Marolt: The frontier slid by beneath my feet
I’m lucky to have started skiing before there was such a thing as good skiing. There wasn’t bad skiing, either. In the 1960s and ’70s, few people graded the quality of the daily snow conditions. Back then things were easy or hard, and that was mainly based on how steep the trails were.
Nowadays you hear lots of skiers coming off the slopes raving about how “effortless” the conditions were, and they are smiling when they say it, like it’s a good thing, like it’s the best thing anyone could hope for when they strap the boards on in the morning or, more correctly, before they load them onto the gondola.
Nothing was effortless on the slopes in the 1970s. Everything was a challenge; oftentimes the groomed runs most of all. Flattening out a ski run with a snowcat was not an art form. It was done in the middle of the day as the cat clanged down the slopes, squashing moguls with gnarly, narrow bulldozer tracks and then smoothing the obliterated pieces of hard-pack into something that resembled chunky peanut butter by rolling/dragging a length of corrugated culvert over it with a long tow chain following to add the finishing touch.
“Corduroy” was not in the skier’s vocabulary. The frozen byproduct left behind by monthly grooming operations was called “death cookies.” Trail grooming was nothing anyone looked forward to. It was only undertaken when necessary, like aerating the greens at Pebble Beach. People would have to endure rough rides through a run desecrated by the groomers for at least a week before it was halfway skiable again.
Getting back to my main point, though, runs were judged as easy or hard. There were some runs on the mountains that few dared to attempt. It was a big deal to ski a “black diamond.”
On Friday afternoons in Aspen Middle School we had “Explorations.” They were opportunities for kids to learn outside the classroom or by bringing local experts into the classroom to teach things that weren’t normally taught in school. One of the programs reserved solely for qualified eight graders was Klutchko’s Ski Exploration.
You would think kids would jump at the opportunity to go skiing with this group every Friday, but they didn’t. It was scary. Bill Klutchko was the band teacher and was nuts about skiing. He hand-picked his group based on local scouting reports and got kids to sign up using peer pressure.
His idea of experiential education was taking a group of petrified kids up the ski mountains to attempt the toughest runs in Aspen. These trails were the domain of the two-percenters of skiing ability. If you weren’t a master of the craft, there was a greater chance than not that you would finish the run riding in the ski patrol’s toboggan. Crashes were likely and expected.
I still remember the butterflies trying to escape the dry netting across the back of my throat while riding the Exhibition lift at Highlands over Lower Stein, which we would have to try eventually, but only after doing The Wall first. It was an exhilarating experience that left all of us, including Klutchko, with a sense of accomplishment along with the good exhaustion that comes as much from abating adrenaline as it does from physical exertion.
It’s funny to think that I can still remember the first time I skied Elevator Shaft on Aspen Mountain. That was the true skier’s right of passage. I was with my dad on a powder day in late spring. The snow was extra heavy and he tried to talk me out of it. I felt that if I didn’t do it then, I would never do it. It was legitimate fear that the mountain would beat me, if I didn’t take it by surprise.
I don’t remember when that great accomplishment began to not feel so great anymore. At some point my legs stopped turning to rubber on certain sacred runs. My adrenaline began running through narrower pipes when we all stopped falling down on skis. People don’t brag about getting down S-1 anymore.
Those days on the slopes were the frontier I helped settle. None of us opposed the high-speed lifts that were trains when they came any more than we resisted better grooming, which was just the paving of snow. The guns we fire are automatics. Civilized life isn’t all bad; its effortlessness has appeal. We now count our days of that. They give us pins for accumulating the most.
Roger Marolt remembers the ski trail sign on top of Mammoth Mountain, “If your friends say ‘go,’ don’t be afraid to say ‘no,’” and knows it wasn’t a joke. firstname.lastname@example.org
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