10 Inches? Maybe I Should Stick My Tongue to a Pole (Not That Kind, You Perv)

In addition to everything else, I’m pretty sure I have mild Asperger’s. I wouldn’t wear pants when I was a kid because they made my legs itchy, and certain kinds of long underwear and other clothing materials are still a clear, “Hell, no!” I don’t eat bread because I loathe the texture. I can listen to the same song on repeat for hours on end. Most damningly of all, it took me an inordinately long time to figure out certain social graces, and those only when my mother yelled at me that I was not supposed to, say, stir my tea while a waiter was telling us about the dinner specials. Even now, I’ll say or do something in a public setting that’ll result in me going, “Oops. Hope I’m allowed back into that establishment!” three hours later.

I also have a few obsessions that are apparently not shared by enough of the general population to make me anxiously page through revisions of the DSM when they arrive. One of those raisons d’etre is my combined love of maps and the US roadway system. Sure, maps are probably popular enough, but my inability to go past my RTD bus system map on the wall without perusing the route of the 83L to the point where I forget that I was initially walking past that wall to go to the bathroom…well, even I’d have to admit that it’s probably not what a mental health professional would deem typical behavior.

It’s been enough to strike terror into the hearts of those around me. On Monday, I took a bump clinic at Vail to see if I’d learn anything different from what I’ve been getting from Beaver Creek’s clinics. As far as the skiing goes, I now have a whole host of new techniques to try and balance with what I’ve been (re-) learning. As far as relating to others is concerned, I have learned that I am an intractable nerd.

“Don’t go over I-70,” I warned a classmate at lunch when she was discussing the best way to get from Vail to Winter Park in the raging snowstorm that had set in for the day for her certification exam the next day. “You’ll have to go over Vail Pass, which sucks, then the approach to the Eisenhower–actually, on the eastbound side, it’s the Johnson–Tunnel, which sucks harder, THEN Berthoud Pass, which will simultaneously suck and blow.”

My poor classmate’s face was now a shade of minty green. Our instructor frowned and pulled out her phone. “Hmm, surely there’s got to be a better way,” she murmured as she pulled up Google Maps.

“Not really. You can get off at Route 9 in Silverthorne and head north to reach US-40, at which point you’d just turn right. Can’t miss that one, since that’s where 9 ends. Still have to do Vail Pass, which is CDOT’s favorite part of the highway to close, and there’s one bridge ten miles north of Silverthorne that’s a straight sheet of ice…You have fairly new tires, don’t you?”

My classmate’s face was the color of the neon sign at one of our state’s numerous medical marijuana facilities. The instructor was shooting suspicious glances my way.

“Or, you could backtrack to 131 in Wolcott and avoid Vail Pass…but then you’d have to go over Rabbit Ears Pass, which is where I spun out one time when conditions weren’t even this bad.”

“Here’s what Google Maps pulls up,” the instructor said hastily, showing her phone to my classmate. The site’s first suggestion was I-70 to Berthoud Pass, a.k.a. my worst nightmare on a snowy day. Option # 2 was I-70 to Route 9 to US-40 with the icy bridge. The third option I’d suggested wasn’t even on the list.

Once we’d reached a grim consensus that Option # 2 was the least awful, the man next to me flashed me a look of wide-eyed admiration. “How do you know so much about the roads up here?”

I shrugged sheepishly. “Uh…I’ve lived in Colorado most of my life? You, uh, just kind of figure out alternate routes to places after a while.”

I neglected to mention that I could spend and have spent hours in the car with my Rand McNally road atlas poring over its guide to Colorado’s highways. He really didn’t need to know that I’ve gotten so caught up in that on occasion that I’ve forgotten what I was doing in the car to begin with, which might’ve been starting it to go to a doctor’s appointment that I’d had to wait three weeks for.

Luckily, I have other obsessions that keep me relatively healthy. I don’t know how my intrepid classmate fared on either the drive or the exam, but I do know that the snowstorm that was causing her so much grief deposited ten inches on Beaver Creek over the course of that day and night. Thanks to a friend who let me stay at his house so I didn’t have to brave Vail Pass myself, I awoke bright and early and eager for fresh tracks.

Larkspur Bowl was a breathtaking sight to behold at 8:45. I’d had, however, two encounters with fresh powder in recent weeks that left me bracing myself for the prospect of getting snow in every orifice I had and maybe some new ones besides. Not to mention that Larkspur Bowl was where, according to family legend, my dad had the wipeout of his life on a powdery day fifteen years ago. The bowl was all tracked out by the time he found his skis, poles, goggles, and hat, he said proudly, but those ten turns leading up to the yard sale were totally worth it.

