Perhaps you will agree with me that a trip of this kind, when best experienced, is more than just a geographical excursion. Those of us who travel for the purpose of skiing are looking for more than a new place to defy gravity. There are easier and cheaper options to achieve that goal. Rather, we travel to enrich our lives. To elevate the physical act of skiing to something more intimate than a winter time version of the Sisyphean curse. To make it, rather, just one more chapter in a life-long odyssey punctuated by transformative experiences and indelible memories. So let me call this current excursion less a sequel and more a chapter in my life as one who skis.
As I took that last, splendid run through the North Slope playground, I knew that I would return the following year to this place. And in the early fall, I began our preparations. Ms. D1 and I would be joined by our oldest son, a boarder, who has recently relocated to Seattle. When our three boys were kids, we loaded up the trusty Grand Caravan for ski trips to local Maine hills or destinations in Quebec. While only our oldest truly took to the snow, the joy of those times together had less to do with the skiing, and much more to do with the simple act of family in a place away from home and everyday consternation. When having fun, of every incarnation, was the only order of the day. Now all in their early and mid 20's, our boys reminisce amongst themselves about the fun they had on these holiday family outings. It surprises me not at all that precious little of the chatter turns to snow conditions, or gear or the act of skiing or boarding. It was all about the time together - the shared chapters they co-authored as kids and now share as adults. And that is precisely as it should be. And that is, in part, why I have returned this year to this place. Not to relive that year-old chapter or rewrite it, but to pen a new one.
DAY 1 - February 23, 2014
The three hour drive from our home on the coast of Maine to the airport in Portland gave us plenty of time to give thanks for the lack of weather on this day. Last year, blizzard conditions marooned us at JFK where we spent a fitful night and following day in an absurdly priced, seedy hotel where we ate even more desperate Chinese food. This year the travel gods looked kindly on us. Out of Portland on time to JFK. The four hour layover was punctuated by somewhat less desperate Chinese food and an element of hubris that would later unfold. As we sat in the terminal, and other plane-mates sauntered in, we were all regaled by the fitful cries of a very young toddler whose lung capacity belied her tender age. As luck would have it, that child and I became adjacent seat companions. It was not only her "singing" that commanded my attention, but the way she kept non-metric time on the back of my seat with her tiny feet. Five very long hours later, I kissed the tarmac in Salt Lake City - figuratively speaking.
Our son had already arrived from Seattle on a flight that, I confirmed, included no infant opera stars or percussionists. We collected our bags and grabbed the mid-night shuttle to the La Quinta for a very restful and quiet night. High points for this hotel. Cheap ($79) and very well-appointed for budget accommodations. A long day of travel from the coast of Maine to the shores of another even saltier body of water - the Great Salt Lake.
DAY 2 - February 24, 2014
The day revealed a splendid blue sky and more than a hint of green grass. The mountains surrounding the sacred city rose from the flat, dirt bed just as I remember. But they were clothed in brown, not white, except for a small halo of frost. I know how altitude works in this neck of the woods, and held out hope that all would be well and white at elevation.
Today was a provisioning day. We collected the Jeep Patriot at Rugged Rental, very nice folks to do business with. I learned my lesson last year. If you are going to travel up the five mile road from Eden to Powder Mountain, what has been described to me as the steepest in the state, you better have a capable vehicle. No "Gutless Supreme" this year. Rather, one with four wheel drive and room for all our gear.
Made the easy drive to Ogden where we hit the supermarket (Fresh Market) for provisions. Then off to the local liquor store for libations. While you can buy all the beer you like at a supermarket, the evils of wine and spirits are relegated to dedicated state vendors. Prices were quite good and the selection of local brews even better. Must be a generation thing. I bought the Pyrat rum, and my son, the hoidy-toidy beers.
