Colorado humbles. The first time I did a double black diamond was last December. I had been out here for about a month, and skiing for the same tenure. I faired pretty well really, though I can’t say it was pretty. In fact, it involved a lot of sweating and a lot of cursing. But I survived the ride and it undoubtedly gave me some perspective - the type that comes from tough mountain experiences. Now a year later, much more confident on my skis, I had a hilariously similar experience, which, once again, reminded me of how powerful these mountains truly are, and how much we can learn from them.
December 22, 2015:
I spent the morning skiing at Snowmass with my friend Nick, a coworker at Sharpshooter who I had met a few weeks earlier. Nick’s friend, Teddy, was in town and was skiing over at Aspen Highlands, so at lunch we drove over there to meet up with him and try out a new mountain. Highlands immediately showed itself as a more intense mountain than Snowmass - steep and narrow and full of bumps and rollers. My legs were already shaky from skiing all day the day before, and all morning at Snowmass, but I was pumped for new challenges. It would be a fun afternoon.
So we met up with Teddy, said our hellos, and hopped on the lift. Teddy went to Middlebury College, Nick’s alma mater; Teddy’s parents, Mike and Allison, worked with Nick at Nick’s other job - at Big Stone Publishing, the company that publishes Rock & Ice and Trail Runner magazines. As we ascended, once introductions were complete, Ted asked what we were feeling – “Tree run? Steep? Moguls?”. Nick was from Vermont and Ted from Colorado and they were both expert skiers so I knew I should probably announce my semi-novice status. “So yeah, I’ve essentially only been skiing for a few weeks, and I’ve progressed quite a bit in that time and I’m comfortable in most terrain, but I’m definitely no expert”, I told Teddy. Teddy nodded and said we could catch something easy to warm up with.
As we exited the lift [I still secretly celebrated every flawless dismount], Teddy skied over to his brother Roy, a strapping lad from UVA, and asked for the gameplan. After a few words and nods, Teddy skied back over to us and asked how we felt about Kessler’s. It was just a name to me, so I nodded in agreement as we skied over to a unprecedentedly steep run, littered with bumps. Nick peered at me, wondering if he, skier of 15 years, was capable of handling this ferocious double black; I looked at him, wondering the same. “There’s only one way to find out”, I shrugged, edging my tips over the crest and vaulting into new terrain.
“There’s only one way to find out”, I shrugged, edging my tips over the crest and vaulting into new terrain.
It wasn’t pretty. But I did pretty decent, actually, given that this was my first double. I chopped my way down the hillside, trying to emulate the turns of Teddy and Nick. They crushed down the slope, stopping intermittently for everyone to catch up. Halfway down, Ted stopped and said I could take the easier route and head straight down to the lift instead of following them through the Aspen glade. “Where’s the fun in that?”, I laughed, not knowing exactly what type of "fun" I was about to endure.
I smiled wildly as I glided between the Aspens – that is, until I lost balance on my fiery legs, one ski ducking out to the right, catching, ejecting, and sending me tumbling head first down the steep hillside. I popped up and peered up the embankment, a shearwall of snow in front of my eyes, my ski hiding somewhere inside.
But I made it down, proud, covered in snow, gasping for air, dripping in sweat, fully alive.
I spent a solid 10 minutes crawling up the slope, gasping in the thin mountain air (still vastly unacclimated), clawing, kicking, grasping for anything to pull myself up, poking my ski poles into the ground wearily in hopes of contacting the missing ski. I eventually made contact and was able to pull the ski out, grabbing it and rolling down the hill to my other. It took a solid five or ten to get my ski back on in the waist deep pow, and I think it involved rolling down until I got to a tamer pitch. But I made it down, proud, covered in snow, gasping for air, dripping in sweat, fully alive.
Fast forward a year or so. I’m now working with Nick at Big Stone, living with him and another coworker and good friend, Ben. It was a cold Saturday in December and I knew it would be a magical one as soon as I walked out the door - four solid inches in Carbondale overnight. I was gleeful like a child seeing what Santa left under the tree. I knew the mountains must have been dumped on, thousands of feet higher upvalley. Sure enough, reports were saying a fresh 17 inches.