As it turned out, my inner Cassandra needed to go pouting back to her temple. I had two runs in which I got to make beautiful first tracks, and I was able to find little stashes throughout the morning to claim as my own. To top it off, the stormclouds had briefly cleared away, leaving the fresh snow to dazzle beneath bright sunshine and bluebird skies.

Tony Montana would be so jealous.
Tony Montana would be so jealous.

I spent three hours skiing my ass off (almost literally. I’m able to fit into jeans that were a bit snug before ski season started) before my leg muscles turned the consistency of unrefrigerated Jell-O shots. It was only with effort that I was able to turn my legs at all on the last groomer down to my locker, but it was well worth it. My faith in first tracks has been restored long enough for me to find a new way to lose my shirt, skis, poles, etc. after the next big storm.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to find a profitable use for my detailed knowledge of Colorado combined with doom-and-gloomery. Maybe Fox News Denver is hiring.

From “Not exactly roughing it” to getting roughed up by it

Forget about the thoughts running through the guests’ heads. Working at Beaver Creek is, to cop Vail Resorts’ catchphrase, the true experience of a lifetime. Where else is the motto of a training ground for a sport that people associate with high speeds and gravity-defying stunts “Not exactly roughing it”? Where else can you get lobster tacos for lunch–and that’s just at one of the cafeteria-style dining establishments? And delicious lobster tacos, I might add. I’m not sure which dark gods Spruce Saddle’s chefs sacrifice to, but it must be an effective one to keep the source meat fresh and tasty in spite of Colorado not having possessed any beachfront property for the past few hundred million years.

But there are times when I miss the flavors associated with the bare-bones, no-nonsense sort of atmosphere that still lingers around Colorado’s oldest ski areas, even if the rope tows have been replaced with chairlifts. Okay, so the chairlifts in question are other ski areas’ sloppy seconds and were old enough to merit replacement at their home resorts, but that’s beside the point. There ain’t no lobster tacos for lunch here. Hell, even regular chicken or beef tacos merit the designation of “Special!” with perhaps an extra exclamation mark or two for emphasis.

I’m talking specifically about lovely Loveland. Which is why I was eager to flash my Professional Ski Instructors of America card for a lift-ticket discount last Thursday under the pretext of taking pictures for a ski area guide I’m writing. The true reason for my ascension to the Great Divide was the opening of Chair 8, with its promises of snow yet untouched this season. Because attending Chair 8’s opening last year went so smoothly.

But let it not be said that a few electrical issues with the lift are enough to stop the intrepid heart of a powder hound. I waited patiently for Ski Patrol to drop the rope at 9:30, and I blazed ahead as the front of the pack when the anointed half-hour arrived. My breath froze in my lungs, although not literally–the sun gleamed through the blue sky and warmed the glistening snow, promising one of those powder days that even we residents of the true Sunshine State (fuck you, Florida. We don’t have hurricanes, so there) can only fantasize about. As I got off the top of the lift, feet itching to feel silky softness beneath them, I bit my lip to quell my squeals of anticipation. I flew down the groomed track. Unable to resist the call of untracked, ungroomed snow, I darted off to the side as soon as the rope would allow, my body surging triumphantly into the brilliant whiteness.

*  *  *

Maybe I should simply stop trying for first tracks, I thought woefully as I removed my head from the snow in much the same way an ostrich would remove hers from sand, or a Warner Bros. cartoon character his from solid rock. After all, my last attempt to chart seasonally new territory hadn’t gone so well, either. This time, however, I placed solid blame on conditions rather than operator error. I’d been in a forward-leaning athletic stance, a position from which to attack the hill, just like my trainers at Beaver Creek had pushed. They emphasize this stance because it works on 99.9% of all terrain you will encounter.

Chair 8’s snow, whipped by gusts which create an effect not unlike day-old cake frosting spread across sand dunes, was solidly among that 0.01%. Lunging forward in my boots caused the front of my foot to break through the cake frosting and go straight down into the snow below, sending my head and torso over the tip of my ski and straight into the ground. It was less a faceplant than a headplant, and as I looked up to make sure I’d dumped all the snow out of my goggles, I noticed it had garnered an audience of about one-third of the now-packed chairlift.

