May first - To many the date would bring thoughts of springtime, trees
recently in bloom, lawns turned green, golf, or just going for a walk
after the long winter.
April has 30 days. The first day of May in 1996 was the last day
of skiing at Vail. I know that because the previous two days I had
tried my hardest to ski the snow off of the mountain. But on the
30th I climbed down the gondola steps into the slush and looked
up at the mountain. My last day. I could not close the mountain
on May Day; because my flight left Denver at 2:45 on May first.
There was no way I could ski Vail and get to Denver on time.
Two perfect days. Fabulous sunshine at high altitude, the thrill
of speed, the beauty of the Rockies bathed in the sunlight.
As I left the mountain I remembered the slush. I don't like to
ski in slush. I had taken the Gondola down the mountain for the
last time. Up at the high elevations the snow was still perfect,
packed power, with the swish of the ski edges catching on the patches
of ice that you encounter here and there. I love the sound of the
ski and snow.
I loosened my boot clamps and clumped across the square to the
parking garage. A sense of sadness began to overwhelm me but I knew
that at least I would have a great drive to Dillon, my resting-place
after this day's activities. I remember the drive and the huge banks
of snow that lined the edge of the road.
Dillon is a non-descript small town full of outlet stores, fast
food joints and condos. Trying to grab the last dollars of the season,
some of the hotels had banners proclaiming their low room rates.
I grabbed a cheap one and carried all of my gear inside. I know
I had been thinking all the way from Vail to Dillon, thoughts that
tried to possess and danced in and out of my mind. I would push
them out, only to entertain them again.
No, No, No, not tonight. No more skiing. I had arrived too late
to try the night skiing at Keystone. Besides, I had used every ounce
of energy today, screaming down the back bowls of Vail.
The thoughts persisted, and I toyed with them. I rolled them over
in my mind like I would a tootsie roll pop. Giving in to the thoughts,
I decided that the least I could do was to pack the car the night
before with a great deal of deliberation. The next day's drive to
Denver would take at least 2 hours. The flight was at 2:45. I had
to return the rental car. I wondered if I would wake early.
Early is not on my clock. I don't rise well and I transition poorly
into that state others call - awake.
On May first I woke with a start, brain running at 110 percent.
Every cell in my body said - DO IT. I wasn't just awake...I
was ALIVE! Glancing out of the hotel window I saw the frresh trace
of snow on the parking lot. I wondered. Grabbing several cups of
coffee I put the hair dryer into the ski boots to warm them up.
I quickly dressed, layer after layer.
There are two routes out of Dillon to Denver.
Immediately after turning out of the hotel side street I could
have been on I-70 directly on my way to Denver. I smiled broadly
as I drove past the ramp.
This was the "other" road, taking me past Keystone and
then on to the top of the Rockies at the Loveland Pass. Ten miles
up the road from Keystone was my destination - where the "real"
skiers ski. A-Basin. Arrapahoe. It is tucked away high in the mountains,
just below the pass, and I was thrilled with the thought.
I knew that the slopes would open at 8:00. I drove in eager anticipation,
hunched over the steering wheel and peering up to the mountaintops
in the narrow canyon. The plows had already done this section of
road and brown sand crunched under the tires.
My excitement level was rising as it started to snow about 2 miles
out of Keystone. By the time I pulled into the parking lot of A-Basin
there were only three or four other cars. Funny thing, everyone
seemed to get out of their cars smiling. One of the other skiers
looked at me, beamed and said, "fresh powder. It's a shame,
but someone has to ski in it." I thought to myself, "S***,
I don't like fresh powder, I will fall on my ass a thousand times.
I need to see my skis."
After all, I was a "flatlander" and this was only the
end of my second season on skis.
I saw that the powder was not that deep, and some of the slopes
were groomed. At eight thirty, I skied into the lift line, bundled
up from head to toe, without a solitary inch of skin showing. I
was warm. I sat in my chair as elation fought apprehension.
The chair lift was deserted. Every 10 chairs or so there was perhaps
one or two more skiers. As the lift quickly began to ascend very
steeply. I got nervous. My map had shown that the slopes on my right
were all the Black Diamond runs. I knew that this day I would not
go near a Black Diamond. This was, after all, A-Basin.
