Vagneur: Executive decision pays off on Aspen Mountain
It was Presidents Day Weekend and Aspen Mountain seemed a bit crowded, but if you got off the groomers you had the mountain to yourself. Along those lines, I pulled into an opening in a relatively thin copse of pines near the bottom of Blondie’s to take a quick leak, and as I stood there with it hanging out for all the world and a scurrying population of squirrels to see, the outline of a strong skier coming over the horizon caught my peripheral vision and I made a silent bet with myself as to who would finish first — the skier or me.
As I turned my attention back to the squirrels, the sound of the skier whooshed by and I heard a gruff voice holler my name. “Who the hell was that?” I exclaimed and hurriedly zipped up, thinking I might catch the bum, and as I exited the trail, there was my buddy Erik waiting for me.
“Wanna go ski some brush?” he asked with a big smile. Before we go any further, you need to know that Erik, Erkki Peltonen to be exact, was my mentor on the Aspen Mountain ski patrol and over the years we’ve hunted and found some damned delicious terrain together. Erik’s motto about finding good snow on those variable days, which has become mine as well is, “If you don’t go, you’ll never know.”
“Count me in,” I said, and we headed for a small part of the mountain I used to ski a lot but hadn’t really touched for over 40 seasons. In recent years, this topography is sometimes open to the public, but back then, it was off-limits to all except those on avalanche patrol.
It didn’t take much, a foot of new snow maybe, and we’d congregate at the powder house, or the explosives stash or whatever you wanted to call it, back in the days before 9/11 when it wasn’t too complicated, and we’d load up in teams of two, one guy carrying the bombs, the other a row of fuses and caps.
Skiing into the avalanche zones was the big excitement, each team headed to a previously assigned area. Avalanche runs had very unromantic monikers like T1, or B3, or S4, magic names that rang out with degree of difficulty, prompted recalled nuances and stories of legend about those who had been caught and survived. Or not. Anticipation became our watch word, adrenaline our driving force.
Going in, down a steep, narrow chute, we stopped to regroup and I said very quietly to Erik, “This is what I miss most about the patrol, those avalanche missions.” And for a brief moment, our conversation was naturally just above a whisper, remembrances of expeditions past indelibly etched on our minds.
And then in total silence, we skirted around the jagged cliffs, interesting from the gondola but totally impressive, almost overwhelming, when looking up from their base with a sense of awe at the horizon where, in some years, huge cornices would hang above our heads, dynamited and presumed safe for the day at hand but one never knows for certain.
And then, there it was, somehow looking old and smaller than I remembered, the mine dump certain we had come to ski. Like an old friend too long ignored, the familiarity of it ran deep as my psyche struggled to frame it in today’s world. Where is the top, I wondered in my mind, and then looked down at my skis to reassure myself that yes, in fact, we were at the very top.
Unlike those powder days of old, the snow was mostly scratchy, a hint of softness forming on the top, just enough to bite an edge, and we took off. We skied it on Aspen Mountain, just the two of us, and I don’t know about Erik, but I skied it in my own world, totally oblivious to everything around me but the snow underneath, the steepness and the thrill of being back home for a visit. My satisfaction was deep.
It’s kind of weird about the things that count. We wondered if maybe we shouldn’t hit it again and hurried back up the mountain the best we could, talking about all things under the sun except the run we had just taken. Our second pass was even better than the first and then the time came to part.
The smiles broke out then, the excitement of having done something special that needed recognition, and we laughed like we hadn’t laughed in a long time. It was a good day.
Tony Vagneur and his buddy Bob went back the next day for another go at it while Erik hiked the bowl. Tony writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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