This photo was taken rather easily from the lift. The giant smear mark in the snow represents my literal fall from grace.
The giant smear mark in the snow represents my literal fall from grace. It was visible for enough of the lift ride that I was able to take photos from several angles and focus settings, even tinkering with the f-stop. I didn’t know you could do that on an iPhone.

Well, I thought cheerily as I retrieved my ski, at least it’s all downhill from here!

*  *  *

In spite of Loveland not fucking around when they posted signs advertising “Variable Conditions,” the next run went better. So did the run after that. I dared to think I was learning what to do on the cake-frosting-sand-dunes, and I knew I was having one of the best times I’d had all year. After all, first tracks! Even if they were pretty wobbly!

And I’d also forgotten how friendly people are at Loveland. Granted, it’s the Colorado way to strike up conversations with perfect strangers on a trail or chairlift, but there are occasional times when your chair partner is heavily engrossed in music or in engaged with his buddy in a contest to see who can say “dude” the most times in a single sentence.

Not so here. I found out a little backstory on everyone I rode up the chair with, including, to my delight, a snowboard instructor at the Luv.

“Yeah, snow’s not as soft as I was expecting,” he said mournfully after we talked shop a bit.

“Tell me about it. My first turn in the powder resulted in my head getting stuck in the snow.”

“That was you?!” he yelped. “I saw that! Hell, I think the whole lift saw that!”

Seeking some snappy first aid for my bruised reputation, I quickly cobbled together my theory about there being some times where you need to sit back and let your skis do all the work, using enough references to joint flexion to automatically win a contest for who can cram the most PSIA terms into one sentence. Thankfully, this led us back to talking shop. I reassured him that working at Beaver Creek was pretty legendary (did I mention the lobster tacos?!), and he reassured me that all conditions, even the ones we were seeing today, were much more easily managed on a board. It was with a bit of sadness that I got off at the top.

“Have a good run, Beaver Creek!” he shouted as he headed fearlessly for a grove of trees. I waved back and went in search of more variable conditions of my own.

It took more traversing than honest searching to find some. As I paused at the top of a small pitch, looking into its not-particularly significant depths in search of the smoothest route, a snowboarder cut smugly into the snow to my right.

“Hit it, Beaver Creek!” my fellow instructor called out. “This is one of my favorite pitches back here!”

My bluff called, I shot down after him. My fearlessness guided me through three sharp turns so even and so shapely that even Warren Miller would turn the color of the blinding snow with sheer envy.

Second verse, same as the first.
Spoiler alert: Second verse, same as the first.

A pity it was a four-turn pitch. At the top of my grand finale, still in view of the Loveland instructor and still with something to prove, my foot sank through the snow and I found myself neck-deep in snow for the second time that day. Alas, just like the first time around, “neck-deep” was top-down rather than bottom-up.

I’ll say the snow was really deep where I was skiing, I told myself as I shook snow out of my hat, goggles, collar, pants, and bra. Nevertheless, I sternly lectured myself, I’m done trying to prove anything to anybody on this hill. Let them come to Beaver Creek and experience the, uh, experience of a lifetime for themselves under my steady guidance!

I made another two runs back there. And wouldn’t you know it, given the conditions back there, they were the most impressive sets of turns I made all year. I only wish I’d been close enough to the lift or that snowboard instructor for someone besides myself to take note.

At least I got some good pictures. And the pork green chili served by a man who called me “hon” and was short-staffed because he’d sent all his employees for a lunchtime run or two was just as well-deserved and tasty as any lobster tacos.

If I ever start dating again, this is totally going to be my OKCupid profile picture.
“Wait, aren’t ski instructors supposed to set an example and wear a helmet at all times, especially in situations where they might get their heads stuck in a snowbank?” “Uh, yeah, the snow was so hard that it, uh, really compacted my helmet.”

-7 degrees? Good time to stick your tongue to a metal pole, Mr. Curmudgeon.

I’m not the most optimistic person out there. When presented with a glass filled to the midway point, I’ll conclude that it’s half-full only if the liquid contained therein is something vile like PBR or Coors Light (you don’t grow up in Colorado without becoming a horrendous beer snob).

Even still, there are times where I can’t help but wishing nearby doom-and-gloomers would take a good swig from a cold glass of Shut The Fuck Up, whether it’s half or all the way full. Such an incident occurred on the most recent day that I had a ski lesson. Granted, any job attracts its fair share of eyebrow-raising viewpoints. And when the job description equates in most people’s minds to “ski bum who ran out of couches to crash on,” you’re definitely going to meet a wide array of characters.

