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Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Late to the Snow

Thursday, February 4th, 2016: Outdoor Life, Stories.

At Park City in 1995, fresh from his first ski lessons and devoid of any fashionable ski wear, Max sets out with veteran skier Ken

I started life surrounded by hills that were covered with snow in the winter, in the western Appalachians. I’m 5 years old when I first show up sledding down the hill behind our house in a photograph. A few years later, we moved to the flatlands of central Indiana, where our folks had to drive us out to the golf course to find even a tiny hill. There, the local river had eroded some modest slopes we could sled down and trudge back up again. We’d heard about this exotic sport called skiing, far away in Colorado, but that was strictly for jet setting celebrities and a few local hoi polloi, doctors and lawyers and their families. And anyway, I was small and frail, perennially shut out of athletics by bullying.

In grad school in the Bay Area, after losing a long-term girlfriend, I became a temporary jock to rebuild my self esteem, and spent a couple of winters learning Nordic skiing and ski touring with friends and family. That gave me a small taste of the magic and majesty of immersion in the alpine landscape, but it all ended when I sampled art school and transformed myself into an urban bohemian. For the next 15 years, I rejected all things athletic and viewed skiing as an abhorred symbol of yuppie decadence.

Women, never underestimate your power to change men’s lives! In my early 40s, I was dumped by my latest sweetheart, a former high school athlete and skier, in favor of a younger guy who was a jock. My self-esteem was again in eclipse, and I accepted a friend’s invitation to take ski lessons. I figured it was time to throw out my old prejudices and hope that an adventurous attitude would eventually land me another fit young babe. In a way, this was the beginning of my years-long experiment with the yuppie lifestyle as I developed a new career in the tech industry, started hanging out with other overpaid professionals, and was able to take more expensive vacations.

And now, two decades later and recovering from hip surgery, with my last ski trip 6 years behind me, I’m looking back nostalgically at a magical period in my life when I had the opportunity to experience spectacular beauty, life-changing thrills, and a new feeling that my body, which I had always considered weak, had unlimited athletic potential, even this late in life.

For my first lesson, in 1995, I joined a friend from art school, at the tiny Mountain High resort in the San Gabriel mountains outside Los Angeles, on thin snow broken by rocks and clumps of grass. There, I mastered the snowplow and not much else, but I got a feel for the common resort layout of a lift to the head of a gentle valley between forested slopes, with the valley floor providing the easy way down, and the ridgetops leading to slopes clear-cut into steeper “runs” for more experienced skiers and snowboarders.

Snowboarding was the commonest topic of conversation for skiers at that point. My friend and I had unquestioningly decided to learn to ski because we assumed snowboarding was for kids. And other skiers spoke contemptuously of snowboarders as rude, inconsiderate, or overly aggressive obstacles on the slopes.

It was kind of like getting a dog or having a kid – my friendships began realigning with other skiers. A friend of a friend gave me her old late-80s PRE 1200s, very hot skis for their day. I bought a cheap pair of beginner boots, and was invited to a week in Park City, one of the most prestigious resorts in the U.S., with the family of an ex-girlfriend. From rags to riches in a couple months’ time.

That trip was an amazing opportunity to immerse myself in both the sport and the lifestyle. The four siblings and their spouses/partners were expert skiers from childhood. We rented two massive adjoining condos in town. In the daytime, the good skiers went off to bomb powder bowls, while my beginner friend and I took lessons and explored the blue runs, long bare ridges with infinite Great Basin vistas and broad deep side runs slashing down to the high-speed lifts. It was an unexpected and unfamiliar turn-on to be playing in the midst of a vast landscape populated only by people who were healthy, fit, athletic and full of energy, moving gracefully on the beautiful snow.

With a solid week of some of the best skiing in the world, I acquired the sense of controlled speed, but I also got a taste of the edge of risk and danger that would motivate me to advance to greater skill. At the end of the day, the good skiers would excitedly relate their exploits, many of which sounded near-suicidal. One of the group spoke of learning to ski on ice in Scotland; he showed off for me, barreling down a steep in a straight line then shooting past me off a snowbank to sail out of sight through the air. My beginner friend took a fall on one of those big ridgeside slopes and cracked a rib on the camera he was wearing inside his parka. And one day, later in the week, we joined a couple other guys on a side trip to Alta, a legendary skiers-only resort for hard-core experts. That turned out to be the day of the big blizzard.

We took two lifts in a row to get up high, and at the top, it was blowing horizontally with total white-out conditions. We literally couldn’t see where the runs were or began, let alone whether they were blue or black. We immediately got separated. I started down, found myself flying blind off an invisible cornice, tumbled into deep power, dug myself out, and spent the next half hour plowing between trees that materialized out of the storm, falling dozens of times but miraculously never getting hurt.

Eventually I made it down to the lodge, where the others were waiting. They’d all had the same experience, skiing blind, tumbling into deep powder, slowly feeling their way down through a world of grey. We rested, then doggedly gave it another try. Before long, the storm got so bad the lifts were shut down, and we drove back with our war stories for the rest of the group, slackers who’d taken the day off.

