Roger Marolt: Prime cut of a great ski season cooked all the way through
I missed a sign, clearly, but I wasn’t looking for one, either. Message boards are more for bored lifties trying to outsmart tourists with trivia questions that one has 10 seconds to ponder before blurting out an obvious but invariably incorrect answer. I’ve got other stuff to consider on the ride up like, “Why did I wax with blue just because I was out of red?” — one of those times when nothing would have been better than something.
That I was the only one hiking the lower ridge of The Bowl didn’t clue me in that I was headed in the wrong direction, either. The entire mountain was practically empty. I arrived at the point where the snowcat normally drops skiers off and there was an orange rope draped across the trail behind a big, fat “closed” sign.
The Bowl closed on the last day of the season? Impossible! Who cares if it’s raining at mid-mountain or that it feels like the place unofficially shut down the day before when the sun shone like it was in charge? Never mind that the snow is stickier than a cup holder in a minivan. I came for the cardio workout that defines The Bowl and, really, the persona of Highlands.
“What’s up?” I asked a patrolman, busy gathering bamboo poles around the gated community for powder hounds and mountain sheep.
“There’s lightning in the area,” he informed me without making eye contact.
I hadn’t noticed any of the usual signs: thunder, bright flashes or crackles of static electricity from ski poles swinging at my side. It was funny they were still running the lifts in a thunderstorm. I spied the half-dozen other miniature patrollers along the route to the top, coiling rope and putting The Bowl away for the summer. You might say I spotted a bluff on that ridge.
“I know you are a pretty fit bunch,” I said, “but I doubt any of them working up there have a better chance of outrunning lightning than the rest of us would.”
The patrolman smiled.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s all over for this year.”
And so it was. I was left to ski Highlands for the sake of skiing Highlands. As Aspen Mountain is for show-offs, in technical skiing style or ostentatious displays of wealth, Highlands is the Mecca of alpine fitness. I had forgotten how to judge it as a ski area.
The regular skiing was tricky that day. The fresh inch of glop held me back until I edged and got into the slippery corn underneath that allowed my skis to accelerate suddenly into the next patch of Elmers glue. Balance was difficult, continually stressing my legs and core. One run down Mushroom and my thighs were sauteed and buttery.
On the way up I thought about my buddy, Tim Fortier. He did 22 laps in Deep Temerity one day. It was right around 40,000 vertical feet of steep, relentless, Whack-A-Mole bumps. He showed me the app on his phone that tracked the feat. It looked like the steady EKG of a marathoner recovering in yoga class.
It is an incredible accomplishment. You have to go non-stop to squeeze that many runs into a day. It’s like running a couple dozen 400 meter sprints at full hatchet, your heart rate red-lining every lap. Moby Dick would be easier to catch than your breath. Picture lava pushing through cracks in the Earth’s mantle and there you have your thighs.
Some say skiing isn’t good exercise. It’s a debate I’ve heard all my life. In my experience there are few more thorough workouts. Core and leg strength, hitting your anaerobic threshold repeatedly, balance, flexibility, quickness — it’s enough to make you sweat through your parka when it’s 5-below zero.
I thought about this as I muscled through three more laps in Temerity. They didn’t go as well as I hoped. I was weak. I was tired. I was lazy. My body was saying, “Enough is enough, already,” so I heeded its warning and my turn from the lift’s unloading ramp got me lined up with home.
From the top of Thunder Bowl, the base area may as well have been the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Its sight coaxed me into my kick. This incredible event of a ski season was going to finish the same way it began, on the predictable consistency of smooth, manmade snow. I lowered my stance and swung the skis from side to side as they eagerly snapped rhythmically from turn to turn all the way to the end. I came to a stop in the deserted base area as my heart pounded and the sky drizzled its gray sauce on the season that was now well done.
Roger Marolt likes the offseason for its healing effects. Eamil at email@example.com.