That morning alone, I’d listened politely to a long-timer go off on how Obama and the Senate Republicans had this whole fiscal cliff thing staged. If America did pull a Thelma and Louise with it, that was okay, because we were going to stay strong while the euro and yuan took a dive! I’m sure there was more to it, but luckily, morning meeting started, giving me the more comforting sound of the supervisor’s warning to be wary of rocks and other surprise obstacles that might send us and our guests flying into a tree.

But at least that particular instructor hadn’t been part of a cohort featuring me, three other instructors, and our four ten- to eleven-year-old guests. The instructor immediately to my left when we all went into for hot cocoa as a break from the negative temperatures got into a solemn discussion about a ski patroller at Snowmass who’d died in an avalanche. He wasn’t talking in a whisper, either. I cringed and shot a nervous at my 11-year-old charge just to my immediate right when the instructor stage-whispered, “Ski patrol for that many years and not knowing what causes an avalanche? I think she deliberately offed herself.”

“What’s that?” my guest inquired.

“Uh, an avalanche?” I sputtered quasi-hopefully, glaring at my fellow instructor while he continued expounding on his theory. “It’s a, uh, it’s when the snow starts to slide–”

“No, I mean that,” he said dismissively, pointing at the pastry in front of me. I sighed with relief as he accepted my offer of some of the apple crumb cake, trying frantically to think up conversation topics I could start with this kid so he wouldn’t hear my colleague now spouting off about how when he was younger, you could leave your front door unlocked all the goddamn time and now you couldn’t leave your house without getting shot by some lunatic.

Luckily, my guest was more interested in what his friends had to say. By this point, I’d had just about enough of the man to my left, especially as he had the woman across from him, a young mother, looking increasingly worried.

“I really don’t want to be a helicopter parent,” she fretted, “but after hearing all this talk about school shooters and movie theater shooters, I’m afraid to let my son outside when he’s old enough!”

“Those are isolated incidents,” I finally interjected. “It’s the media freaking out because they don’t have enough to fill a twenty-four hour news cycle, and as tragic as these events are, there are actually fewer of them nowadays than there were thirty or forty years ago,” I finished with a glare at my male colleague.

My female colleague visibly slumped with relief, nodding eagerly at my reassurances of what law-enforcement statistics had to say about decreased rates across the board in violent crime. The male colleague, wind taken out of his sails, briskly put his gear on to go back outside. Our four charges, energized by the hot cocoa and sugary treats, darted outside before us old farts even had a chance to zip up our inner shells.

There’s a time and a place for serious discussions about the pitiful state of current affairs. An audible conversation with four children is not it. Granted, I do think children should learn the truth along with strategies of researching and processing sources of information about the world around them, but making all the adults at the table anxious for various reasons is not okay. After all, this is a mountainous Disneyland. We’re being paid to show our guests a magical winter wonderland where the cares of the world remain frozen away across the Continental Divide.

I’d say that no matter who those guests are. Granted, I was particularly fond of the 11-year-old I worked with that day. Not only did he accept my suggestions with gusto and show visible improvement in the short three hours I worked with him, he was also thoughtful and articulate. How could a boy who derisively referred to ski area boundary-jumpers as “ruffians” not melt the beyond-frozen cockles of an English major’s heart?

But even if I’d had particularly obnoxious guests that day, I’d still have been uncomfortable at the least, mortified at most. To my fellow ski instructors and other guest-service oriented professionals, I offer this advice: take it to the internet. There’s an audience for every jaw-dropping opinion you could come up with, and you won’t risk offending people who could feel compelled to either give you a sizable tip or complain to your supervisor based on just one offhand remark.

Personally, I’ll be there to help guide you over some powdery cornices on your way around that fiscal cliff.

Ski slopes: the best classroom I’ll ever teach in

This is the first season I’ve worked on the slopes. After spending a week post-Christmas guiding guests across varied green-to-blue-to-easy-black slopes, all I can think is, “Why didn’t I think of applying years ago?!” My dad likes to crack, “The worst day of skiing is still better than the best day at work,” a saying he probably lifted from a fellow snowchaser on the lift. I’m not entirely sure where I fit into that dynamic, since I’ve been in uniform or in training to wear that uniform for most of the days I’ve been on the hill this season, but I can say that my work involves skiing. Which is pretty awesome. Extreme to the max, even.