Nights in the condo were epic, everyone shoveling down masses of food, sharing music on the powerful stereo, the athletes in the group getting raging drunk, people wandering out to the jacuzzi through a haze of pot smoke. That was where I acquired my addiction to the “cold plunge” – rolling from the hot jacuzzi into a snow drift, and back again, opening my pores and then slamming them closed, shocking my capillaries, creating a natural rush that amplified the thrill of being high in the mountains in the winter at night.

On the last day we prepared a picnic lunch for the entire group and arranged to meet at a remote glade below the top of one of the farthest lifts. It was an idyllic finish for a trip that had almost no downsides, and had given me the confidence to pursue the life on my own.

My next trip was a day at Mt. Baldy outside Los Angeles, where you can literally go from the beach to the mountain in the same day. A very strange mountain it is, at the end of a long, steep canyon of ominous boulder-debris slopes, with a long rickety dual chair lift taking you from the often snowless parking area up to the ski lodge in a high saddle. From there, you take fairly short lifts to the peaks. There was fresh powder, 6-8 inches, which was barely doable for my level of skill, but I gamely followed my more experienced friend and did okay. The views, mostly over the smoggy suburban sprawl of the Inland Empire, were hazy but vast and golden. Almost a post-apocalyptic ski experience.

There followed a couple of seasons when I tried to advance but was frustrated. I don’t know if this is true for others, but my main goal, every time I hit the slopes, was to be able to do harder stuff. I couldn’t just relax and enjoy where I was at. I ventured alone over to Mammoth, the giant ski area in the Eastern Sierra, and stupidly took the highest lift to the top of the mountain during an icy snowstorm. There was an older woman with us in the chair, and when another person complained about the weather, she said sternly in a Germanic accent, “Good skiers never complain about the weather!”

Off the lift, I found myself at the top of a thousand-foot-tall wall, with overhanging cornices as far as the eye could see. I had absolutely no idea what to do, trying to stave off panic. I skiied along the gently sloping ridgeline looking for a safe way over into the bowl. There was none, but I found a point where the drop-off was only a dozen feet or so, and pushed over. I fell headfirst into powder, dug myself out, was wet and miserable, with 900 plus feet of steep wall to go down before I got to a manageable slope. And that was the way I got down, by falling and digging out, falling and digging out, over and over again.

My next girlfriend raved about Kirkwood, an “insiders” resort south of Lake Tahoe, so I ventured over there next. Another storm was just finishing, having dumped 14 inches of powder, so I enrolled in a half-day, one-on-one powder lesson on gentle slopes. It didn’t seem to help much; I spent the afternoon wearing myself out, struggling in the deep snow. I couldn’t find anything to like about Kirkwood and never went back.

Finally, flush with money during the dotcom boom, I bought a pair of high-performance boots with custom orthotics, and joined a group of younger colleagues who were avid snowboarders, and that turned out to be my ticket to the next level. We swept across the north shore of Lake Tahoe, from Sugar Bowl to Squaw to Northstar and Alpine Meadows. One guy took me under his wing and introduced me to terrain parks, where I ended one day with 60 feet of air and was hooked on jumping. My god, I can fly!

My last trip with the snowboarders was to Mt. Rose on the Nevada side, and that became one of my favorite ski areas of all, partly because of the view over my beloved Great Basin desert. Victor had a sexy long carving board with a photo of Mrs. Peel of the Avengers on its underside. Riding with boarders, I began to notice how incredibly graceful and cute the female riders tend to be. I sort of wished I’d learned snowboarding instead of skiing, and wondered if I’d switch at some point. I’d learned that the most obnoxious and dangerous people on the slopes were not snowboarders, but older expert skiers who tended to be arrogant and cut other people off going way too fast in tight spots.

As Mt. Rose became my “home” resort, I began focusing on steep black runs, even the scary mogul runs that the older skiers always bombed in their serious knee-pounding way. My style, with my knees and ankles hip-width apart instead of locked together like the old school, felt both natural and fast, and I developed a routine of both opening and closing the lifts – being first in the morning and last in the afternoon – warming up from blues to the hardest blacks by noon, grabbing a quick lunch and a beer, smoking a couple of hits from a joint on the first lift of the afternoon, then exploring the whole mountain for the best scenery and the most delirious rush, taking side trips through the trees, grabbing air off the upswept sides of runs, wearing my quads out with speed until sunset and the last long glide home.

Hoping to rope my less athletic artist friends into these newfound adventures, I organized a trip to South Tahoe and Heavenly, another legendary resort. The skiing was okay, but I didn’t like the mandatory tourist-dominated gondola ride, and the resort felt more like a plateau than a mountain. And my drummer friend took a bad fall and got whiplash. Was I jinxing my friends?

Even Mt. Rose turned sour over the next two seasons as I invited other colleagues to join me and they both ruptured discs there, at separate times. But before her injury, Sydney and I stayed at a shoreline motel and I had the amazing experience of diving from the jacuzzi into the freezing cold lake at night and swimming a long distance under the frigid black water, one of the greatest sensations of my life.