Two days earlier I heard that someone ran into a tree here and
died. The thought gave me pause.
In this early morning there was no sound except the wind, and the
chair lift as it rolled over the black support poles. Squish squish
squish and the silence till the next pole. I was alone with the
wind, the chair, and my thoughts.
- THIS IS "A" On my left I could see occasional snatches
of the high peaks which were for the extreme skiers. A-Basin is
very bowl shaped. As you go up the lift the black diamond slopes
are on the right side, the blues are in the middle of the basin,
and the extreme slopes are on the left.
After a couple of runs down the lower half of the mountain , I
decided to head on up to the summit. I crossed the middle of the
mountain to the second lift and got onto one of the small chairs
headed for the top.
The chalkboard at the summit summed it all up: "May 1. Temperature
20, 8 inches of fresh snow. Caution, near whiteout conditions. All
alpine runs closed for the day."
Now... THIS is what I came for. THIS is A-Basin. THIS is Skiing.
THIS is life. Even at my intermediate level, it was still the edge.
And I love the edge. The sky was a ragged gray and it was snowing
heavily. Curiously enough, the clouds seemed thin, and every once
in a while, they lightened up so you could see the whole basin.
From the very top of the lifts you could see two, maybe 3 miles
of valley. The jagged peaks on the east side suddenly appeared and
then disappeared as quickly.
The second lift had quickly taken the few of us who were on it
- above the tree line. Wait! Above the trees. Why are there no trees
here? Man, this is high. Almost 13,000 feet. It was barren, desolate,
cold and the peaks were shrouded in very fast moving clouds.
got of the lift at the top and stood looking at my map.
I knew that the Blue (intermediate) run was in the middle - but
where was the middle. White clouds, white snow, white everywhere.
Cautiously I started to ski down the hill and stopped after only
I could not see. I could only feel the mountain under my feet,
but I could not see where I was skiing. After about 2 minutes of
waiting, I did not need to gather much more courage, as a member
of the ski patrol began to place orange bamboo posts into the snow
so we could see a path down. Great. A giant ski course on the top
of one of the highest slopes in the world. It seemed a bit weenie
to follow the poles, but I was glad they were there.
Even if it was a marked path, it was still A.
I headed down the slope almost sightless. I began with a great
deal of caution, because I had absolutely no sense of perspective.
I could not tell if the slope would accelerate or stay gentle. Following
the poles, I gained my confidence and begain to venture out on each
successive run. Soon I was flying down the slopes and making the
transition from the barren white to runs to the lower mountain and
its stands of pines.
It was near the end of my time on the slopes. As I headed back
to the top of the mountain for one last run from the summit, the
ragged clouds parted for just a second. The entire basin was bathed
in light, not quite sunlight, but it suddenly became light enough
to see perspective, to see shadows on the slopes.
I thought to myself, this could be great, since with a sense of
perspective, I could increase the speed. But as quickly as the light
came, it went. And then it returned for one of those moments of
life that can best be described as exquisite. Life sometimes etches
itself into your brain searing and sealing the moment for all time.
Sometimes the moment is one of fear, other times, like this, it
was of beauty and drama. All of my senses converged to record a
timeless slice of life.
I stood at the top of the final lift and looked down to the valley.
The clouds thinned a bit, the amount of light increased and then
dimmed again. I had been transported to a darkened theater. Suddenly,
the sun broke through the clouds onto the slopes to my left.
The light was brilliant and flooded into the recesses of my brain.
I was awe struck, for I had never seen a theater spotlight highlighting
a ski slope.
The beam of light quickly traversed the bowl of snow, the rocky
outcroppings, and the first rows of pines dusted with fresh snow.
It ran across the valley and up the east side of the bowl highlighting
just one of the extreme runs, which was closed for the day. Up the
vertical wall it ran, and then the rock on the top of the mountain
glowed in the light. In an instant it was gone. The light had traversed
the mountaintops for maybe a minute at the most, but the imprint
is etched into the film of my mind.
moving clouds, heavy snow, and the spotlight of God on the slopes.
Who could ask for anything more? Three or four more times the light
raced across the slopes and each time I took it in and beheld with
the eyes of a child.
I had skied A-Basin.
But, more than that, I watched the hand God move across the mountain.
And I made my flight.