I’m now doubly kicking myself for not hopping on the free (imagine that word surrounded by roses and sparkles, if you will) train to SkiPassVille as soon as I moved back to Colorado. My first job after returning to the Centennial State was teaching remedial reading and writing to incoming community college students. And while I have nothing but admiration for the students who come back after years of being away from school and the instructors with stronger guts than I who come back year after year to teach them, I noticed a few differences in attitude toward teachers and students alike that make me more willing to be on my feet for up to six hours in an environment that can range from -10 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit on any given day than stand for two hours in a climate-controlled room.

For one thing, the students (or guests, as Vail Resorts prefers to call them) are given different approaches to reaching their goals. At Beaver Creek, it’s not so much that failure is not an option–the word doesn’t even exist. Even the guest who’s never been on skis and ultimately wants to beat his World Cup-racer father down Golden Eagle, the double-diamond race course, leaves at the end of the day feeling like that goal is within reach. Today the green run from the gondola, tomorrow the groomed intermediates, next year’s vacation the Super-G race course!

At the community college, I was warned that some, if not most, of my students would fail. Bachelor of Science in Nursing? Yeah, nice goal. Too bad you can’t pass this reading class. Granted, most of the students who failed deserved those Fs; no matter how many times they begged and pleaded, turning in zero of the homework assignments wasn’t going to result in a passing grade. But the students who convinced me I didn’t have the stomach for community college were the students who stayed after class, attended tutoring, tried their damnedest, and still couldn’t muster up an understanding of the material. As much as I wanted to give them credit for trying, the standards the state’s community colleges set were unwavering, and as much as it pained me to adhere to them, I knew deep down that I wouldn’t want to be admitted to an ER where my nurse hadn’t been able to puzzle through a basic biology textbook.

Of course, mastering Beaver Creek’s Talons Challenge runs and getting your first shift at a prestigious hospital aren’t on the same level in most people’s eyes. The former is only a worthy career goal for true obsessives like me. For most people, it’s a source of personal pride, an addition to an impressive list of accomplishments already attained in the work and family arenas.

But personal pride must have some meaning for people to keep coming back and aiming for figurative and literal new heights. Which is why happy instructors are essential to the operation.

I don’t mean just the base wages, the tips, the free ski pass, the discounts at ski shops, and the unlimited free classes and clinics that most people would have to pay the cost of a group lesson to receive. These are all great perks, to be sure. But Beaver Creek also cares about its instructor-guest relationships. On one of the last days I was scheduled to work over the holidays, I noticed I was scheduled for a 3-hour private lesson. The notes said I could expect a “4-years [sic] old boy, beginning alpine skier.”

I turned as green as the signs advertising those beginner runs. I work out of the Adult Ski School for a reason. As I’ve mentioned in my other blog, I’m not particularly fond of pre-elementary-school-aged children. With older children, I can ask about favorite sports (a really good conversation-starter, as I can frequently relate skiing concepts to other athletic activities), books, or singers. Once they’ve warmed up to me, I might murmur sympathetically at a story about a nasty teacher or, since my sense of humor hasn’t matured much past third grade, guffaw appreciatively at a fart joke. Young children don’t have the coordination for team sports, usually can’t read, have a limited understanding of music, and would make their parents livid when they chirp, “Mommy, I learned all about farts from Miss Bree today!”

The best-case scenario I could imagine from teaching a four-year-old was my back screaming in agony while I pulled the student down by his Edgie Wedgie while he stared stolidly ahead with a look of bovine complacency. Worst-case was me smiling moronically at parents and other instructors in the area while the kid had a fists-and-feet-flying, top-of-the-lungs-shrieking temper tantrum as I mouthed, “I was only trying to get him to put his skis on!” while the onlookers stared murderously and wondered what particular variety of hell-bound child abuser I must be.

Fortunately, I found out about this assignment two days before it was to take place. I walked into the Ski School desk, voiced my concerns to the indoor supervisor, and was reassured with a friendly, “Thanks for seeing that and letting us know. We’ll put you on something else!” And indeed, I was rewarded with an eager ten-year-old boy who appreciated my lowbrow humor and was game for every suggestion I made.

