A Ski Trip

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Through no particular fault of my own, 2016 had been a difficult year; so as it finally and at long last dragged its feet to a close I decided that my dear spouse and I should treat ourselves to a ski trip. 

We hadn’t been skiing in years. Looking at all that equipment gathering dust must have made me worry that we’d never go skiing again, that it would become one of those things we used to do when we were younger but, sigh, no more.

I can’t stand that sort of thing. So, reservations were made and tickets sort of paid for.

Our favorite ski destination is Salt Lake City since it’s an easy non-stop flight and a 45-minute shuttle ride to the slopes. We can ski the day we arrive and the day we leave – which in our case would be all day since our homebound flight was after 8 p.m. So we were looking at 4.5 days of uninterrupted bliss and FOUR breakfast buffets at the Aerie restaurant on the top floor of Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge, location of our honeymoon and a number of subsequent vacations.

It’s risky to book a ski trip, so I sprung for trip insurance for every aspect of the visit – flights, hotel, everything. I picked the week before Christmas since it’s very likely to be quiet: families are busy spending their money at the mall and preparing for their ski trips with the new equipment Santa will have brought. Snowbird has some outstanding packages for certain times of the year, and this was one of those times. Still, you never know whether there will be snow.

Fortunately, this year there was snow. Lots & lots & lots of snow as it turned out, and right before our arrival too. The view from our room was quintessential winter, and Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” wandered in and out of my head the whole time we were there.

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Being as I am an intermediate skier, knee-deep powder has zero appeal for me; so I was glad that the new blanket of white stuff had had a couple of days to be savored by the Real Skiers prior to our arrival. Give me the groomed runs, please, and please just help me please not turn a corner and find myself in a steeply sloped array of moguls please because I just cannot. I’m that kind of intermediate.

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I may as well tell you right now that the photos for this post are a patchwork of Snowbird and Alta – two amazing ski resorts that lie back-to-back in the Wasatch Mountains. We like being able to have the best of both worlds. Anyone who can pick out which photos are the Bird and which ones Alta, well, good for you! You obviously know how to have our kind of fun.

Snowbird, bless its dear heart, is a ski destination of mixed reviews from a person of my ability level. It is an amazing resort, no question. There are a seemingly endless array of lifts and trails and routes from top to bottom. However, any of the Bird’s blue (that means Intermediate on the trail map) runs can have me going along like gangbusters for an indefinite stretch and then BAM! without warning I am facing a horrifying stretch of steepness. (I think that when you are standing at the top of the run you should be able to look down and see the slope curving nicely downward. Not a straight wall of DOWN.) This can take a lot of the fun out of the day for a panic-prone athlete such as myself. Floyd keeps telling me, It’s just snow. It’s not like falling on chip-and-seal.

And I keep telling him, Easy for someone to say who’s never broken a bone on snow.

So it came to pass that on that first afternoon I sent Floyd off to the Bird’s many lifts while I remained on the teeny tiny kiddy slope right outside the Cliff Lodge, finding my balance and hoping against all hope that the lower back I’d annoyed doing yard work would permit me to stand when the time came to exit the teeny tiny lift chair. Since it is a safe space for people who have never seen skis before, it wouldn’t be the end of the world to simply roll off the chair; but I hate making a fool of myself on ski lifts. Don’t ask how I know this.

This is as good a time as any to explain why I don’t have an endless array of skiing photos. I saw so many little citizens looking absolutely adorable on the slopes, a few shots of the kiddy slope would be nice to have. But well you see, for this entire trip I was doing pitched battle with pockets. I was forever trying to find my lift ticket, my lip balm, my money, a tissue…all because of pockets. You will want a count, I am sure.

Start with the new ski pants I had to buy because I couldn’t find my old favorite ski pants (who loses ski pants?) and it’s just as well I picked out a nice warm inexpensive pair. They only have three pockets. Each one of which has a zipper.

I was able to find my excellent ski jacket with its removable liner that serves as a perfectly sweet fluffy pink cardigan. The cardigan part has two exterior pockets and two interior pockets, fortunately zipperless. Likewise, the jacket’s shell has two exterior (zippered, grrr) and two interior pockets plus one for your personal listening device which nowadays is your phone. That’s ten pockets to keep track of. The newfangled lift tickets no longer hang from your clothing; they reside in an empty exterior pocket, graciously bringing my aggravation possibilities down to nine.

