In late October 2001 I was on I-70 driving east through the Eisenhower Tunnels with three fellow Colorado College freshmen. Our destination that evening was the Grays and Torreys trailhead, just a few miles down the hill (they would become only my 2nd and 3rd 14ers the next day; I’d been living in Colorado for all of two months), but as we emerged from the tunnel and glanced to our right, the driver immediately exited the freeway and careened into the Loveland Ski Area parking lot. One lift was running, two runs were open (due to copious manufactured snow), the cost was free (seriously, who would charge for less than an hour of artificial snice?) and the bed of our truck just happened to be lined with approximately half a dozen pairs of skis because, Colorado.
Peter, Tor, and Dana were all expert, lifetime skiers and I was the lone flatland neophyte who didn’t really understand what all the fuss was about but was at least curious via association, if not necessarily eager. Before I knew it, I was strapped into a borrowed pair of skis, somehow made it onto a lift chair without falling over, and was abandoned at the top of the icy blue run as my friends rocketed down the hill.
“Pizza wedge! You’ll figure it out!”
Talk about baptism by fire. I’d never even seen a pair of skis in my life, let alone stood up on some, but in the 45min left before closing I somehow skidded/tumbled my way down the mountain three times, with the bruised hips to prove it.
I was less than hooked. But the sheer ecstasy in my companion’s eyes—even for such horrid conditions—hinted at an experience and activity that clearly carried some sort of existential allure. Over the next couple of years I would log maybe a dozen total days of resort skiing—always on borrowed or rented gear, often with friends’ lift passes—it was just enough of a taste to catch ever-so-fleeting, occasional glimpses of the joy that a pair of planks could offer. But the upfront cost to fully committing always seemed prohibitive—even insultingly bourgeois—and my distaste for the whole resort culture was high. So I never took the economic plunge and never truly understood.
One major factor holding me back was expressed so well by one Buzz Burrell a few months ago when I asked him whether he wanted to join me for an after-work or weekend climbing session sometime. This was the man, afterall, who four years ago had reintroduced me to the vertical world via scrambling and climbing. His response was classic Buzz, “Thanks for the invite, but I’d only be putzing, and I’m too old to putz.” Meaning, if he can’t commit to doing something a minimum of 2-3x/week for three months straight, then he’s not going to accumulate enough skill and consistency to get any joy or satisfaction from it.
I am completely on board with this type of thinking. Especially because that putzing would be using up time that could be used to not putz at something else. For the full-time working Buzz, that’s running or scrambling or ballroom dancing. For me, putzing at skiing would only be taking time away from running or scrambling or climbing or even reading a good book, so it was important to me that if I decide to ski that I really ski.
After college, I would occasionally get a passing desire to give it all a legit try, but then I broke my leg in 2011 and was instantly turned off again. I’d strained my ACL and PCL in my little tumble and nearly fractured my tibial plateau; the seeming fragility of one’s knees was further confirmed by a disturbing number of skiing friends who’d had to go in for surgeries over the years. Basically, it seemed like way too consequential an activity to risk compromising my running. I get injured enough as it is.
Ironically enough, a running injury is exactly what has led me into finally fully embracing skiing this winter. After Lavaredo last summer, my right shin flared back up (it’s been an issue off-and-on—mostly on—since January 2011) and I was just barely able to make the starting line at UTMB in August. Through the fall I wasn’t too concerned—there was lots of Flatiron scrambling to pursue and it was fully the off-season, when it was best for my endocrine system to not be training too hard anyways. But after the first of the year I was itching to start really working on some fitness again, so with a still-protesting shin I finally turned to the planks.
Last year I had ponied up the dollars to get myself a properly trim set-up (and then tweaked my hip on the very first outing and never used them again all winter). The plus side to waiting almost 15 years to really get into the game was that alpine touring technology has apparently advanced by leaps and bounds during that time. Barely-there skis and bindings paired with lightweight, two-buckle boots mean that the uphill side of the equation is so much more enjoyable and practical than it was even five or 10 years ago (so I’m told). And with my inexperience, I consider myself somewhat lucky in that I don’t even know the difference from how a more traditional, cush set-up—fatter, longer skis; stiffer, beefier boots—would perform on the downhill.
And, to be clear, my emphasis these past 50 days (my first ski day this year was an ignominious January 8th outing to Moffat Tunnel on crusty snow with Joe and Fred after a morning of ice climbing) has really been on the uphill. An on-going bit of amusement between Joe and I is how the European media is always so interested in “the trainings”, as if there is some secret to physiological preparation that everyone doesn’t already know, and as if the mountains are just one giant gym, not necessarily a place in which to experience inspiration and pleasure.
I definitely train—I’ve recently recognized and accepted the fact that I have a near compulsive habit of timing basically everything I do in the mountains—but I’ve found that skiing this winter is maybe the first activity that I’ve so assiduously approached in a true cross-training manner. That is, essentially every time I go skiing it is with the intent of amassing a certain amount of vertical feet scaled, ostensibly as a means of maintaining and improving my fitness. And in the spirit of not-putzing, I’ve really committed, skiing 26 out of these past 50 days.
I absolutely am also deriving emotional and spiritual nourishment from my mountain surroundings—this is a big reason why I prefer local little backcountry stashes to the arguably more efficient corduroy environs of a ski resort—but there is an inherent structure and repetition to logging repeated 2000′ laps that doesn’t allow me to invoke the same aesthetic, engaging, and inspiring lines-over-the-landscape idealism that I typically assign as motivation for my outings.
I’m mostly fine with this. I am very unskilled as a skier (but I like to think that I am improving quickly). Just in the last few weeks have I become comfortable with wending and winding my way through tight stands of trees, and I still typically fall at least once per session. The point being, I don’t yet really have the expertise to safely venture out of the monotonous woods and onto more aesthetic, inspiring kinds of terrain (you know, couloirs, accessed by scrambly, technical ridges and/or bits of ice climbing and rappelling), really utilizing the skis as a pragmatic tool for winter mountain travel.
I’m fine with that, I’m sure that will come in due time. But for now, I’m still excited—and so grateful!—for the chance to just be racking up laps in the woods at altitude, plugging into my podcast app for yet another trip up the same skin track, building fitness, and breathing fresh mountain air, all while minimizing wear and tear on my shin or any other parts of my legs.
There’ll be plenty of time for that once the snow melts.