In a classroom setting, there is no screening. If you and your students clash, you’re stuck with them for fifteen weeks unless they decide the aggravation is mutual and switch out. And even if you and a student bond as people and seem like you’d be great beer buddies, that still won’t prevent you from noticing how few assignments and tests have been completed and doling out the dreaded F. Only this time, you feel like Lando Calrissian for having no choice but to turn your buddy over to the ravages of the Colorado Community Colleges system. In skiing, every day where your guest has fun and learns some new trick, no matter how small, is a successful day.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons ski instruction could give to the traditional classroom. The fact that ski instruction is purely for-profit naturally affects the balance of power–when I phrased my concerns about teaching a four-year-old in terms of the parents not wanting to pay for me to test my possibly non-existent nurturing skills on their child, I’m sure I saw better results than I would have if I’d come in with vague terms of uncertainty. But I can’t advocate for such a model in higher education, since it needs to be accessible to anyone with the determination and drive to attain it. As much as it pains me to say it, with so many other healthy activities out there, skiing is not, nor does it need to be, a universal right.

Still, one would think there has to be a way to make sure the needs of both students and teachers are better met in a traditional classroom. Until somebody figures it out, however, I’ll maintain my office hours on the sweet set of bumps located in Chair 9’s new run, Kestrel.


By my count, it’s been almost a year since I last posted. I do sincerely apologize to the two or three of you who have been holding your breath awaiting an update, since you were probably hospitalized due to Exploding Lung Syndrome. Or is that Imploding Lung Syndrome?

I’ll spare you the usual excuses concerning the delay, although my new employment as a writer for OutdoorEquipment has fulfilled a dream of mine to get paid for writing about what I love, and the free ski pass and Ramen stipend I get from Beaver Creek as an adult ski instructor mean that I probably can’t write any more disparaging posts about Vail Resorts’ properties.  There’ve also been a few developments in my personal life, but I’m thinking about starting a separate blog on that which will make me rich and famous. Besides, none of the last bit has anything to do with the purpose for this blog, which is how much I love the outdoors.

So now that I’ve gone ahead and provided excuses along with a dose of shameless self-promotion, let’s get back to that stated purpose. This year has, for the most part, been about as uninspiring as the last when it comes to snow.

Then a storm blew in last week. It was quickly followed by another. As I alternated between rubbing knees that were protesting from ten days of ski-instructor training and checking the snow reports in the hopes of subjecting them to more, I discovered that Winter Park had, on a day when I had nothing in my schedule, received a whopping eight inches. This is news to rejoice as much in skiing as in porn, so at 6:30 Tuesday morning, I loaded up my gear and braved roads that were the same color and consistency as the sky in the hopes of a Tony Montana-like experience, only with honest-to-God snow.

In spite of how awesome the roads were (and I do mean “awesome” in the Old Testament sense of the word, in which Yahweh can make you shit your pants for a chuckle), just getting off the chairlift proved worthwhile. I eagerly followed in a ski patroller’s tracks, and sure enough, he rewarded my endeavors by dropping the rope on two pristine runs that had yet to be touched that season. A heavenly chorus of angels sang out in my mind. First tracks, as both a phrase and a skiing goal, could not be more meaningful than this.

With relish, I mumbled a thank-you as he admonished the other skiers and me to “be careful, okay?” With a flourish, I headed across the hill, seeking a perfect place to turn. With gusto, I took a deep breath and guided my right ski around.

With more of a whimper than a bang, the left side of my face hit snow. My right ski was no longer attached to my foot, and with a few inches of snow that had apparently rushed in to fill the void my tracks had made, it wasn’t immediately visible. I also had the problem of what the hell to do with my left ski. When I fell over, my left side had naturally taken the brunt of my body weight, and my leg and foot were now mired in loose but heavy snow. No matter how I tried, I could not free it.

I used my free hand to dig around my left boot. In what seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, I found my left binding and, with a sigh, pushed down hard to release it. Now I had two skis to find, but at least I could stand up and move around.

Or so I thought. Every move I made made me sink further in the snow. I was literally neck deep. Moving six inches back up the hill to find the first ski I’d lost was a hellacious process that made me that much more sympathetic to climbers on K2 and Everest. But unlike those lucky bastards, I grumbled to myself, I don’t even have a rope!

It was simultaneously the height of good fortune and the depth of bad juju that I happened to be on a run that, despite its promise of fresh tracks, was relatively unoccupied. On the one hand, I could struggle along with this simple task without derisive applause. On the other hand, the fact that only two people came along in the time I was on that hill and offered help (which I, being the strong, independent, can-do kind of stubborn asshole I am, refused) meant that it took me the better part of an hour to find my skis, get them pointed the right direction, and put them back on. By that time, snow had managed to find every possible weakness in my supposedly waterproof anti-snow armor, and my deliberation with simple tasks that I’ve known how to do since I began skiing at seven–tasks that had just been reinforced ad nauseum during my instructor training–made me worried that I’d developed hypothermia. I had just enough sense to realize that I’d at least need to go in for a hot drink after this run and possibly call it for the day, so once I got those skis on, I leaned back, pointed ’em straight downhill, and never looked back.