Any need or search for any personal item while on the idyllic slopes or the occasionally chilly chair lift requires the removal of bulky mittens and the unzipping and zipping of numerous pockets, all the while hoping not to drop one’s ski poles or mittens. As someone who finds zippers frustrating even on a perfectly pleasant day at sea level, I am just not up to all that effort.

So, not many photos.

On the morning of our first full day, I was completely prepared to pretend I was ready for whatever blue runs Snowbird has to offer. Up the Gadzoom lift and down the familiar “Lunch Run,” we had the place virtually to ourselves. I found myself zipping along quite surprisingly, and only ended up near tears twice – not bad for me. A number of times I was able to resort to my Don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic mantra from skating days in order to calm the wobbles in my legs. You do what you gotta do.

Our actual lunch run took us to the tram and up 11,000 feet to the summit. We’d decided we had to eat at the restaurant we’d first learned about from the late Dick Bass himself. Dick Bass was a world traveler and visionary who came to fame as the first American to reach the summit of all seven of the world’s 8000 meter peaks. That he’d accomplished this with the assistance of mountain guides was looked upon askance by many serious mountaineers; but for good or ill there’s no denying he led the way into what I would call High Altitude Tourism. Nowadays it’s hardly unusual for people of means to hire teams of experts to get them to their dream pinnacles.

The last time we were at Snowbird, the resort Dick Bass brought to life, we went to a talk by filmmaker and author William Kerig, whose book The Edge of Never tells the story of a very powerful documentary Kerig had made with Kye Petersen, a fifteen-year-old who traveled to Chamonix to ski the run on which his father had died nearly a decade before. We bought the book, naturally, and had Kerig sign it for us.

Dick Bass was present, and since Floyd had just bought Bass’s book Seven Summits, about his own mountaineering experiences, I asked whether he’d be willing to sign Floyd’s copy. Floyd hurried back to our room to get the book and before I knew it the two of us were in Bass’s office looking at an enormous model of Snowbird and the drawings of a restaurant he was planning to build at the top of the tram. Dick Bass was a great talker, and you don’t often get to listen to someone who’s had such great adventures. We felt it was a privilege to have met him.

And on our first full day of vacation, that’s where we found ourselves at noon. I don’t need to scale Everest to get a taste of the top of the world; 11,000 feet is enough for me. It’s cold and windy enough to give me all I want to know about what it might be like to have to bivouac for the night up at twice that altitude on a serious mountain.

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The trip down from the summit of Snowbird can be quite daunting for the intermediate skier, but I acquitted myself reasonably well, I thought. Any time I get from the top to the bottom of a mountain without injury – or even snow up my nose – it’s a victory. Fortunately, my only falls on this trip were so blatantly stupid (I mean standing still and falling over stupid; or sliding to a fall and losing one ski and having a hella time snapping back into said ski while dear spouse was waiting some distance below with a plan to film me sailing triumphantly down), they did not instill the kind of fear that a more high-speed fall can do.

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One of the great things Snowbird has to offer is its proximity to Alta, a venerable hippie-style ski resort that features things like No Snowboards Allowed and senior citizen passes you can’t qualify for until you are 80 years of age. We love Alta. While the snowboarders are youthful and adorable – and I was glad to see this year that they are wearing their ski pants pulled all the way up and not down around their knees – at Snowbird many of the boarders find it inspiring to fly over your head while you are making your way along a narrow switchback on a treacherous-looking slope. No help for the nervous there.

So while we love the Cliff Lodge accommodations, we often do what we did this year – split our time between Snowbird and Alta. This is easily accomplished by either skiing to one summit and crossing over the no-man’s land to the top of the other resort, or taking  a free 10-minute bus ride from one location to the other. Our Snowbird package included a Snowbird four-day lift ticket, and it’s easy enough to add Alta’s fee. (It’s easy enough to add any fee on any vacation, amirite?) We took the bus.

All I know is, the skiing is easier at Alta. Which feels especially important to me on a day when it may snow.

