Hey folks - first post here and it's a long one. Maybe too long.
A little background - I'm an intermediate, at best, skier from the Southeast. I've probably skied less in my entire life than many of you ski each year. Until last weekend, I hadn't skied at all in five years. Career, marriage, kids, then more kids. Time passes and proximity is a problem.
This isn't a story about great skiers heading out into objectively challenging conditions. I'd venture to say that virtually all of you are much better skiers that me and my buddies. We're just desk-bound guys in our mid-thirties to early-forties with questionable physical and cardiovascular health who, for reasons that seemed unclear at the time, decided to break the chains and head west for a few days.
Like I said, I'm just some gaper from the south who doesn't see much snow. But as my trip approached and progressed, I began to realize the things I felt about skiing must cut across skill levels, geographic locations, and general backgrounds. There must be some common emotional responses to the experience of skiing that bind skiers together. I tried to capture some of that in this report, perhaps unsuccessfully, but it was important for me to try for reasons I can't really explain.
I'm posting as a kind of thank you to Epicski. You see, in the weeks leading up to this trip, I was lurking around this site reading everything I could find about the places we were going, technical instruction and advice, and plenty of gear reviews. I read everything I could find and you all helped me immeasurably whether you knew it or not. I thus felt it appropriate to post my thoughts here.
If some of you like the report, that's great. If not, that's ok too. I enjoyed writing it and using it as a reminder of what the trip did for me. And maybe there's some other gaper out there lurking and getting excited about a rare trip to the mountains who perhaps will stumble on this missive and enjoy it.
The report is written in kind of a letter format. It actually began as an email to an old ski bum friend of mine who couldn't join us, and then took on a life of it's own, for me anyway. It begins immediately below.
Helm – I wanted to give you a report of the trip that sadly came to an end last night. I am still on such a high from the experience and needed to communicate everything to someone. Not rubbing it in, I promise, I just had to tell all to someone who would get it, and I knew you would get it.
I could not stop thinking about this trip in the weeks leading up to it. Some would say, with justification, that I was obsessing. I checked the weather twice a day. I studied trail maps and wasted hours looking at live lift cams. I read ski blogs and watched all the Youtube videos I could find of the places we were going. Then I found the all the gear reviews and buyers guides.
Now, you might recall that I am a bit of a gear junkie. And one piece of gear I've never had is skis that I bought and paid for with my own money. Sure, I had my own skis years ago and used them on annual family or, later, college trips west. But every pair I've owned was a long, straight, hand-me-down GS ski from my dad, the last pair of which was manufactured in the early 1990s. That would not do.
Obviously there are a number of businesses in ski towns that rent skis. And there are great demo packages available for quality, current model year skis that allow a person to get pretty much whatever he wants for 40-60 bucks per day, if not a little less. And there was no reason why that would not have worked for me. I just didn't want it to work for me, and didn't like the idea of spending a quarter to one third of the cost of my very own skis to demo something for four days and have nothing to show for it at the end except a receipt. Economically defensible decision? Of course not. But that was the self-serving justification that lodged in my head and, like everything else, I was completely immersed in what I should get.
Again, the internet became my guide. I read everything I could find about skis. All the technical stuff, design trends, construction materials and the characteristics of each, what rocker means, side cuts, even the marketing materials full of hyperbole. I couldn't stop thinking about it. And through my efforts, I slowly came to the conclusion that ski magazine gear guides and blog reviews tend to favor skis designed for the expert skier and knock some models that aren't truly expert skis. I also determined that many people, especially infrequent recreational skiers, tend to overestimate their skill level. They will say they are all mountain experts who like steeps and rip up double black terrain when, in reality, they are just a solid level 2 or 6-7 skiers, depending on the scale being used. I thus tried my best to honestly appraise my own ability because the last thing I needed was to spend a bunch of money on some expert level ski for which I had neither the technical skills nor experience to use.
