Speed kills (or comes pretty close, anyway) | AspenTimes.com
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Speed kills (or comes pretty close, anyway)

Todd Hartley

I suppose that sufficient years have passed that I can now speak freely about the scariest moment I ever had on skis without fear of any pending legal repercussions. I was reminded of it the other day at Snowmass, and it’s a little bit funny, so if you will kindly indulge me for the next few paragraphs, I’d love to share it with you.

It was about this time several years ago, and I was a second-year ski instructor (or “ski professional” as we tried to call ourselves at the time) at Snowmass Ski Area. My first season had concluded with me winning rookie-of-the-year honors, and one of my perks the following winter was that I was given a level 8 Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club class to ski with each Saturday.

The kids were all good skiers, and they liked nothing better than going fast, which suited me just fine and was quite an upgrade from the barely-level 4 toddlers I’d had as a rookie. Each weekend when we got together we’d head out looking for uncrowded groomers, eschewing bumps, steeps and all but the choicest powder, and then proceed to go as fast as we possibly could until we ran out of real estate.

It was a rare treat when any of the runs down to the Campground lift were freshly groomed. They’re pretty steep, and they have all manner of neat twists and rolls, so they make for fun cruising, particularly at the speeds my class liked to go. So that day when we arrived at the top of Sam’s Knob and saw that Campground itself, the steepest, twistiest run of them all, was nothing but fresh corduroy, my eyes lit up.

“Oh boy,” I hollered to the class. “This is going to be great. We can go bombing down this one.”

And that’s when I said something I probably shouldn’t have said: “Why don’t we all tuck down this steep pitch right here and see how fast we can go?”

A couple of the kids seemed enthused about the idea, and to fuel their excitement I spun around and headed out to show them what I was talking about. I kicked and poled a couple of times to gain speed and then dropped into the tightest tuck I could muster down a steep face near the top of the run.

In no time at all I was doing perhaps 60 or 65 miles an hour and thinking to myself what a cool instructor I was to let my kids do something like this. Then, to my surprise, the slope leveled out for just a second, and it struck me as odd that I hadn’t noticed from above.

And that’s when I saw the big roller that cut all the way across the slope.

Just beyond the flat section, the trail dropped away precipitously, though I failed to see that in the somewhat flat light. I was launched over the edge before I could so much as think of slowing down, and I just took off. Believe me when I tell you that at no other time in my life have I come close to flying that far on skis. I’d swear I went 150 feet easily.

I’m convinced that the only thing that saved me was the fact that I was traveling so fast. I basically skipped on my landing, but somehow I managed to keep it together and stay on my feet. Even so I was a football field away from the roller by the time I was able to stop.

My heart was beating like a trip hammer, and I spent a moment taking stock of my own condition before a terrifying thought screamed into my head: The kids are right behind me!

I turned and yelled as loud as I could for them to stop, but I was sure they didn’t hear me, and I knew that my ski school career was about to come to an inglorious end. I figured I’d likely be hit with a flood of lawsuits as well, depending on how many of the kids actually died.

Fortunately, only one kid hit the drop-off with any speed, but he hit it going really fast. He flew perhaps a hundred feet or so and plummeted to the ground with a hellacious smack. His skis and poles came flying off, and his little limp body spun down the slope like a battered starfish. There were no signs of life.

I kicked off my skis and sprinted up the slope to where the poor kid had finally come to rest. I picked him up and cradled him in my arms, and his little eyes finally opened, and he looked up at me … and then he said the four greatest words I’ve ever heard: “That was so cool!”


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