But oh, those glorious moments going straight downhill. The clear, still-virginal powder stretched before me on an open, gentle slope, and the near-silence of my skis breaking through the top layers of that uninterrupted snow was more heart-wrenching to a skier’s ears than a Vienna Symphony Orchestra rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth.

Even though my teeth were chattering and my knees were about to go on strike from the way I’d had to bend and twist them after my fall, I couldn’t suppress a weary sigh as I leaned my skis against the rack outside the cafeteria. Especially since I had a few fellow powder-seekers gawking at me, their eyes traveling from the snow on my helmet to the ice chunks stuck to my collar to the frost smearing my pants.

“It was deep where I was skiing,” I sneered. They continued to stare as I brushed past them into the cafeteria, knowing that my stash would soon be found, but eager to check the snow report for future opportunities to leave a mark that would not soon be buried.

Real Skiin’ at Dizzying Heights

The snow’s kinda sucked this year. After so much promise dangled in front of our collective, fleece-encased faces when Loveland and A-Basin revved up their first chairs in mid-October, the Frost Giants looked at all our eager faces, pointed, and shrieked with laughter.

That finally changed two weeks ago when the Rockies started getting some love from the storms boiling in from the Pacific. 24-hour snow totals topped eight inches at my beloved Loveland several times, and Vail Resorts even put out a Tweet boasting that it was “puking snow” at Breckenridge. The image brought back more Sunday-morning college hangovers than joyful memories of cutting first tracks in champagne pow, which might’ve helped push me to bypass the Vail Conglomerate for Loveland. I’m just saying that if there are any Vail Resorts employees who agree that one of the world’s most successful ski resort management companies could use a new social media coordinator, I humbly submit my resume. Like most skiers, I will work for a ski pass and a chili stipend.

At any rate, the snow finally inspired Loveland to open up some real terrain, and on Saturday, Ethan and I went up Chair 8 to check out the ski area cut off from the ski area. Seriously, I’ve heard this chair and its terrain described as being like having your own private ski area, and it’s so remote, the analogy works. One of the methods of returning to the main ski area involves walking through a tunnel under the interstate.

The main advantage to coming back here, however, was that once the initial fuss died down and people trickled back to the main base for lunch, it was like having a mountain all to ourselves. And this was a real boon, because there was powder in them thar hills! A bit of traversing across the main black runs and into some widely spaced trees, and we were able to make fresh tracks, our skis swishing softly through feet of velvety snow. For runs on end, the snow gleamed pristinely in our field of vision, yielding smoothly as we cut turns into it and stopped to admire our footwork as well as how clearly we could view that work.

Of course, as the Grateful Dead cheerily point out, every silver lining has a touch of grey, and on this day, that came in the form of Chair 8 itself. It’s never reassuring when the chair lurches to a dead stop feet short of the top and you hear the liftie shouting into his radio, “I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but I’m just gonna run it anyway!” This is the sort of thing that makes one liable to burn rubber (or whatever they’re using to wax skis these days) as soon as your feet touch snow again.

The frequent stops and starts get even more interesting when at least one member of your group gets vertigo and starts breathing audibly through his facemask. It’s even worse when you’ve ridden up so many chairlifts with your vertiginous father prior to this that your own learned reaction to a stopped chair at least twenty feet above the ground is to hyperventilate and feel a bit queasy yourself. This is further not helped when you look up at one point to discover an electrician sitting atop a tower, fiddling with wires, and then hearing him say on his radio, “Hmm, I just put the blue wire back in place here. I’m not sure if it’s connected to the main power source, though.”

But if you ask me, the snow back there is totally worth being a human guinea pig while the staff figures out what’s wrong with a chairlift that’s racked up a few years. I’ve heard that putting lavender oil in your garments helps push down symptoms of vertigo. I plan to soak Ethan’s facemask in it. Even if he does sneeze himself off the chair, the snow beneath it should be soft enough.