Back in the city, I landed a design contract involving a zillionaire who owned half of Vail, Colorado. Two colleagues and I attended a meeting there and spent a day skiing at the giant, plush resort. The day was brilliantly sunny but there was 6 inches of fresh dry powder, ideal for me at that point, and I had a total speed day of bombing back-side runs, impressing even my more experienced companions who joked about me disappearing in a blur in front of them.

As the dotcom boom began to crash, I discovered Dodge Ridge, a nearer and cheaper family-oriented ski area on a back road between Tahoe and Yosemite. It had a good steep rolling run under the main lift, a challenging terrain park, and a small back bowl that tended to catch deep powder. I stayed with a friend at a motel farther down the mountain, and we found the outdoor jacuzzi mysteriously filled with thick white suds one night; clearing them away, we took turns soaking then diving straight into the cold pool.

Cheap lift tickets at Dodge Ridge sustained me during the lean years after the dotcom crash; I was barely able to afford one brief trip to Mammoth with a friend’s family, where I discovered the joy of swinging tight turns through a steep chute between rock walls. Since the late 90s, skiers had overwhelmingly switched from the old long, straight skis to the new, shorter, parabolic skis. Everywhere I went, I was the last holdout with my antiques from the 80s, and on the lifts, people often gave me an ironic thumbs up for using old school skis. Then as I started getting work again, a client called me north to Seattle, and on the way back I stopped at Mt. Bachelor, a legendary volcano which unfortunately turned out to be under whiteout conditions. I skied as long as I could, but it wasn’t fun.


After moving to New Mexico and commuting to California for work, I was able to save up a nest egg, and by winter of 2007, I decided to treat myself to a luxury vacation: solstice at Ojo Caliente hot springs outside Taos, skiing at Taos Ski Valley for Christmas, and lodging at La Fonda in the heart of town, with a final night at the ultra-luxe El Monte Sagrado resort.

Unfortunately, on my first morning hike at Ojo Caliente, I developed a sudden excruciating pain in my thigh. I soaked in the hot springs for a couple of days, stretched, had a massage, and my leg got a little better by the time I reached the ski area a few days later. But by mid-morning it was spasming again, so I gave up, returned to my hotel to change, and located an urgent care clinic on the edge of town. The medic briefly examined me, scratched his head, advised getting an x-ray back home, and prescribed painkillers for the duration.

The next morning, I suited up to head out, but was barely able to shuffle stiff-legged across the hotel parking lot to my truck, with spasms locking up my thigh. Fighting it, I drove up to the resort, parked all the way at the back of the lot, stepped into my boots, shouldered my skis, and waited for the shuttle to the lodge. The bumpy shuttle ride left me in tears. I rested at the lodge for a half hour, then returned to my hotel.

I spent Christmas Eve lying in bed, drugged, but felt better the next day, so I actually spent Christmas skiing at Taos. I ultimately decided I didn’t like the world famous resort, for the same reason most expert skiers seem to love it: it faces north, and most of the slopes are in shade most of the day, which keeps the snow good, but to me it just felt dark and depressing, and way too steep, considering my newfound vulnerability.

That trip was the onset of my hip condition, which I was eventually able to treat successfully with physical therapy, exercise, stretching, and various other tricks for another 8 years before finally having surgery.

On camping trips to California and Utah, I found myself regularly driving past the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, where the Apache Tribe maintains a family ski area called Sunrise Park, at 3 hours the nearest ski resort to my new home. After getting my hip condition under control, I tried Sunrise and fell in love with the views across the high volcanic plateau, over vast white meadows and low forested ridges to symmetrical cinder cones on the horizon. The resort is never crowded and the slopes are reasonably varied, and when there I stayed in nearby Greer, a tiny, rustic year-round resort community.

On my last trip, in 2010, I stayed at Greer Lodge, a reproduction of a 19th century mountain lodge, with in-room jacuzzi. It was wonderful, but it was destroyed by arson a couple years later. At this point I was skiing in constant internal conflict between pushing myself to take risks and protecting myself from injury; the result was that I wore myself out at the end of the day and started crashing. The last day, I wrenched my knee and didn’t fully recover for months.

In the past few years, my ancient skis had started to trigger chuckles and snide comments from both skiers and boarders, and I didn’t feel like shopping for an expensive new pair. But closer to my heart, I was increasingly aware of the gulf between my values and my addiction, between my dream of living a simpler, more responsible life and the resort lifestyle with its large-scale destruction of alpine habitat and unsustainable ecological cost. I admired friends who did low-impact backcountry skiing, but I had no desire to follow them. It seemed that I had taken this particular addiction as far as I was going to, and it was a bittersweet realization. Those exposed mountaintops with their endless views across the alpine West; the storms and that beautiful fresh powder; the tall, straight Ponderosa pines and the deep blue shadows; the speed, the slash of ski edge across a groomed slope, the flights through the air, the adrenaline rush, the satisfaction of a hard stop; the cute chicks and board betties with their rosy cheeks and tight asses; the communal energy on the lifts, on the slopeside decks and in the chalets and lodges, the beer, the music, the nighttime soaks and dips and plunges, and especially that swim under ice-cold Lake Tahoe. Unforgettable, all of it.

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