In any event, I decided that what I needed was an all mountain ski designed for a upper intermediate skier who has the potential to improve with practice. I also wanted to try something a little wider and with more shape that I had been on before, and the only modern ski I had sampled was a modest rental at Jackson Hole five years ago when I last went skiing. I looked at several offerings from Nordica and K2, thought seriously about some Sultan 85s or Volkl AC30s, and then came across Rossignol. I've always had a soft spot for Rossi since it was the first ski I ever had. It was a late 1970s hand-me-down and had bindings with leg straps because brakes hadn't been invented yet, but I still thought they were beautiful and I kept them in my room even during the summer months so I could gaze at them from time-to-time.
After much deliberation and plenty of internet time wasting, I settled on the Avenger 82 in Carbon instead of Ti. I believed the carbon version would be a little bit softer and more geared toward an advanced intermediate than the Ti model, which is what I am in the best of circumstances, but certainly something I aspire to be. And I found a fairly good deal on a pair of 2009-2010 model year skis in 162cm. The length decision was a hard one. It was either 162 or 170. The former would be right at the tip of my nose, and the later would be about mid-forehead. I’m not tall by any measure and weigh-in around the low 160s so long as I haven’t been engaging in extended periods of couch potato sloth. It is inconceivable that any prior time in the history of man more deliberation has been brought to bear over eight measly centimeters. Ultimately, I opted for the shorter ones and I'm happy with that call. Decision made, I waited impatiently for the brown truck and checked UPS package tracking at least ten times per day.
The skis finally came and I was smitten at once. I literally just stared at them for hours on end thinking about the trip. I thought, and still do, that they were the most beautiful piece of ski equipment I'd ever seen. I got my old four buckle Nordicas out of the attic and put them on. I adjusted the bindings and snapped in while standing on the carpet in the living room. Then I clicked out of the bindings, picked up the skis, leaned them against the mantle in their rightful place of honor, and stared at them some more. Then I did it all over again. My poor wife and family most likely thought I had gone off the deep end, and perhaps I did. But I didn't care. I was going skiing.
I wore my boots around the house for hours, tweaking every little adjustment until they felt perfect. New footbeds and custom refitting helped more than words can describe. I found all my old winter clothes and shells that hadn't been used in years and put those on too. I bought a helmet and new goggles. I was wearing them one morning when I went to get my son out of his crib and, since I suppose I looked like some kind of alien monster to him, he completely freaked out and woke up the whole house. Eventually he calmed down and I put the helmet and goggles back on, son still watching me with a wary eye and the rest of the family borderline mutinous over the unnecessarily early Sunday morning havoc I caused. I still didn't care. I was going skiing.
I fully packed my bags six days in advance. I spent the remaining time fretting over weather and snow reports, reading ski instruction blogs, and watching Youtube ski instruction videos. I sought out clips from old Warren Miller movies and watched the Blizzard of Ahhhs. How could I not have seen that movie before? Or did I see it and forget? Neither seems possible. Time passed slowly. Infuriatingly slowly. More slowly than the plodding pace of approaching Christmas in the psyche of a child. It was awful and wonderful all at once. Finally, it was time to go skiing.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
I was booked on a Delta flight from Atlanta to Salt Lake departing at 8:30 a.m. I live twenty minutes from the airport if I adhere to the speed limit, thirty minutes at worst in bad traffic. And traffic doesn't begin to get heavy near my house until 7:30 or later. So, naturally, I was up without an alarm at 4:45, in the car before 5:30, and through security and at the gate at 6:00 on the nose. I then proceeded to drink enough coffee to induce heart palpitations and tried, in vain, to read a magazine, but I had no comprehension of what I was reading. I settled on people watching because 3-5 seconds was the extent of my attention span, so deliriously excited was I.
As a brief aside, have you ever studiously engaged in people watching in a crowded place for an extended period of time? It's actually quite disturbing. Granted, I have some mild agoraphobia, but my travels through airports, in particular, consistently reinforce my view that the public, while perhaps not deserving of outright distain, nevertheless should be avoided at all costs. And I'm not so Narcissistic or elitist that I fail to appreciate that other people might be looking at me as I pass by and think the same thing about me as I do of them. Maybe the fact that one's perspective turns those tables should soften my view but, alas, it does not. I hope there's plenty of time left in my life to work on defeating hypocrisy.