December 17, 2016:
“Powder Day!” I heard Ben cry at 6:30 a.m., earlier than I wake up for work. Rolling over, I pulled on my long johns and pants and jackets, already laid out in eagerness the night before. I thumped downstairs, hooting and yeah-buddying with Ben, stepping outside and crunch crunching my boots into 4” of fresh snow. Bitter coffee bit our lips as the nip of cold stung on leather seats. We drove through the winter wonderland that Carbondale had been transformed into, marveling and hooting in anticipation for what would be the first powder day of the season.
“Powder Days”, for my southern friends, are these magical times when the skies have blessed the mountain with thick piles of fluff which make the act of skiing seem akin to surfing upon heavenly clouds. It’s days like these that all Coloradans look forward to, each one possessing that Christmas morning mystique which sends hundreds of wide-eyed kids of all ages crawling out of their beds long before a normal alarm. Days when greetings aren’t exchanged with “hellos” or “good mornings”, but with jubilant shouts of “POWDER DAY!” Days that require the commitment of getting to the mountain before the chairs even start to run, cinching your gear up and standing in brisk 15 degree weather, in line with a hundred or so other wildlings, all out to capture and revel in the bliss that is a fresh line through waist-deep snow.
We had a few great days of powder last year, but the best ones came only a couple weeks after I separated my shoulder, leaving me sidelined and jealous. Probably the best powder day I had last season was that day with Nick and Teddy; and that day probably only had 6-8” of fresh snow - trivial in comparison to the mammoth 17” layer that had just fallen on the mountain. This day would be something different; there was magic in today.
My first powder day of 2017 – almost exactly one year after that fateful day at Aspen Highlands with Nick and Teddy. And here I was, headed back to Highlands, loaded in a truck with Ben, Ted’s dad, Mike, and Mike’s friend Lee. Ben is a proficient snowboarder and amazing athlete overall, growing up and skiing in the mountains of Vermont; notorious for pushing himself to limits to the extent that his organs can’t even keep up - he experienced some minor kidney failure earlier this year after an intense run. Casual, right? Mike is the editor of Trail Runner magazine, and is in his early sixties with the energy of a buck my age; he can out-climb, out-run, or out-ski most guys I know. Lee is in his early 70’s and his stories of climbing, skiing, and high-speed mountain car chases led me to the acceptance that this man can still out-adventure me. I quickly realized I would likely be playing catch-up on the mountain all day.
We were in line at Highlands 30 minutes before the chairlifts started running, and we chatted lightly as chants of “Powderday” were sung to the tune of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (for Fighting)”. We loaded up on the tenth chair and hunched over to brave the biting breeze, admiring the astonishing amount of snow that had fallen, grinning at the hoots and hollers of the first joyous souls down the run.
“So, when we get up, we need to keep an eye out for ski patrol,” Lee said, “they’ll probably be dropping some lines [taking down the rope which marks off-limits terrain].” Most of the mountain was open, but due to the heavy snowfall, the steepest areas had to be tested and monitored for avalanche safety. As we crested the top of the second lift, we saw a group of 15 or so people studying the actions of a couple ski patrollers who were fiddling with the line atop one of the steepest runs. “Oh no way, are they about to open this?!”, Lee said, referring to Kessler’s – that same double black I ran with Nick and Teddy. We glided off the lift, quickly snapped our buckles and skied over to the edge of the pitch, where, in perfect serendipity, the ski patrol dropped the line.
A powder-fueled prayer, as they all tipped their skis and boards over the edge, and, like a human avalanche, began floating and flying, hooting and crying, through waist-deep piles of pure joy.
It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. In perfect unison a chorus of cries rang out, voices of children aged 10-80 shouting to the skies, thanking them for the day - a powder-fueled prayer, as they all tipped their skis and boards over the edge, and, like a human avalanche, began floating and flying, hooting and crying, through waist-deep piles of pure joy. I shouted my obligatory war cry and began my own descent into bliss, this time much more confident than a year ago. Powder day, baby.
