Roger Marolt: Roger This
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
The wind was calm, the sky nothing but blue. It was warm enough to be comfortable in a light spring jacket. I was standing on top of Big Burn at Snowmass Mountain with my 12-year-old son taking in the rare occurrence of a January day like this in Colorado at nearly 12,000 feet above mean sea level. It occurred to us that a day such as this was designed for skiing runs off the Cirque. We settled on Gowdy’s run as the sign indicated that it was “open,” and it seemed like a helluva day to waste walking to any of the others above it.
On the traverse over I reminded Max that it hadn’t snowed in over a week. I had hoped it came out in the tone of a remark, as intended, rather than as man preaching to boy, as it was taken. We have skied together enough that he knew what I meant.
“I’m not stupid, Dad,” he said with a grin.
“I know that, Max. We just need to be a little more careful today, that’s all.”
As we approached, the landscape fell away leaving us staring into the yawning gap that had waited patiently for millions of years as a glacier carved it out of the mountainside and for us to show up with skis this day. My guess is that the floor of the valley was close to a thousand feet below us.
“Whoa!” Max exclaimed, an uncharacteristic remark from a kid who has grown up on skis angled into steep snow, who feels more at home with a 144 centimeters of torsionally rigid fiberglass-wrapped graphite planks with embedded steel edges clamped to his feet than in even a pair of his well-worn Nikes.
“Yeah,” I said in a calm voice, trying to talk over the solid thumping suddenly occurring in my chest.
We surveyed the entry into the run and were held silently in awe. It was a lot different than the last time we descended it in 2 feet of fresh powder last February during the greatest winter in a decade. Back then the rim was wide and offered a selection of entryways into the powder clinging to the run’s face below. Now, the perimeters were guarded by stout, proudly protruding rocks that forbade passage at all points except for a narrow 15-foot-wide runnel in the center. There were no marks where anyone had set an edge into the upper surfaces of that run in quite some time. Those who had descended it had done so sideways, scraping the surface for the length of five or six turns to a consistency of petulant frost on a windshield.
For those who don’t know Gowdy’s, it is steep. It faces to the lee so that wind, in homage, tries to build a cornice for it to wear as a crown. There is enough traffic on it so that a true, overhanging cornice doesn’t form, but what remains is a reasonable facsimile thereof. The first few ski lengths of the run are nearly vertical snow, like the edge of a gigantic snow bank cut by a passing plow, far steeper than it could naturally fall in the middle of any mountainside without instantly sliding off. This, on top of the next third of the run which is still pushing 50-plus degrees in angle, now cured hard by warm days and cold, snowless nights, made getting into this run a gamble.
That last time I had seen a run close to being in this condition was Walsh’s on Aspen Mountain about 15 years ago. It was then that they were experimenting with grooming the steepest runs on the mountain by lowering snowcats down them with cables on winches. They buffed out Walsh’s in this manner and then it didn’t snow for a long time. The snow got hard and remained without blemish for days.
My brother and I stood at the top of it one morning as a couple of intermediate skiers found themselves lost, perched on its edge. Timidly the woman started across the slope when she ejected from both bindings and proceeded to cartwheel down the entire slope like a rag doll kicked down a staircase. It was sickening to see.
Her boyfriend wailed in terror. My brother skied over to him to prevent another catastrophe from occurring. I sprinted to the patrol phone just above us and then skied down to the woman. She was breathing and blinking her eyes, but otherwise lay completely motionless. I comforted and assured her the best I could and within minutes the ski patrol was there to take care of her. I don’t know if she lived.
“This run should be closed,” Max said.
“Yes, it should,” I replied. “But, I’m glad it’s not.”
He looked at me puzzled, but for only a moment. He knew what I was about. Our children have spent enough time with my wife and I in the mountains to value the privilege of having access to it. They know the thrill of being un-chaperoned there and that when we are there, we are always truly un-chaperoned. They have learned that the beauty of being in the wild is that she goes about her business unconcerned with us and that this incredible anonymity is also a thing we must be concerned with. Part of why we love it so much is because we know it will never be completely tamed.
Clearly marked ski area boundaries, runs festooned with florescent banners cautioning us to ski slowly in congested zones, lift towers plastered with warning signs, red bamboo poles marking obstacles that might trip us up in the snow, and steep powder slopes black with the ash from bombs detonated to free them from avalanches tend to give us a false sense of security. Perhaps that is why Max and I read the sign on the board that said “open” and found ourselves on the brink of Gowdy’s. Whether or not the run should have been open or closed wasn’t a question for us. What was nice is that a debate ensued between a father and son about whether we would ski it.
What did we do? That’s not important. We made our own decision. It was a great day in the mountains.
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Columnist Roger Marolt is learning to hold his breath longer during these hot, dry summers, he writes.