Truth be told, I like good bread even more than I like good rum, and the Great Harvest bakery was the place to go. My brain danced on currents of airborne yeast. As usual, we found the people there unfailingly friendly and ever with stories of trips taken to Maine, or desires to visit our bold coast. If you are in Ogden and have a hankering for something that looks like this, you will do no better than the Great Harvest.
After provisions were secured, we made our way out of Ogden and up the canyon road to Eden. We settled in a
two bedroom, two level condo at the Wolf Creek resort. It was all quite familiar. And as I gazed out over the flat tundra to the feet, shoulders and crowns of the surrounding rocky sentinels, visions of snow-covered sugar-plums danced in my head. Tomorrow, to the hill.
Day 3 - February 27, 2014
It felt good to be back on this hill. I have skied the "legacy" resorts in Colorado but never felt anything approaching a bond. This place feels like my home hill in Maine, Sugarloaf, writ large. And that is because it is all about the skiing vibe. Not the lodge, excess amenities, or self-promotion. More snow. Less fur. No fur, in fact. And that is what makes me feel at home. Other eyes accustomed to resort eye candy and luxurious courtesies will be profoundly disappointed. And no one here seems terribly concerned with that. There are plenty of ski destinations which can fill that need. For me, I come to ski, not to gorge on buffets. And I have no need to relieve myself in crappers finer than my own.
"Powder Mountain Moments" (PMM) was the term I coined in my last trip report to describe experiences that typify the ethos of this place. No sooner did I take my credit card when I had the first of this trip. The price of tickets here does not reflect the value of the ski experience, any more than does the $128 window price at Vail. But for different reasons. A ticket for two days or more costs $55 or less. A bargain by any measure. But when I plunked down my card and asked for three, three day tickets, the lovely window clerk asked if I intended to use this ticket tomorrow (Wednesday). When I confirmed it, she reminded me that tickets on Wednesdays are only $42, a dollar for every year of operation, and she recommended that I buy separate tickets for that day. The fact that this saved me a few bucks was nice. But the fact that she brought this to my attention was just another PMM.
We stopped by the ski shop to pick up Asher's board which was tuned over night. I had the pleasure of chatting with Dave at the ski shop. I met him last year when he fixed me up with a pair of DPS Wailers which I used in the Sanctuary area for one of the best days I have had as a skier. Great guy. As we left I told him that I would see him later and he replied "that means we both will be doing ok." True that. I am going to add that line to my repertoire, and am obliged to Dave for that chestnut.
This was not a powder day. But it was splendid, nonetheless. I contend that people from the East coast have different expectations, and even tolerances. As a kid in Maine who grew up before the advent of snow making technology or grooming, I will ski most anything. If I look down at the trail surface and see my reflection staring back, I may sit out the day. Perhaps folks out here who do not contend with that polished surface we affectionately call boilerplate have their own western repellant. But I have not found its eastern equivalent yet.
The snow was firm off piste and less so on the groomers. But as the sun rose higher in the sky and temperatures passed the freezing mark, the rumblings below our feet became silent. Firm waves of mottled snow surrendered and softened. Edges did their work, and carved our signatures in creamy surfaces. We did lap after lap off the Timberline and Hidden Lake lifts. As the snow tension eased, we ventured of piste - we Mainers, that is. Without question, the best of the day was the joy on the face of Ms. D1 who was having her own PMMs. Last year, her ski season abruptly ended on the third day with a fall that fractured her distal fibula. This year, she is in fine form and came with high expectations. The smiles on her face as she sashayed down the groomers, her usual terrain, grew wider as she dared to dip her skis off the beaten track, into groves of sparse aspens and pitches of mottled snow which had not received the sun's blessing. As the day progressed, she used the groomers not so much to access the lift, but as a conduit to explore terrain hidden from those confined to the beaten path. Using her skis as a mode of transportation. Pushing her personal boundaries. It is the same revelation I had last year as I explored the terrain in Sanctuary. It is not something I could completely explain to her, or to anyone else. It had to be experienced in her own way and time. And she did, and will likely transform her as a skier.
