Paul Andersen: The mob mentality on a powder day
You could feel the tension building at Lift 1A Thursday morning — a declared powder day.
The snow report didn’t lie: 14 inches on Aspen Mountain. It was a day for heroics on the steep and deep where a perfect storm had come in hot and left cold, laying down a wet, adhering base and piling on snow that grew lighter and lighter.
Driving upvalley from Basalt was a journey into a snow globe. Coming from the warm climate downvalley, the snow blossomed like cotton balls. Our expectations grew with the blooms.
By Woody Creek, the trees and bushes were flocked white as if a group of mischievous children armed with whipped cream aerosol cans had decorated everything in sight.
The sun filtered through, yet deep gray clouds lingered over the ski mountains, shedding the last remnants of the dump from the night before. The cloud cover was just right to keep the snow soft and fluffy.
My son, Tait, and I were not alone in our pilgrimage to the mountain. Thousands of skiers and snowboarders congregated to shred the pow on the best day of the season. The stoke factor was high for us desperate, powder-starved addicts, which intensified the vibe at Lift 1A.
I wiggled the car into an illegal parking place where I hoped not to get towed or ticketed, then Tait and I huffed up the hill to the lift. It was 8:15, and we were surprised that at least 50 expectant revelers had already formed a line that arced up the ski run.
There was a partying mood as friends recognized each other despite helmets, goggles and masks. Cheerful banter rose from the crowd, which grew rapidly. The gondola line was already so long that the “smart” crowd hedged their bets by clomping over to 1A. Wrongo!
If you weren’t there shortly after 8, you became part of a total cluster, a frenzied mess that seems to be the new normal here. As the crowd swelled, with swarms still coming, the tension was palpable. There was no order to the queue, no authority to keep things sane, no Aspen SKiing Co. staff to orchestrate the mob. Chaos was in the making.
By 9 a.m., the line snaked uphill and down, across and around, a serpentine serendipity that confused everybody. Late arrivals were shunted here and there by line holders who were not about to give an inch in their priority. Line cutters became the worst of pariahs, called out and heckled.
The lift opening was delayed, which added to the aggravation of skiers checking their phones, stomping in the snow, their patience sorely tested. When the first chair loaded, a collective shout rose to the heavens with all the bottled up anxiety of a powder posse with the scent of freshies. And then order began to break down.
Since the serpentine lines converged, opportunists took advantage in a blending and blurring that challenged the earned privilege of the early risers. Shouting, booing and cursing echoed off the mountain as anger prevailed.
Once we were on our chairlift, overlooking the confusion, it seemed that violence could break out at any moment, such was the absurd hunger for fresh tracks. Later, we heard that an unrepentant line cutter who got on the lift despite shouts of derision was totally destroyed by a well-deserved barrage of snowballs fired from the hostile crowd.
But hey, it was worthwhile getting up early that day. Aspen trees glinted silver with hoar frost as rays of sun swept over iridescent ridgelines. Evergreens wore their heavy, white winter coats with beautiful symmetry. Untracked runs through perfect powder on a glorious postcard day are forever etched in our memories.
COVID limited lift capacity, so skiing was relatively uncrowded once you were up. Still, the mountain was pretty well skied out by early afternoon when numbers dwindled to only the hardcore … of which I, alas, was not one.
This 70-year-old telemarker felt every deep powder turn over the next several days. Going down the stairs — a step at a time — was a reminder of mortality. But what a blessing to feel like a ski god on that glorious day.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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