Tony Vagneur: Gotta be ready for when it does come
April 13, 2018
We'd made seven or eight runs, the sun was going down, and the whop, whop, whop of the helicopter blades was comforting. A short conversation between our guide and the pilot revealed that for some reason, long forgotten now, only half of us would be able to ride the chopper out. The rest would have to bushwhack, or ski, or whatever, to get back to the lodge. I immediately volunteered to take the hard way out.
Was I crazy? Hell no! True, we had paid thousands of dollars each for the privilege of heli-assisted skiing, but on the other hand, skiing is an adventure and I'd likely never have that opportunity again. Why complain? How often do you get stranded in the Canadian Monashees and (with the help of a guide) have to figure out how you are going to get out of there? As it turned out, the problem was resolved and all of us hunkered down in the chopper for the ride home.
If you were around in 1958, maybe you got to ski Highlands that opening winter. The rush had been on to open on time and leftover slash lined the sides of some of the trails. By Christmas, there hadn't been enough snowfall to cover it all, but guys like Don Stapleton and myself liked sliding off to the edge, cutting a few powder turns here and there in what we knew was dangerous terrain.
No self-respecting tourist would wander over there, at least that's what management likely thought, and they were probably correct. I remember it mostly because I skied under a log, thinly hidden, and found myself lucky my left leg wasn't totally ripped off. We laughed about that, how somebody could have gotten hurt, and kept going, right down the side of the trail, getting a few more powder turns in.
It used to be that, before the top of Mill got developed, enterprising skiers could cut across from the old Lift One, through the top of Mill and up a small trail cut through the brush over to Little Nell, if they wanted to beat a long line at the bottom of No. 1, which we couldn't necessarily see until we got there. It doesn't seem like a big deal today, but if we'd been skiing Ruthie's all day, it was nice to know we had an alternative when the crack of noon crowd arrived. Back then, it was a big deal having the choice, and half of the motivation was that it comprised an adventure.
How about those days when it snows about a foot and the cloud cover hangs over the valley with temperatures in the low teens? Light, fluffy powder, sticking in your throat and squirreling into every crevice of your ski clothes. Laughter all the way up about how great that last run was and where should we go this time? And the next morning there's 6 or 7 inches of new fluff on top of the morning before, and tired legs say, "What the hell, here we go again."
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And in the rarity of an Aspen winter, a third morning of dumped-on ski terrain and most everyone who should know better stays home and you have the mountain to yourself. Find a run you like and ski it two or three times because the only tracks on it are yours. Or those days when it hasn't snowed for a week or two and the snow is rock-hard and fast, a speedster's delight! The kind of snow Gale Spence used to say, "I love it."
Sure, lucky you, if you're a tourist. It's snowing so much the planes can't leave and you get to keep your room at the hotel because the planes can't land, either. Forget about all those promises and obligations you made for tomorrow — no one can change Mother Nature. Yes!
There are, to be sure, winters like this past one that seem to bring out the bitchiness in some of the spoiled locals who, over the years have become like ticketholders lined up at the Disneyland rollercoaster, expecting the best skiing, every day, every winter. That attitude spreads, you know, and over the winter I heard numerous complaints from visitors noting the unhappiness of "entitled" locals who weren't very appreciative of the winter we did have. May, I say, living here is an adventure, without guarantee, or did I say that already?
Mark Hesselschwerdt, ubiquitous Aspen Mountain ski aficionado, said it best early in the winter when asked if he was skiing every day.
"You bet, got to get those legs in shape for when it does come."
Best advice ever!
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.