Turns with a ski buddy soften scarred heart
By Bob Berwyn
*Author’s note -this essay was originally published Feb. 26, 2007 on New West.
It’s a mid-winter meltdown here in the Colorado High Country. After a string of seemingly endless powder days that lasted through most of January and the early part of February, the sun is out, the roadside berms are melting. And – shhhhh, don’t tell anyone – despite ski reports touting packed powder, the snow is transitioning at our local ski areas, even turning to (Gasp!) hardpack in places.
None of that stops my friend Dave from making the annual 1,000-mile trek from his home near Lodi, California, where he grows grapes and makes wine when he’s not busy as a volunteer patroller at Heavenly Valley. After all, it’s not just about the snow, it’s about a 20-year ski friendship born on the slopes, a bond that’s in part sustained by our mutual passion for sliding down snow-covered mountains.
It’s good to have him here in my Summit County home for a visit. It’s been a rough year. I’m used to experiencing most of my ups and downs on the mountain, so the emotional version of this roller coaster ride, feeling powerless in my long-running fight to heal a crumbling marriage, has been excruciating. Dave’s been there, done that and has the luxury of looking back at it with the perspective of time. It’s important for me to hear him say that the wounds will heal. Having a friendly ear around for a few days is soothing, and reliving our past ski adventures and epic, car-crushing Sierra powder dumps helps recall happier days.
Eager to add to that cache of memories , we jump into the Subaru early Sunday morning and point it west, bound for Beaver Creek. This is where the crowds will be thinnest on a late-February weekend, and an early start gets us on the slopes before 9 a.m.
Beaver Creek gets a bad rap from time to time, a dismissive shrug from some “core”¿ skiers who mumble gripes about faux fur and cell-phone toting stockbrokers. But at the geographical center of the area is a clutch of long, steep runs that hug nearly ideal fall lines on cool northerly aspects. Remember, this is where World Cup downhillers battle early each season on the Birds of Prey, acknowledged as one of the premiere downhill courses in North America.
We load up on the Grouse Mountain Express chair and admire the furrowed handiwork of the snow grooming machines on runs like Peregrine. “Not Quite Roughing It,” is the logo on Beaver Creek’s trail map, and judging by the exquisite grooming, they’re not just blowing smoke.
There’s nobody on the mountain yet, so we point our boards downhill and let them run on the perfect snow. Mach 1 … 2 … 3 … and suddenly I’m in my own little Bode-zone, on that thin edge between control and sudden disaster. The sudden rush of gravity and cold, fresh air brings tears to my eyes, running down my lashes and spattering on my sunglasses. But I’m not complaining. It’s good to taste sweet tears of sheer exhilaration. For sure, it’s better than the bitter tears of regret and sorrow I’ve been choking back for months.
A few high-speed runs later, I’ve shaken out more of the cobwebs. I can even find some hip-pocket humor to share with my friend. A few days ago, riding up a chairlift at Keystone, l noticed that my lift partners were having a hard time finding their location on the trailmap, probably because they were looking at a Breckenridge map.
Dave cracks up, and laughs even harder when I tell him I’ve done the same thing; years ago as a teenager skiing in Switzerland, I was trying to orient myself but didn’t recognize one single peak, village or lift on the map.
“Damn, I must REALLY be lost,” I remember thinking to myself, before realizing a some point that I’d grabbed a map of the adjacent valley off the desk at the tourist office.
We don’t get lost today, but methodically scour the mountain for pockets of soft snow, exploring little gullies and sub-drainages in the tree islands between trails, and steep, fade-away fall lines under the lifts. On the ride up, I talk, Dave listens, and then tells me about his own break-up many years ago. It’s a small comfort, but comfort nevertheless to realize once agains that I’m not the only person in the world that’s experienced the feelings of abject and utter loss, rejection and impending loneliness.
But one of the great things about our sport is that you can’t really keep this stuff in your head if you’re trying to ski hard and fast on challenging terrain. After so many years, thousands of ski days and countless turns, it’s become a moving meditation, one of the few constants in my life that keeps me sane.
Late in the day we pull of into the trees and pay homage to Ullr in a private ceremony. Then we split up for a run. Dave wants to cruise, and I head down the Royal Elk Glades just before ski patrol starts sweep.
“I was just about to close it, but I saw you coming,” says the patroller, rope in hand.
“Thanks for waiting,” I reply, and then slip into the thick tangle of moss-draped spruce and fir trees, skimming down through snow that’s glowing warmly in the buttery pre-sunset light. By now, I’ve shed several layers of worries, and even though my legs are tired, I find an easy rhythm, that state of grace that defines the essence of skiing. It’s an elemental level of balance and harmony with gravity and nature, an easy dance grounded in the sweet, earthy embrace of the mountains.
Flushed from the sun and breathing hard, I stop about halfway down. And then it happens. Without so much as a warning, a heartfelt yodel erupts from somewhere deep down inside and peals into the blue sky. It’s spontaneous and unexpected, but I know instinctively it comes from a place inside me, a little corner of happiness that is protected and nurtured and inspired by this sport I love.
An echo rings back across the canyon in a loud and clear affirmation. Everything is going to be alright.