It has been more than a few years since our last family ski trips during school vacations. And it has been that long since Asher and I have made turns together. Then he was a child. Now he is a man. To see him so comfortable on his board, and in his element, triggers that joy embraced by a parent who knows that the the love of snow has been passed to the next generation. Another PMM.
As much fun as we had today, I confess that I did not come here to refine my groomer technique. Fortunately, the forecast for the end of the week is looking good for some new snow. That, of course, is the ultimate PMM.
Day 4 - February 26, 2014
We live on the coast of Maine, about 100' laterally and 15' vertically from the ocean's edge. The summit of my home hill, Sugarloaf, is about 2400' lower than the bottom of the Paradise lift, and about 4700' lower than the top of PM. I confess that I have the lungs of a flat lander. But for the past two months I have sacrificed some of my time in the gym for some aerobic classes at my local Gold's gym. I have gone where my weight lifting friends fear to tread. And all that jumping a jiggling has served me well. My level of conditioning takes that element out of the equation. And I discovered how true that was today.
The day broke much as it did yesterday. Early temps on the hill hovered in the low 30's. Like yesterday, the snow was firm but eventually softened. Asher, Cindy and I made our way up the Timberline lift and down to Hidden Lake. We spent most of the morning following the softening snow. It is remarkable how variable the snow conditions can be depending on the elevation and slope orientation to the sun. In Maine, we would have called this a bluebird spring day.
As we traveled on the chair, I gave Asher and Cindy a bird's eye tour of the mountain. More than any other hill I have been on, you can see a substantial portion of PM's front side territory from the lift and high ridges. For such a huge area, it is easily navigated by line of sight. And unlike most other hills, you really can not get lost on the front side because all trails terminate at a lift. And those that descend down the face of a canyon always terminate on a cat track that spirits you back to a lift. That creates a remarkable amount of freedom and confidence, especially when you get into the front side "back-country" like the Sanctuary and North Slope areas. I am sure those far more familiar with the terrain than I will provide exceptions. But for guys like me who have very limited local knowledge, and look to the map as a guide, the observation stands.
Last year I took advantage of the one hour mountain tour guided by mountain hosts. I was fortunate enough to get Joe as my guide. He took a liking to me for reasons still not clear. When he was off duty he introduced me to the Sanctuary area, and shared entrances to terrain that likely violates the PM Code of Silence - if one existed. Equally mysterious was his enthusiasm when I contacted him before our arrival. The plan was to meet Joe after lunch when he was off duty. As I came off the cat track and circled the Timberline lodge, I stopped rather quickly with a well-executed hockey stop directly in front of the yurt. Immediately, a lovely mountain host come over and admonished me for skiing way too fast and having way too mucha group he guided who came to PM after fun. True that. And when she demanded my ticket for this infraction we both burst out laughing. Another PMM.
As Joe and I became reacquainted, he shared with me a certain notoriety he achieved after my last trip report was posted the hill's Facebook page. He became "the Joe," according to a guest who came to the mountain looking for her own PMM's. It could not have happened to a nicer guy. For the rest of the day, Joe hauled us all over the mountain, to places that I may have found, but not soon enough and probably either too early or too late. We made our way over to the poma area where Asher had his first ride on this lift uniquely unsuited for boarders. We headed down Dr. C, a rolling blue slope. The buttery smooth surface was as accommodating as a doting grandmother. We then made our way down to the Paradise lift, the lowest at the area. The ride up is the most spectacular on the hill and carries you over cliffs and jagged bluffs. Joe selected Snowchaser for our descent - a perfect choice. It boasts a moderate pitch with a carpet of vanilla ice cream. While Cindy followed the trail around to the cat track, Joe, Asher and I broke right into an ungroomed area that had stayed firm under the cover of dense conifers. Joe was on a pair of handsome red DPS Wailers that I affectionately call clown skis for their reverse cambered design that looks a bit like a smirk to me. I was on a splendid pair of traditionaly cambered Kastle FX 84's which, in that dense, snow cone surface left little doubt who looked like the clown. Asher and I survived that foray despite matching headers. This is what happens when you have a prominent gaper gap and take a header.
