Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore |

Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

It started out simple enough, a flat-light day with a promise of snow but nothing definite. Around noon, the wind began to pick up with an on-again, off-again blast of tiny snowflakes, the kind that sting when you face the blustery rage.

By 2 o’clock, a full-on winter storm was in the making; the gondola was moving at a snail’s pace, and tourists with snow-plastered faces were skiing up to the Embassy (that’s what we call the ambassador shack at the top of Aspen Mountain), asking directions for the best way down. Most of the locals had fled for work or their favorite watering holes, and the place looked deserted.

As we began to revel in the severity of the storm (and we’re always slow to do this because most storms usually end before they ever really get started), the gondola closed for the day. That finality long had been anticipated because of the high winds, but such an act, even though expected, is a huge interdiction in the mind of the skiing public. The gondola is the main lift around which everyone (excuse me, almost everyone) plans their access to the mountain. Paradoxically, it is also the way many folks choose to leave the mountain when the weather turns bad.

There’s nothing like a raging storm to put the chill of excitement down your back, and three of us embarked on one more run on top before hanging it up. Summit was about as good as it could get, a small sanctuary from the wind, and after a raucous ride down its bulging moguls, we headed up No. 3 to get a hot chocolate before heading home. My buddies, Albie Kern and Don Stapleton, were in official Skico uniforms, carrying the weight of authority, but that was the last thing on our minds.

Just over Dipsy Bowl, the lift stopped and not briefly. The high-speed quad had, for whatever reason, decided to stall for an extended period. There isn’t much to do in such a situation but sit it out, which wasn’t exactly pleasant. The wind was whipping our chair around, forward, backward and sideways, and after a few seconds, we agreed to put the safety bar down or risk being blown into the void. Like bad karma, the storm worsened as we sat, filling every wrinkle in our clothing (and faces) with snow, and only after about 20 minutes did we finally start moving again – albeit very slowly.

We stumbled into the Sundeck, a little cold but thrilled at the adventure and were rapidly taken by surprise. Don and Albie, in their uniforms, were magnets to a group of concerned skiers, about 30 strong.

“Are they going to send snowcats to get us off the mountain?” “What if they can’t get up here? What will happen to us?”

The cry for help was sincere but seemingly out of place. Weren’t we standing on top of one of the best ski hills in the world?

We convinced most of the patrons to follow our plan of attack, which was to ski down the mountain, single file, going slow enough that everyone could keep the person in front of them in view. Don was going to lead, Albie was in the middle, and I was going to bring up the rear. We’d built up everyone’s confidence, put at least partial smiles on their faces and headed out to face the wild abyss.

As we clicked into our bindings, a voice of irritated mourning headed our way from the gondola. “The friggin’ gondola is closed. How am I gonna get down?” This was a young guy, who looked to be athletic and strong. We invited him to ski down with us.

“Bullshit,” he said, “I’m waiting for a snowcat.”

Four or five from our group retreated and followed him back inside.

Like Ripley said, believe it or not, but the Skico did send up a couple of snowcats to remove a rather fearful cluster of customers. In retrospect, it seems a little contrived, calling for snowcats when winter weather and blowing snow are the basics of skiing. Whatever it was, we’d kill for a day like that right about now.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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