Theater at High Altitude, 12/27/1998

I remember that it was the first day of May. 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. In 1996 the first day of May 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.

However 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 fresh 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. Arapahoe. 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 went the cable over the rollers and then silence till the next pole. I was alone with the wind, the chair, and my thoughts.

HEY. – 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. I got off in the middle and stayed on the lower half of the mountain. Finally I got up enough nerve 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.

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.

I 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 a moment.

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 began 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.

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 began 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  every nook and cranny 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.

Fast moving clouds, heavy snow, and the moving spotlight of the sun 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.

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