Last year, I was smitten by the North Slope area off the Sun Rise trail. To access it, you wend your way through an elegant stand of aspens and then break right whenever you fancy. You enter a paradise of undulating terrain that drains into a natural half-pipe. It was my final run last year, and I could not wait to introduce it to Ms. D1 and Asher. And to be sure, it was a great run, soft snow on the exposed side of the valley wall and stiff on the other. It was a great pleasure seeing my wife and son frolicking in a place that I hold so dear. Until yesterday, Ms. D1 had never skied off piste, let alone in an area of such varied terrain, double fall lines, stands of trees both deciduous and evergreen with variable snow surfaces and conditions. I could see her skiing horizons and expectations expand before my very eyes. But all did not end well. She stretched her legs just a bit too much. After descending a pitched surface of soft snow she fell at the level and strained her knee. I know that look. It was the same one she wore when she fell and fractured her distal fibula last year - and then got up and walked down hill 200' to a bench to wait for the ski patrol. Something any sturdy Maine woman would do. She skied back to the lift and down to the lodge with considerable discomfort. I will not deny that my heart sank even as her spirits remained unfailingly high as she described what a wonderful run it was despite the outcome.
A discouraging end to a wonderful day.
Day 5 February 27, 2014
Will Rogers, that wise old forecaster, said of Oklahoma, if you don't like the weather, just wait a minute. True in Utah as well. The last two days were full on early spring glory days. But not today. It is still February, after all.
This morning totally broke with promise of snow. Asher and I did a father and son day. Ms. D1 wisely sat out the day to nurse her tender knee. She can stand on it, and it does not look to swollen.
As Asher and I left the condo a light drizzle fell. It did not concern me because I know how potent a force elevation is here. And sure enough, the rain magically mutated into snow literally around one turn of the access road. And I was thankful to have a four wheel drive vehicle.
Not much of crowd. Of if there was, you could not see it. First run looked like this:
I felt like "Tommy" - skiing by intuition. Fog with wind-driven sleet obliterated vision and triggered vertigo in areas with no trees or other geographic reference points. A strange and disquieting experience Skiing on faith and memory - survival skiing. Complicating matters were the"floaters" in my my eyes that frolicked enthusiastically somewhere between the snow surface and my brain. Not my best morning at PM. Asher and I considered bagging it but had planned to meet up with Epic member "Mikebike" and his son at lunch. Glad we did. After eight trips to PM and more that 30 days straight here this year, on his way to 42, Mike has cultivated an insider's knowledge of the mountain. He guided us through exqusite stands of aspens off the Hidden Lake lift where we played all afternoon. Falling snow freshened the lines. Just plain elegant. My thanks to Mike and his son for an afternoon of great skiing and commeraderi.
On the way out of the lodge I hit the head and was rather intrigued to find a young man using the hand dryer in a unique way. Simply put, he was bent over with his backside to the device. His pants waist was stretched wide in the rear, with the nozzle full of fired air directed at his tooshie. While it looked sort of fun, I left before he decided to dry something else. Another PMM.
Day 6 February 28, 2014
A magic day. - 6.5 hours of memorable skiing - the kind of experience I came here for. I could leave now, half way through trip, and feel satiated. Overnight appx 8" fell. Not blower, but high density snow. While not of champagne, powder never the less. And it transformed the terrain, like an Etch-a-Sketch turned upside down and shaken.
The day began with some tentative runs with Ms D1 whose desire to ski bested her knee discomfort. Only groomers on her ski menu. It is very cool that PM has terrain that allows parallel skiing on woods and trees almost within eye shot and that converge at end. This allowed me and the Ms. to engage in what I think they call "parallel play."