What pure magic it was - drifts of snow higher than I’d ever seen, floating around me, through me. One can’t help but grin gratefully at the childish wonderment that comes with such sensory bliss - when all that matters is where and how you make your next turn. Oh, how your mind gets lost in the ecstasy of it all. It was a perfect moment, until it wasn’t. A bump tossed me in the backseat of my skis, sending one ducking out to the right, catching in a drift of snow, sending me tumbling blissfully down the pillowy hillside, stopping in a nip-deep pile, one ski on my left boot, the other hidden somewhere 10 or 15 feet up the shearwall of snow.
With the same helplessness as a year ago, I tried pulling myself up the hill, stepping and sinking, crawling and sliding, immediately pouring out sweat in 10 degree weather, gasping for the thin mountain air, lungs fiery. I inched my way up the Everest-esque slope, hopelessly stabbing my poles into the icy piles, praying for contact with a ski. As I continued to claw my way up, a girl, seeing my flailing efforts, skied down and helped in the pole-stabbing, until I finally managed a hit. She helped dig my ski out and I promised that if I ran into her at the bar later, I owed her a beer.
One can’t help but grin gratefully at the childish wonderment that comes with such sensory bliss - when all that matters is where and how you make your next turn. Oh, how your mind gets lost in the ecstasy of it all. It was a perfect moment, until it wasn’t.
I was now covered in sweat and shaking like I just completed a high intensity workout. After some finagling, I managed to pop my skis back on, then chopped down the hill in hopes of catching up with Ben, Mike, and Lee, knowing realistically that they were probably on their way up for a second lap. Skiing powder is a very different game; it requires a different stance and approach, one that I had scant experience in, which was most definitely illustrated in the events of the day.
A hundred or so yards after my first spill, it happened again. Same thing – lost my balance on the steep hillside, one ski tailing and popping off, sending me rolling down the hill, only to desperately crawl and poke my way back up, panting and cursing and stabbing in frustration until the lost ski was found. I grunted as I popped my skis back on, now feeling the exhaustion of a day-full of skiing, after but one run. I blew snot out of my nostrils, wiped off my mustache, cursed my goggles – now fully fogged with the condensation of my efforts - and I slowly continued down the hillside, grateful when I finally hit flatter terrain, where the outcome of losing a ski wasn’t as punishing.
I skied back down to the lift, not surprised to not see Ben and the boys - honestly slightly relieved, as I did not want to immediately go down another double black, still panting and dizzy from the first. I got a few solo runs in, tackled a couple singles and blues, and started reacclimating to powder skiing. I tried in desperation to clean my goggles, to no aviail, tipping them up and skiing squint-eyed, only to immediately take a face-full of snow when I again lost my balance. I resolved to take a break inside to dry out my goggs and charge up my phone so I could text Ben and let him know I was OK and was just going to rock some cruisers to get my bearings. After housing a Clifbar and drying out, I got some great runs in, some of the best I’d ever had. I continued to get tossed around and had a few great wipe-outs. I got my ass kicked all day, but never has an ass-kicking felt so good. I was humbled by the powder.
The mountains teach me something each time I go out, as if the trees whisper wisdom into my subconscious with the waving of their branches. But in Colorado, the lessons seem to not be whispered, but shouted - the grand Rocky Mountains reminding you that you’re not invincible. These mountains challenge you to push beyond what you ever thought of your limits. They present challenges which can, at times, shake your very being and make you question your sanity. Is it healthy to push yourself over a steep snowy hillside with two planks attached to your feet, shouting a loud “yeah buddy” as you plunge into the intimidating? I don’t really know, but I know that each time I’ve edged my skis over the crest, I’ve learned something profound – not necessarily about skiing, but about myself.
I may still not be an expert skier and I may never be one. And I’m OK with that. But I’ll continue to push my limits and see what I’m capable of. Not because I enjoy these falls and struggles. But because of what I learn from them. Because, at the edge of an ominous cliffside, when we shrug off those uncertainties, shout at the top of our lungs, and push off, we get to see what the mountain has to teach us.
- Calvin Bond