I'll spare you the other mundane details of the flight, except to say that I paid extra for in-flight internet access and spent most of the 4 hour and 17 minute flight looking at weather forecasts and snow reports, or watching the moving map of our little plane going across the country. Seeing the headwind of 120 miles per hour was a crushing blow. Blasted jet stream; I hate it, at least on trips west.
We landed about 10:45 and the place was jammed. It seems like it took hours to collect our bags and I damn near fainted when the baggage monkey hurled my skis through the door and down the ramp. Of course, I wrapped every article of fleece and soft clothing around them that I could fit in the bag but, to me, it looked like a gigantic black javelin sailing through the air. Seriously, what is it with those guys? Do they have some pool bet going where the one who throws the heaviest object the farthest wins a case of beer? Jackasses, all of them.
In any event, my buddy Mike and I were safely ensconced in our sweet, gold metallic Camry in short order and headed east on I-80 to Park City. It was overcast and in the 20s. There were several inches of fresh the night before and the roads were still clearing. The excitement kept building the entire way, and reached a fever pitch when we passed The Canyons, which received 10-11 inches overnight. We rolled into Park City a little before noon, at which time our room at the April Inn wasn't available. The front desk guy at the Caledonian, however, was great, and gave us a parking pass and a room to change into our ski gear. We then headed up to PCMR to get Mike's rental equipment. My Rossis were on top of the Camry (we got the "ski package" from Hertz), but even they did little to improve the appearance of that gold beast. We had Doc Schneider on the iPod though and the sun was peaking through, so all seemed to be going according to plan.
Our plan was to use the Utah ski pass/boarding pass thing and ski free at The Canyons. Parking was easy and, formalities concluded, we took that sky tram thing from the lot to the base and got in line at the Red Pine Gondola. We went up it to High Meadow, and then skied back down to the Saddleback Express. We then went skier's left to Pine Draw and kept meandering generally left seeking out blue cruisers all the way down to the Super Condor lift.
Good God it was wonderful to be out on the mountain again and feel a little bit of burn in the quads and the sting of cold wind on my face. I was slowly remembering how to ski and thought of your advice from years past about big toe/little toe and trying to keep my hands forward. The Rossis were perfect as far as I was concerned. It seems like all I had to do was think about turning and the skis would go on edge and start a nice little arc. Was I carving? Probably not what someone good would consider carving, but it was a far cry from the windshield wiper torso and butt-initiated turns I used to do on the 190cm K2 Comps back when we were in college. As I grew more comfortable, I added more ankle and leg angle, tried to focus on general balance, and let the ski do the work for me. Wow. Just delightful.
We stayed and caught the last lift up around 4:00, and then tried some more difficult terrain in the Silverado Bowl and Golden Glades. The snow there was pretty well tracked up and it was more crud busting and a little steeper. My form broke down, way too much backseat, and my legs were absolutely screaming. Time to call it a day.
We went back to the April Inn, which turned out to be relatively nice. Not the Ritz by any means, but a good little inn with some decent rooms overlooking Main Street. It was perfect for us, except for the parking, which was non-existent. Meter parking on the street or public deck three blocks away, and a space at either was hard to find. It's a small matter I guess, but that part really sucked. If I had it to do over again, I think I would have searched around for a place with on-site guaranteed parking, especially in Park City. Anyway, after we got settled, it was time to discover the great offerings from the Wasatch Brewery, my favorite of which was the Polygamy Porter, aptly named for Mormon country. Belly full of beer and Bandits tri-tip, I stumbled back to the room and crashed.
We were up early still being on east coast time and headed out the door about 8:00. We found a great little place called Java Cow and had crepes and coffee to start the day before heading off to Snowbird. What a gorgeous drive back west on I-80, down 215, and eventually to 210 up into the Wasatch National Forest. I know you've probably made that drive countless times, but I had never seen it before and it was awe-inspiring. We pulled into Snowbird a little after 9:00 and the place already was teeming with eager skiers. $12 for valet parking right at the base of the tram? Excellent idea - sign me up.