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I can remember being at Alta on a very snowy day when I learned firsthand what they mean when they say “whiteout” conditions. I was on a very familiar run when all visibility suddenly turned to nothingness. I could barely see the people right around me, let alone the lay of the land. At any moment I could have skied right off the edge into trees or moguls or cold oblivion, without a single visual cue to orient myself.

On this day the predicted snow never materialized, but we did have some impressive “fog” to deal with. Let’s just call that “fog” what it is up there: cloud.

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Floyd and I amused ourselves with our great fortune in choosing runs that for the most part weren’t caught in the worst of the cloud stuff. I really, really like being able to see where I am skiing.

When we first visited Alta earlier this century, the Watson Shelter was a little wooden shack of a lunch-spot-cum-swag-shop. You had to duck your head as you went down the entrance steps and in the door. I’m glad I have a shirt from the old Watson Shelter. When it came time to build a new one, and they have built a really sweet new one, the only sensible thing to do was burn the old one to the ground. I’m told all the accumulated decades of grease from all those French fries caused quite the conflagration. Somehow the grilled cheese and tomato has never been the same, but it’s a great spot for lunch anyway.

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It’s equally excellent, when you aren’t staying at a hotel, to have carried your lunch with you. I looked upon fellow diners’ PB&J’s with a certain envy, to tell you the truth. But the plan has already launched itself to rent a big house next year and see how many relatives and friends we can talk into joining us. Because both Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons are so close, a house in the middle means easy access to not only Snowbird and Alta but also Brighton and an array of other resorts. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

I have never considered myself an athlete, but I was fortunate enough to have a childhood that instilled in me a love of playing outside. To spend all day in a cold outdoors, tromping through snow (that familiar crunch, crunch of dry snow underfoot); the simple pleasure of hot chocolate while your mittens dry on the radiator beside you; the sense at the end of the day that you have spent all your physical resources and can barely drag yourself to dinner – these days are wonderful to me. So wonderful I feel sorry for people who have no taste for them. And I feel doubly fortunate that the same level of sensory fullness accompanies a summer day at the beach, or a day of hiking.

At the end of our last Alta day I made my way to the base before Floyd. Not because I’d raced him down but because we’d skied to our different skill levels all the afternoon. Does it seem impossible that the afternoon’s hot chocolate can so easily give way to the late afternoon’s pale ale? Childhood thirsts encounter grown-up desires and nothing matters as long as I can loosen my boots and take off  few layers of clothing. It’s not a bad place to sit and wait for your spouse to be done with his day.

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In the evenings we did indeed drag ourselves to dinner. The first night, it was roughly zero degrees Fahrenheit and I could feel my nose hairs freeze (TMI?). After that we had 30 degree days and so walked to dinner encountering slush in the parking lots and treacherous freeze-thaw-freeze stretches of sidewalk as the sun fell behind the mountains on the other side of Salt Lake City. It was all good.

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Our last day was a Thursday, and by that time my feet were in all-out rebellion. I can tell I’ve had a great vacation when I’m sufficiently used up to be almost relieved it’s over. between the time we finished skiing and the hour when the shuttle would bring us down to the airport, Floyd and I took advantage of some of those fat comfortable couches hotels like to plant here and there. To simply sit and watch the end of the skiing day, as one by one the lifts emptied, the tram brought down the last of the people who’d made the summit restaurant ready for tomorrow, and the final few Snowbird employees who all seem to love their jobs.

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I had the odd feeling I often have at the end of a vacation: tomorrow those lifts will run, this hotel will be full, people will be filling their plates at the Aerie breakfast buffet and making their way to the Gadzoom lift without me. At the center of my infantile egocentricity this is always a surprise, as if when I leave a place it  must cease to exist.

One way or another, though, I imagine I’ll ski in Utah again. Maybe with some grandchildren. Maybe we’ll all carry PB&J to lunch, and buy hot chocolate at the Mid-Gad Restaurant or the Watson Shelter. We’ll eat surrounded by loud red-cheeked children and the tired-looking grown-ups who’ve been up with them since dawn. We’ll lay our mittens on the radiator beside the long table and talk about what runs we want to tackle this afternoon.

It’s good to have something to look forward to in 2017.

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