped push me to bypass the Vail Conglomerate for Loveland. I’m just saying that if there are any Vail Resorts employees who agree that one of the world’s most successful ski resort management companies could use a new social media coordinator, I humbly submit my resume. Like most skiers, I will work for a ski pass and a chili stipend.

At any rate, the snow finally inspired Loveland to open up some real terrain, and on Saturday, Ethan and I went up Chair 8 to check out the ski area cut off from the ski area. Seriously, I’ve heard this chair and its terrain described as being like having your own private ski area, and it’s so remote, the analogy works. One of the methods of returning to the main ski area involves walking through a tunnel under the interstate.

The main advantage to coming back here, however, was that once the initial fuss died down and people trickled back to the main base for lunch, it was like having a mountain all to ourselves. And this was a real boon, because there was powder in them thar hills! A bit of traversing across the main black runs and into some widely spaced trees, and we were able to make fresh tracks, our skis swishing softly through feet of velvety snow. For runs on end, the snow gleamed pristinely in our field of vision, yielding smoothly as we cut turns into it and stopped to admire our footwork as well as how clearly we could view that work.

Of course, as the Grateful Dead cheerily point out, every silver lining has a touch of grey, and on this day, that came in the form of Chair 8 itself. It’s never reassuring when the chair lurches to a dead stop feet short of the top and you hear the liftie shouting into his radio, “I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but I’m just gonna run it anyway!” This is the sort of thing that makes one liable to burn rubber (or whatever they’re using to wax skis these days) as soon as your feet touch snow again.

The frequent stops and starts get even more interesting when at least one member of your group gets vertigo and starts breathing audibly through his facemask. It’s even worse when you’ve ridden up so many chairlifts with your vertiginous father prior to this that your own learned reaction to a stopped chair at least twenty feet above the ground is to hyperventilate and feel a bit queasy yourself. This is further not helped when you look up at one point to discover an electrician sitting atop a tower, fiddling with wires, and then hearing him say on his radio, “Hmm, I just put the blue wire back in place here. I’m not sure if it’s connected to the main power source, though.”

But if you ask me, the snow back there is totally worth being a human guinea pig while the staff figures out what’s wrong with a chairlift that’s racked up a few years. I’ve heard that putting lavender oil in your garments helps push down symptoms of vertigo. I plan to soak Ethan’s facemask in it. Even if he does sneeze himself off the chair, the snow beneath it should be soft enough.