One note on the Tram: it's cool I guess, but why bother? We waited about 30 minutes just to board, and then were pressed in like sardines for the trip up. Of course, I didn't figure that out until it was too late. Regardless, we got up to the top of Hidden Peak and decided go down Road to Provo and over to the Gad lift instead of following everybody into Mineral Basin that early in the morning. It had snowed a little bit overnight and everyone was competing for fresh tracks. I just wanted a few warm up runs to get the leg soreness out and didn't want join the elephant line traverses with legitimately incredible skiers. So, we basically hung around in the Gad lift area, skiing Bassackwards, Election, Bananas, and eventually progressing to Gadzooks and Carbonate before finally going up and over into Mineral Basin about mid-morning.
The weather conditions were deteriorating and visibility increasingly was problematic. Strong winds were blowing up the basin and over the top of Hidden Peak. That quickly turned the snow to hard rutted crust with plenty of icy patches in skied off areas, especially the narrow traverses like Path to Paradise. We dropped in the basin a couple times far skier’s right of the Mineral Basin express lift, and then went over to Baldy a couple times as well. About mid-day, my buddy Dan met up with us and we generally continued the same thing until close to 4:00.
A storm was coming down from the Oregon area and it brought increasing cloudiness and even stronger winds. The light was very flat and it was almost impossible to pick out terrain features. Between that and my much more pronounced leg fatigue, I wasn't skiing well in the afternoon. Just tentative, tired, backseat the whole time, thus exacerbating leg fatigue. There were a few periods of good turns that afternoon, but not many. Physically, I was shot and spending as much time resting as I was skiing. It was time to throw in the towel.
All that said, I genuinely enjoyed Snowbird and would go back, but not with the family in tow. It's just too difficult for beginning skiers and, for me, there were plenty of areas I could get down but couldn't actually ski. It seemed like many of the blue runs invariably were narrow traverses around and through much steeper and more dangerous terrain. I had continuous visions of my wife or daughter catching an edge or getting spooked by a faster skier or boarder passing and then launching off the traverse and into Peruvian Gulch.
We eventually got the car and headed back out of the Wasatch with snow coming in and stopped at Porcupines down in the valley. Do you know that place? God, it was great. Good beer and the best nachos I've ever had in my life. We arrived before it got crowded and ended up drinking more water than beer. I had forgotten how dehydrated you can get in the mountains and how much you sweat even when it's cold. I was parched, sore, and getting a bad dehydration headache. I probably drank a gallon of water just sitting there at Porcupines, but it was good times overall.
We made it back to the April Inn around 6:00 or so, along with what appeared to be everyone else in Utah. Why doesn’t the city do a better job of accommodating cars? Don't the business owners and taypayers demand it? Don't they want patrons to come into town to spend their money on dinner, drinks, and all kinds of silly trinkets and t-shirts? I suppose plenty of people come whether there's a place to park or not, but if I wanted to drive around in circles doing battle for a parking spot, I could just stay in Atlanta. If we weren't staying on Main Street and weren't within walking distance of it, I tend to doubt that I would go there in the evenings if I could avoid it. At least as far as I am concerned, a rare escape to the mountains and being asses to elbows with everyone and their brother do not mix. Or should not mix. Maybe I'm just getting crotchety in my old age.
We went to a late dinner at a nice place. Mediterranean food, but I forget the name of it. By the time we sat down, my buddy Dan had full-blown altitude sickness - terrible headache, nausea, the whole works. He flew in that morning and essentially went straight to the top of Hidden Peak within an hour or so of landing. We stayed high on the mountain all afternoon and he was probably really dehydrated. I doubt a couple beers helped much. Anyway, he trudged back to the room and crashed before 10:00 and didn't stir until after 8:00 the following morning. Fortunately, I think he pounded as much water as he could stomach before passing out, so he was actually fine the next day.
Slow start this morning. Mike and I were feeling it from The Canyons and a full day at Snowbird and we really didn't get out of the room until after 9:00. It was snowing hard. We already had about six inches in town, but we just weren't up to rushing out. Crepes and coffee at Java Cow before sliding in the Camry up to Deer Valley. Now that I think about it, we must have been one of only a few four door econoboxes in the lot.