Coincidently, I met Joe in poma line who was with friends. As I was several spots back in the line, we agreed that I would catch up with him on the Sanctuary traverse. This terrain is the front side playground with the steeper trees and glades that I graduated to last year. It is, again, in bounds-out of bounds skiing, as I describe it. Sanctuary is within eye shot of the groomers, but feels worlds away. I planned to reconnoitre Joe on traverse , but it did not happen. No matter. I revisited the same lines in the Fletcher's Bowl area that was so revelatory last year as I graduated to more serious tree skiing. The first few times I did this alone last year was more than a bit spooky because I was a tree virgin and this area seemed so remote. This year, it was almost like revisiting the old neighborhood with a better skill set. It was, to that point, the best 20 minutes or that I have had here this year. But it is a commitment of time because the round trip, with lift time, is the better part of an hour.
What Sanctuary looks like.
And the natural swale in North Slope
The only thing better than a full morning is a fuller afternoon. And I was about to get a snoot full. Joe's friends invited me to accompany them on a trip up Lightening Ridge which is accessed by a snow cat ride that costs $18.
Love the Sugarloaf sticker on the sign- and two more in the cat.
I did it last year but took the tourist route on the front side which is the shortest and the pedestrian way down. Fun to be sure but more of a novelty. This year I was treated to a local's route that squeezed every possible vertical foot out of the ride. We went from just under 9200' to appx 6800' in about 30 minutes. It was more a tour, in the European sense, than run in the American vernacular. And a real eye-opener for a kid from Maine who is still not as comfortable skiing in trees as around them.Traverses. Through tight stands. Down open fields of untouched powder reaching 46 degrees. Then around rocky buttresses. Raised and nurtured on hard surfaces I still founder in tight powder conditions. Others would have skied it in finer style, and did, given the considerable talent in our group. But none carved their signature on this virgin snowy parchment with greater enthusiasm. As a skier, the is no better feeling than fatigue mixed with satisfaction. I am most grateful, once again, for the kindness of the local skiers here who take you in, share the goods, and their friendship.
The afternoon could have ended then and there with no remorse. That was my leg's vote for certain. But when the leader of the Lightning Ridge tour suggested a final run into Powder Countrty, the rest of my body could not believe what my mouth said.
Powder Country is another extraordinary asset at PM. Again, this hill encompasses a series of canyons that provide a back-country experience within its 7000 in-bounds acres. Powder Country encompasses terrain that borders each side of the canyon which frame the road to PM. Skier's access the south facing terrain from the top of the Hidden Lake lift. The opposite side by the Sundown lift. Booting up only prolonges the pleasure.
The last run of this most excellent day was down the south facing wall. A track leads to a large open field, a common hub for spokes of routes terminating at the road. The terrain is challenging and most appropriate for capable tree skiers, and less so, for those like me who aspire to be. I lost track of time, as I often do when the survival instinct kicks on. I would guess that the run took about 15-20 minutes down step pitches populated by live evergreens and dead ones strategically misplaced. As usual, we crossed paths with no one. It was a bit of cosmic justice that the final pitch was likely the steepest,wonkyest and in full view of skiers and boarders waiting for the shuttle which travels the road and transports you back to the lodge. I made it, and without embarrassment.
There are special days and exceptional ones. Today was remarkable. Almost like a video game which rewards completion of one level with a more challenging one. First, the run in Sanctuary which has been my personal litmus test. That was surpassed by the Lightning Ridge tour. And then a romp down the canyon wall of Powder Country. I got my money's worth today. But, again, it was only because of the generosity of strangers who were willing to allow me to shlep along. I am sure this happens at other hills as the exception. It just seems to happen to me here as the rule.
To be continued....
Edited by deliberate1 - 3/1/14 at 8:07pm