The agony and the…nah, just the agony of physical therapy

I have not been writing as much about the great outdoors in the past month because 1) the snow, up until last weekend, has been practically non-existent (I keep thinking of that line from Dexter where our hero is unwittingly exchanging text messages with a cocaine dealer who texts, “Lifts are open. Where’s my snow?”), and 2) because the absolute worst part of a broken wrist was not the surgery, the week I spent with my wrist practically immobile prior to the surgery, nor the awkward and hard-to-work-around bandages most of my hand was encased in for the week following the surgery, but the recovery. And by recovery, I specifically refer to physical therapy.

You see (warning: major digression ahead, but I promise, it relates), when I was a student, I was used to advancing quickly. I was upset, nay, enraged when I discovered prior to my senior year of high school that (Cherry Creek School District credit requirements being what they were) I could’ve graduated a year early if I’d just doubled up on English classes during my junior year. I was pleased when I pursued a course of study during college that would allow me to graduate in three years, and I was a little miffed that I couldn’t work four classes per semester into my graduate school schedule at Georgetown, allowing me to complete the program in a year and a half instead of two.

I hadn’t been a straight-A student since the third grade, but even with all this self-imposed pressure to get shit done, I still made the high school honor roll, graduated cum laude from college, and got a respectable 3.67 GPA from a graduate program at Georgetown University (yes, I’m going to be bandying that one about a lot. Make whatever snide pop-psychology remarks about compensation you wish). In short, I’m used to getting pretty good results with snappy turnaround times. Hence why PT has sucked more dick than a Republican Congressman in an airport bathroom for me.

I thought PT was going to be like every other challenge I’ve taken on. I was confident that I’d find the shortcuts. I read that full recovery for a broken wrist could take two to three months and sneered, “I’ll have this puppy back to normal in eight weeks at the latest.” I was encouraged by my first meeting with my physical therapist, who admired the range of motion I’d already regained on my own after a week out of the bandages. He told me my insurance company had approved seven visits, and that he’d see about squeezing another seven out of them after we’d made some progress. I nodded and smiled, all the while thinking, “Pssh. I’m only going to need the first seven.”

Needless to say, at some point this week, I will be coming up on visit ten or eleven (I’ve lost count) of the twelve the surgeon originally prescribed. My range of motion is slowly improving from where it was after that first visit, but as it turns out, you can’t push protesting muscles as far as you can apparently push your brain during a horrible semester of taking nineteen credits, six of which were for seminars. Your mind will accept caffeine as a bribe for lost sleep. Your wrist won’t accept any sort of begging, bartering, or bribery at all.

So even though it’s coming up on two months since I broke the wrist, I still have to trudge desolately to my physical therapist’s office once a week (at least I get some exercise. Also, living this close to this many hospitals is somewhat reassuring when your boyfriend cooks Paula Deen-style foods and you have a condition that leaves you prone to heart disease). I grimace my way through stretches that my hand stubbornly refuses to relax into, and I stare at the therapist’s notes on my progress, wondering why he had to go and use my dominant hand, which obviously has more flexibility to it, for comparison.

I can’t say as I’ve finally come to accept that there won’t be the celebratory air surrounding the end of PT that there was surrounding my graduation ceremonies (although I was so grouchy about having to attend commencement at both the high school and college levels that this could be a blessing). Sure, every time I go a full two minutes on the strengthening machine at the therapist’s office, there’s a little burst of pre-recorded applause. But it only seems to mock me; not so deep down, I know that there’s still more to come.

I also know that there won’t be any sense of completion when I finish PT. Either the therapist will say, “You’ve still got a ways to go, but your insurance only allows twenty PT visits a year. Since you might need some for another injury, keep working on this at home. Good luck.” Or, more likely, I’ll forget to call his office, or they won’t be able to pencil me in that week, and thus my official recovery will end not with a bang, but a whimper.

I furthermore know that even telling myself that I’ve had enough won’t give me any sense of accomplishment. Unlike the suggested message of commencement ceremonies–it’s a new start! New opportunities! More chances afforded to you than to your peers!–there’s only the promise of being solidly average once again, of being able to do dishes and take out the trash without too much creaking from the affected joint. Where’s the achievement in hearing, “Yay! You sucked before, but now you’re AVERAGE!”–especially when average seems to entail detested household chores?

But trudge away I must, because I want to enjoy the snow we are finally receiving without worrying about injuring my wrist all over again. Although I feel very badly for anyone who now has to hear me inject a completely irrelevant anecdote beginning, “When I was at Geoooorgetoooowwwn…” into conversations.