Deer Valley was slammed based on the scene at the base area and parking lot. We dropped our gear and then had to go back to a lot about 1/2 mile away and take the tram in. We changed into ski boots in the main locker area and I had visions of a very crowded, bad day. There was hardly a place to sit down and change out of street shoes. Eventually, though, we made it to the hill and onto our skis. Dan had been to Deer Valley several times and knew the trail system pretty well, so our goal was to rely on him to get us away from everybody as soon as possible.
We went up from the Snow Park Lodge and skied around past the St. Regis to the Deer Crest area. There was tons of fresh snow, to me anyway, about 8-10 inches at that point with more coming down. We went down to the gondola and few people were there, so we skied a few more times over there, runs like Jordanelle, Mountaineer, Cascade, and Dynamic. There was untracked snow to be found on everything we skied and it was truly wonderful. My legs had recovered and the 128mm tips on my Rossis were floating well. I tried my best to keep my skis close together and let them work as a pair, focusing on balance and float from turn to turn instead of forcing down through the powder to the hard pack. Everything just seemed to click and I was making shorter radius turns nicely linked together and doing a reasonably good job of keeping my upper body square to the fall line.
We went over to Flagstaff and Empire late morning/early afternoon with snow still coming down in buckets. We skied Solace, Conviction, and got into the Lady Morgan Bowl. We went back over to Bald Mountain and skied Stein's Way, Rattler, and Reward. We must have ridden the Wasatch Express or Sultan Express a dozen times and always seemed to find good personal space on the hill despite the way the base lodge looked when we pulled up. It was a perfect day with perfect conditions and I didn't want it to end. I don't think I've ever skied more in a single day in my entire life and, eventually, my legs let me know that it was time to pull the plug.
We decided it would be a good idea to drop our gear and go up to the St. Regis for a drink. Good Lord, what a place. I've stayed at some very nice places in my life, but that takes the cake. Just seeing the crazy funicular is wild, let alone the common areas of the hotel and the bar area overlooking the gigantic pool. I understand it costs at least $1,000 per night to stay there, which is several multiples over what I would rationally consider paying for a place to stay on vacation, but it would be hard for me to argue that it wouldn't be worth every penny. Maybe someday I will do that, but for now, it's quite enough for me to just see it.
Eventually, we made it back to Park City, where it was still snowing, and fought for another parking spot, which still sucked. I know we had a good dinner that night, but I couldn't tell you where. I just remember the Wasatch Porters and this incredible short rib shepherds pie. I also remember the people watching at the upscale restaurant, which served to remind me that a significant number of people in this world either have more credit than sense or more money than taste, if not both. I could scarcely believe the oodles of women gussied up in knee-high fur boots and suede "look at me" vests and coats, and I’m from Atlanta, where vapid foppishness can be a sport if you go to the right places at the right times. Look, I'm all for spending relatively extravagant amounts of money on things I don't "need" (like my skis, along with innumerable additional outdoor sporting implements infrequently used), but the scene at this restaurant was truly over the top. Fur and leather everywhere, not to mention the scores of Bill Cosby-esque atrocious sweaters. But the food was great, the beer was cold, and my (somewhat) jesting critiques aside, the people watching was highly entertaining as well.
Started as usual with crepes and coffee, this time before 8:30. We had to leave for the airport no later than 2:00 and I was bound and determined to ski as much as possible. Because of proximity and the fact we hadn't been there yet, we decided to do PCMR and, upon arriving at the parking area, I almost immediately regretted the decision. The "packed" conditions I described at Snowbird and the Deer Valley base lodge were nothing compared to the rat race that was PCMR at 9:00 a.m. It looked like a mall parking lot on December 23rd. After climbing up all the stairs from the parking area, waiting in the ticket line, and the trudging up to the lift area through throngs of people, we were disheartened to see gigantic lift lines at Payday and Crescent, and then made the mistake of taking the little Three Kings lift thinking, wrongly, that it would help us clear the area. We immediately got funneled back down to the base area and stuck in the Crescent line anyway.
