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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Mountain mornings begin with the stars, a twinkling array of which I see from my bedroom window. The promise of day lies in the faint glow to the east toward which the world is smoothly spinning.

I get up early most mornings, but earlier when there’s a ski tour planned. Few other sports require early starts – not baseball, football, fencing or croquet – but early starts are essential for ski touring in the mountains. It’s smart to add a cushion to your timing, and in the spring, when the snow softens, it’s better to climb on hard morning snow.

The house is quiet. The only sound is the humming of the fridge. I let the cats out of the laundry room, where they sleep in their laundry baskets. I toss them their toy mice, which they wrestle with across the floor. I prep the coffee, slice a juicy red grapefruit, and surgically excise each segment with knife and spoon, a discipline that helps awaken my groggy brain. Soon there’s the smell of coffee perking, which floats in the air like a thought bubble saying, “Go!”

Once my senses are awake, I step out onto the porch. My skis are there, leaning against the railing, waxed and ready. I sniff the air, cool and fresh, and note the dim light on the red rock cliffs of the Seven Castles in my backyard. I breathe in the calm, quiet of morning.

I go to the wood box and grab an armful of kindling to light the wood stove so it’s crackling hot when my wife, Lu, gets up. She appreciates that, as she does the half grapefruit at her place at the table and the half pot of hot, black coffee.

Eating breakfast by the window with a warm, purring cat on my lap, I watch the light change. The first rays of sun hit the ridge across from us, then burst full upon the Seven Castles, casting a reddish glow across the Frying Pan Valley. Soon magpies are squawking, a deer wanders through the yard, a raven cackles. Nature is stirring.

I wake my son, Tait, give him the weather report, outline the plans for the day. He struggles out of bed, stumbles downstairs, gulps down some juice, and looks at me with the sleepy eyes of a 17-year-old that ask, “Do we have to do this?” He knows the answer: Yes, if we’re going to get up high.

We heat up homemade burritos and wrap them in foil. We enfold them in our down vests to keep them hot, stuff them into our packs, and we’re out the door. The smell of wood smoke scents the air as we clamp our skis in the car rack. We run the checklist for poles, boots, skins, water bottles, mittens, sun block – the simple necessities.

Our destination is always the same – the high mountains where the snow is deep and the air is cold and the views are big. We love living in these mountains because of the gifts they offer, especially on tour days when we feel most alive and vital.

We meet our buddies at the park ‘n’ ride, carpool to a trailhead, and set off on the steady, all-day pace. We might follow a creek up a valley or climb a ridge through aspens, oaks, spruce and fir. Our breathing and heartbeats are the metronomes we heed. Soon, we’re up among rocky ridges and cornices where the wind bites, the air is thin, and we gulp it greedily.

My energy grows with every foot we climb. The higher the mountains, the more energized I feel. There’s a subtle euphoria, a spirited excitement, to reaching high where few others go, where the blue sky is so dark it’s nearly black, where the rocks are young, the shadows long, where the intensity of the moment transcends all middling concerns.

Morning morphs into afternoon. The high sun leads us to high summits. We ski down on breakable crust or windblown hard pack or, if we’re lucky, light, untracked powder. But we’re not in it for the turns. Gratification comes from skiing with friends in wild places.

Later, when I replay the day in my mind, usually just before sleep, it all begins with the mountain morning: the glimmering stars, that faint first light at daybreak, the beginning of an adventure.


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