RealSkiers: The Best Of Times
Just one corner of the boundless playground. (RealSkiers)
Every day I get the chance to ski is better than a day I don't.
I may get rained on, pelted with grapple with the density of ball bearings, scorched by winds that would fell a rainforest, feel my legs wobble a half hour into a six-hour day and on any given morning an old wound or a new one may inhibit my sense of daring. But most days aren't like that. Most ski days turn out to be sensational, one way or another.
Just because they're all wonderful does not mean that all ski days are created equal.
A day that affords the opportunity to slice through uncut, bottomless powder is different. The ache to ski fresh snow is so great it has totally warped the alpine, in-resort ski market and propelled backcountry skiing out of the fringes and into the mainstream. In North America, at least, it seems all but a handful of advanced skiers would list fresh, untrammeled powder as their preferred snow condition.
My lifelong love affair with Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to Alta and Snowbird, is predicated on the premise that the prospects for powder are high. While my heart is always there, my mortal shell resides elsewhere, so I'm obliged to pick a future window and hope my gamble coincides with Nature's disposition to snow.
I don't want to recall all the years I've been shut out. Suffice it to say, I lugged a pair of Völkl Shiros to LCC for four years straight and never had reason to set them on snow. I still had a great time and don't regret a single minute of any strikeout visit.
But "strikeout" isn't the desired adjective, is it? It refers to something missed, not just once, but thrice, disappointment compounded. Wouldn't it be better to have a brief sojourn coincide with a Triple Crown, a trifecta of powder fulfillment, a metaphysical three-day weekend of uncut bliss?
In case you had any doubt, the answer is not just yes, but yes to the nth degree.
In my charmed life, every visit to Snowbird has the potential to deliver three possible powder epiphanies. One, the canyon can close due to avalanche danger, meaning most of the public can't get to the area before you sneak a couple of laps in. Two, you are in the company of a Seven Summits member, which grants access to early trams, which translates into trackless snow. Or three, have the resources and foresight to book Powderbird for a day of heli skiing you won't soon forget.
Please don't resent me for this, but I just scored all three. No, I didn't have the resources or foresight, but I've been blessed to make the sort of friends that lend meaning to the word "friend" beyond the shallow waters of social media.
All appearances to the contrary, this isn't a tale about me. This is a about an "us," one of the thousands of friendships and familial bonds that weave the fabric of skiing.
I first came to this canyon in the 78/79 season at the behest of my big brother Tim, a true Friend of Alta. We all skied on skinny skis then, which made powder skiing a dicey business only a few could master. Capable powder skiers were a small community, which served to strengthen the bonds among them. When reinforced by the strength of family or friendship, the exercise of powder proficiency creates a powerful gravitational pull that keeps lives in synchronous orbit throughout their passage.
Now, the mega-fat powder ski has flung open the powder-skiing portals to the less proficient. A revelatory vignette:
Last Friday, as the Dude, Goo, Rick and I tucked into a robust breakfast at the Powderbird base facility, we were joined at the table by another four eager souls psyched for a bucket-list day. Imagine our surprise when one of their number, brown eyes bright with innocent anticipation, asks if we wouldn't share a few tips, as they'd never skied powder before.
Such a question was unthinkable 30 years ago, as was the outcome of our fresh-to-freshies crew's experience. After spending the day on skis wide enough to serve as the hood on a Coupe de Ville, they were totally hooked. (Our advice, BTW, was it was way too late for thinking. Don't sit back, ski "normally," whatever that may be, and do exactly as your guide instructs. They not only survived, they came back glowing with the incandescence of the newly converted.
I realize heli-skiing is an elitist activity. While we flew, several earthbound parties hauled themselves uphill beneath us. (Our guides took pains to preserve the lines for which they climbed, step by step.) But while it's highly selective on the economics front, it's totally egalitarian from a skills perspective.
A ginormous ski, rockered to the moon and back, will ferry any pilot safely across new snow. Without such skis, I'm not sure how heli guides could cope with a clientele incessantly cratering into the snow they now float over as if to the manner born. I know I would require more medication than the job description permits.
This Revelation is dedicated to a day unlike any other and to wingmen who have nourished my life and given it a resonance it would not have otherwise. Hats off to Ole at Powderbird and our guides Matt and Rusty. A special thanks to my wife for indulging my perpetual adolescence. And all the gratitude I can express for the hundreds of runs we've shared to the Dude, Rickus Dickus and the Goo.