As far as the conditions were concerned, it could not have been any better. It was still snowing and, by this point, a couple of feet or more of snow had fallen in the last 48 hours. We eventually made it up to Bonanza and then down into the Motherload area, skiing Thanes, Single Jack, and Double Jack. There was soft snow aplenty with some fresh track or relatively fresh track opportunities. My skiing had come a long way and I felt like I was much closer to the type of skier I would like to be than when I started at the Canyons. I was floating and turning and controlling my speed when and where I chose and not based solely on avoidance of terrain features. In places where the snow was skied down, I felt what I believe is true carving for the first time. I really got the skis up on edge, inside ski too, and felt the launch at the end of a C-shaped turn. I was no longer skidding around turns leaving huge rooster tails. Good Lord, it felt incredible.
But even that feeling fell short of the quiet float in the powder. We went up to McConkey's before 11:00 and spent the rest of our time there dropping down into the bowl and admiring the view up Jupiter Peak and in the Puma Bowl on the ride back up. McConkey's bowl was an absolute blast every time. It was all skied out, but still very soft and fluffy with thigh deep drifts in places. Just amazing. Simply amazing. I can't think of anything else besides amazing.
Much to my chagrin, our planned departure time arrived in short order, along with the inevitable last run. My spirits sank the lower I got, but I found some solace working carved turns back down to the base on the skied down trails. I really did not want it to end and, despite increasingly concerning time constraints, took one more ride up Payday well after we should have been in the parking lot. I just couldn't resist one more run even though the lower part of the mountain had so many people it looked like someone had kicked over an ant hill.
With a strange mixture of regret over leaving coupled with marked satisfaction about the advancements I made in my skiing over four days, we got back to Salt Lake with just enough time to catch the 5:00 flight home. I'm not an expert skier and I never will be. But those four days rekindled my rapture for the mountains and my desire to continue improving as a skier. Maybe more than that, I just want to be up on the hill looking down at the limitless possibilities presented before the run begins. Back here in Atlanta, I yearn for the cold sting in the air and the opportunity to resume my quest for personal skiing perfection. I know that ultimate goal is unobtainable, but the effort of trying to reach it is more important to me than success measured by achieving it. So, no, I'll never be an expert. But I am a skier again, and I'm content with that.
I was pretty down on the flight. It was snowing in Salt Lake, which meant the mountains were getting dumped on again. I sat on the plane fantasizing about another crack at Snowbird with softer snow and two extra days of trial, error, and "ah-ha" learning curve moments under my belt. At the same time, I sorely missed my wife and kids and wanted to be back with them too. Despite my pre-trip excitement, it was profoundly difficult to leave them, and at the end of each day before falling into exhausted slumber, I wished they were with me to share the experience. This was especially true at Deer Valley, which I think is just perfect for a family ski vacation.
As hard as it was to leave the mountains, I felt like I got luckily rewarded with the weather, conditions, and occasional eureka moments on Saturday and Sunday. I was thankful to have a guys trip as well. Perhaps as we get a little older and time inexorably passes with family obligations, kid activities that approach over-programming, and our ever-present work stresses and worries, it becomes too easy to eschew the simple camaraderie that comes from having a little time off with the boys. In some respects, it makes coming home all the more poignant. Though it’s difficult to fathom in the abstract, you almost love home and family even more.
I'm already thinking about the next trip. Maybe Tahoe, maybe back to Utah, or maybe up to your old stomping grounds in Montana. All things being equal, I'd like to do a family trip and a guys trip each year. I've got the skiing bug back, and I appreciate that because the longing for skiing gradually will be replaced with anticipation of the trip to come, and then I'll start pouring over maps, weather reports, and general logistics. And who knows, maybe I'll come across some new gear guides in the fall. I can't imagine ever replacing my skis, which I intend to keep in my closet all year as physical reminders of this trip, but perhaps it will be time to replace those old boots? You never can tell.
Be looking for an email from me in about 8-9 months. The subject line will be "Time to go skiing."