Vagneur: A blizzard of immense proportions
November 25, 2016
It's the cold and wind, I reckon, that trigger a lot of memories. Things happen around us all the time, but there needs to be a catalyst that brings a long-forgotten memory into view along with whatever is happening, and blowing cold seems to be a major facilitator.
It was a blizzard of immense proportions, or so it seemed, visibility almost zero and we needed to get off the mountain as quickly and safely as possible. It was a Wednesday afternoon in the 1950s, the winter activities day at the Aspen schools, and I was skiing with a small group of kids under the tutelage of Florence Glidden, mother of renowned western writer and bear chaser Dan Glidden.
We'd left the Sundeck about the time it started, only it didn't seem that serious and our pride kept us from even considering a lift ride down. That's what tourists did in the summer. In those days, there were three lifts on Aspen Mountain, 1, 2 (single chairs) and 3 (today's Ajax Express), and the options to get down were rather limited. There was the west side, Ruthies and Roch, or Spar Gulch. Copper was still a narrow trap of sorts and would have been a minefield of dangers in poor visibility.
We took Midway Cut-off over to the Ruthie's side — the decision had to be made at the top of the mountain as there was no FIS (6) lift to bail you out of Spar if you changed your mind. As a youngster, I always loved the Midway Cut-off as it provided a lot of opportunities for goofing around, but on this day, it was pure seriousness.
The snow had begun to drift and, weighing next to nothing, it was nearly impossible for us kids to keep up much speed and we had to pole our way over the moguls that impeded our progress, packing up one side of the big ones and sliding down the other, working up a sweat at the same time our hands and feet were losing feeling due to encroaching numbness.
By the time we got to Ruthie's, we were in a virtual whiteout and Mrs. Glidden laid down the rules — she paired us off in twos and told us to keep in visual and voice contact with each other and the person in front of us.
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We went slowly because we had to and it was still a little bit exciting, fighting a battle with Mother Nature and winning, although we still had a long way to go. The struggle of going around Midway Cut-off had stayed with me, and although not debilitating, its presence was still being felt.
We got to the top of Roch and ducked in there as quickly as we could, the trees on the left keeping the wind down and giving us a bit more visibility than we'd previously had. But the bumps were huge and it was becoming tedious, taking them one after the other, up one side, down the other, over and over again. My fingers and feet were past all feeling, the wind and blowing snow kept stinging my face and all I could think about was my grandmother's warm kitchen over on Bleeker.
Maybe if I lie down: if I could just stop behind a large mogul, curl up and take a nap, maybe I'll feel better; and no, maybe after I do another mogul I can lie down and rest. I'd lost my partner, was last in line, was totally on my own and didn't really care anymore. I did another mogul and another. Farther down the trail, Mrs. Glidden was waiting for me, calling out my name.
The doctor shined a bright light on the side of my face, smacked his lips a little and quickly dispensed with his opinion. "It's a serious case of frostbite, that's what's causing the pain. The skin will peel off even worse than it has so far but I expect that you'll heal rather quickly. You'll be OK."
Amazing, I thought. Routinely, our fingers used to get so cold we could no longer feel them and when we went inside the pain was almost excruciating as they thawed out. Walking home at the end of the day, I'd sometimes have to stop and massage my fingers they'd hurt so badly. And here I was, being told I had frostbitten the right side of my face, "frozen my jaw" as my mother put it.
We had the best equipment available, but it wasn't very good, and we froze our faces, fingers, feet and asses off and kept going. If we had stopped, we'd have never learned how to ski or had as much fun as we did.
Kudos to the Wednesday afternoon activities club at the Aspen schools when I was a kid.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
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