12 Turns: Confessions of a Ski Addict

By David Rothman

Life, friends, is meaningless. As mammals with overdeveloped cortex functions, we devise all sorts of obsessions to help us avoid noticing this fact and, unfortunately, many of these supreme fictions—money, power, religion, science, philosophy, vodka—become destructive. I have my own little tricks that are more gentle and life affirming. One of them is to go skiing at least one day every month. Not every month of the ski season. Every month of the year. Every year. I have a little book where I record such adventures. As I said—it’s an obsession.

Any sissy can ski from November to April. And if you’re even a moderately committed backcountry skier, May and June are easy, even in New England. The real test in our hemisphere comes from July to October. Oh, of course you could fly to Argentina or New Zealand, or even go ride the lifts at Mt. Hood in Oregon. In my strict accounting I would allow that, but in your heart you would know it verges on cheating. Pouring a cooler of melting beer ice on the driveway and then jumping up and down on it doesn’t count. The same goes for sand skiing or those Nordic jump ramps made out of toothbrushes, or tilted rolling carpets, roller blades, water skis and other ersatz technologies. No, it has to be real skis and snow, snow that fell from the sky. You must go to the mountains and then, if you have to, pack real gear for miles to find some lonely, dirt-smeared patch of avalanche debris tucked into a north-facing scree field at 12,000 feet. Like the best art, your effort must be an extravagant and superfluous act of beauty, a way of writing your name in water simply for its own sake. I consider it my own little rebellion against the darkness that surrounds us.

This is the kind of thinking that, last September 9, lured my friend Lance and me up into the mountains above Telluride, above the old Tomboy Mine, to a point just below Imogene Pass in Savage Basin, to climb a north-facing patch of snow. Graupel was blowing sideways. Waldo the golden retriever, who, it should be pointed out, is female, was carrying a rock in her teeth and padding up the track behind us. I would say Waldo is a goofy dog, but, after all, we had taken her skiing with us in what she no doubt thought of as summer, so I guess we have little on Waldo. She was probably thinking similarly critical things about us, such as, “Why won’t these guys just cut the crap and throw my rock, already?” The annual Imogene Pass race had been canceled because of snow for the first time in 31 years, and I had somehow convinced Lance that this would be fun. He dug out some old telemark rock skis, which will someday soon be candidates for fence posts, and off we went.

It wasn’t the first time last summer I’d gone in search of snow. On July 12 (I told you—I keep a notebook), Jeff and I drove up onto the shoulder of Mt. Owen, a 13,000-foot peak in the Ruby Mountains just west of Crested Butte. Owen is home to the Gunbarrel Couloir, a shot that faces more or less north and fills with spindrift in the winter. In a good year, it holds snow into August, offering up to 800 vertical feet of steep skiing that cuts through the wildflowers like a lost soapsud.

The Rubies form the westernmost ramparts of the Rockies around Crested Butte. From their summits you look out to Grand Mesa, the Utah desert and, on a clear day, the peaks of the La Sals, 100 miles away. The sky was azure, glacier lilies were waving in the breeze, puffy white clouds went sailing by, and we were skiing right through the heart of it all, floating down a ribbon of dense névé in a dream of summer. I’ve forgotten the details of thousands of days on the lifts. They all blend together. I’ll never forget that day with Jeff.

One of the beauties of summer skiing is the snow. In the winter, especially in the Rockies, things can get tender. I generally stay off the high peaks in the colder months, when the snowpack is unstable and large quantities of it have a disturbing habit of migrating quickly to the valley. Spring skiing—late March to mid-June—is actually the best part of the season in Colorado, the time when almost anything that holds snow becomes relatively safer. The rule in this case is that once things have begun to warm and stabilize, there has to be a good freeze at night, and you have to be skiing the next day before it gets too warm. Hit it right, and it’s like surfing the bubbles on a tilted glass of champagne for thousands of vertical feet—but you only get one run, because after the window of warming passes, it quickly turns to dangerous slop. In the summer, the runs are shorter, but the snow has become so dense that it is safe and fun to ski at any time of day. It has a different texture than spring corn, more like crushed felt, and it holds that consistency for hours. If you can find a smooth piece of it, it’s heaven.

I must be quite far gone, because I don’t know why so many people find this kind of thing so odd. I remember skiing Blue Peak, above Independence Pass, one year in June a decade ago with Muscat. He’d come to Denver for a medical convention, and I convinced him to take a break from dissecting cadavers. We met before dawn at the pass. The first run was unforgettable—thousands of feet of corn snow as smooth as a senator. We were dressed in full battle gear, crossing the road for a second lap on terrain that faced north and hadn’t yet warmed up. Boots, poles, packs, skis over our shoulders. Snowbanks six feet high. The sun was up, and travelers had arrived to stop and ogle. People who, in my view, were dressed to be freeze-dried would stare at us and say things like, “What y’all doing?” and “Are you guys going skiing?” How do you answer such a question without sounding like a sarcastic jerk? “No, ma’am, we’re doing research.” “Actually, sir, we’re with the North American High Alpine Snow Croquet Association and we have to set wickets…”

Folks, skiing is the thing to do if you’re in a place where there is snow on the ground. Just because the calendar indicates that it’s time for baseball or golf is no reason to capitulate to the sports marketers. I live in Colorado, and I’ll go skiing whenever I damn well please.

Summer skiing requires checking out what we might call “the gravity side of the snow/rock interface.” If it’s at an odd or significant angle, you need to be confident of that final turn. Once, when I was young and foolish, I was skiing with my wife Emily and our friend Bruce at St. Mary’s Glacier (actually just a permanent snowfield), a popular summer spot not far from I-70 near Idaho Springs. Near the bottom, I was making turns back and forth across a rounded slope transition. The feeling of weightlessness between turns was delicious, the flatter pitch on my left, the steep one falling away to the rocks on my…oops. Bruce said he watched me accelerate headfirst, sans helmet, into the boulders and started wondering about EMS response times. Apparently people have died doing this at St. Mary’s. I came up laughing and merely scratched, but when he skied up, he was a distinctly whiter shade of pale.

There are local summer ski spots like this all over Colorado. Aspen has Independence Pass for the early summer, then Snowmass Bowl and Montezuma, on the side of Castle Peak, for the later months. Telluride has Savage Basin. Crested Butte has the Gunbarrel, Yule Pass, and the north side of Mt. Justice. Breckenridge has the Fourth of July Bowl on Peak 10. Vail has…well, I don’t know, parking structures and golf courses.

That day in the graupel with Lance and Waldo, we got to the bottom of the snow patch and looked at it, and Lance said, “It was a lot bigger a few months ago,” and we both laughed and started walking. The weather closed in again. We were at the top in just a few minutes, put on our skis and got 16 turns in about four inches of wet new snow on top of the old snowfield. I loved it. Waldo was happy to see some action, even if we didn’t throw her rock. Lance was laughing. I have to believe we were some of the only people in America skiing that day: the few, the proud, the obsessed.

Two weeks later, Crested Butte had one of the biggest early season storms I’ve ever seen in my 15 years in Colorado. On September 23, I drove as far as I could up Washington Gulch, parked, and hiked through the abandoned mining town of Elkton to about 11,800 feet on the shoulder of Mt. Baldy. At tree line, there was 18 inches of heavy snow, with even more up high, but I opted for the gentle meadows below tree line rather than the femur-busting rocks above. I skied more than 1,500 feet of gentle hillsides back to the car, scores of good turns, bouncing through the grass tips. I gently bottomed out four times while slowly spiraling down through aspen meadows filled with swirling gold and green leaves.

When I got back to town and told a few friends, who had spent the day doing exciting things—such as cleaning the garage, complaining about how they couldn’t go biking or working out on a Stairmaster at the gym—they looked at me oddly and said, “I’m not ready to think about that yet.” Or, more to the point, “You’re nuts.”

I just smiled. There are none so blind as those who will not see.