The Joy of Snow Part 3

Our final day on Snowbird, Campbell’s sixth in a row on a snowboard, found him complaining of a sore back, his blatantly blistered lips, a banged-up knee and, inexplicably, a sunburned right foot. My left calf and shin were killing me from my crash the previous day, but strapped tight into a boot and with a couple of Alleve inside me, I could just about ignore the pain and push them to normal action. For we had terrain to cover. We’d played around on the western end of the mountain for much of the first day, cutting in and out of truly rocking black and blue runs that had invited a Teletubbie-like response: again, again! We’d entered and experienced the vast expanse of the Mineral Basin on our second day, and I even had the bruises to prove it. Now, on our third and final Snowbird day, we got our own back on the disappointing ‘easiest route’ from the tram, named Chip’s Run, by provocatively coming straight down and across it, via Chip’s Face. (The wind snapped the map out of my hands at one point and we embarked on a police chase down steep black terrain; when I finally caught up with it, the map suddenly – as if deliberately – blew back uphill, where Campbell pounced on it with his board. It was probably the most entertaining few minutes of the trip for him.) At my request, we came down a couple more of the steep black runs that led straight down the mountain and back to base. And to round out Campbell’s trip, we came down Snowbird the way we’d first done so: via the black runs of the vast bowl that is Gad Valley.

On that first day, with the snow still falling, it had been but a vast sea of white. By our third day, especially from the vantage point of a chair lift, we realized that this bowl did indeed have groomed pistes that corresponded vaguely to designated runs on the pocket map, and for our final run, with familiarity that had been totally absent that visibility-imparired first day, dropped into the almost endless delights of the black-labeled Regulator Johnson, picked up blue-marked Bassackwards and followed it to the quiet, nearly flat, green-designated Miner’s Road and back to base.

Homeward Bound: Our hotel at Snowbird is in the middle of the picture

There, Campbell, who had been taking longer and more frequent breaks through the course of the day, who had put in at least 30 hours of snowboarding over six consecutive days, most of it an altitude of around 10,000 feet, laid on his back for a few minutes to recover, and then pronounced himself sufficiently energized to find his own way back to our hotel room and the Internet connection. Having barely complained over the entire week, in fact having laughed and “whoo-hoo’d” more than I could remember, having proven himself a more stalwart snowboarder than I’d dared expect, he’d earned the right to feed his Neopets. And as for me, I’d earned his blessing to take the day’s last tram up the mountain for one final ride home, alone.

The tram quickly filled to capacity. Downhill is an addiction that doesn’t quit before the mountain does. I looked around and saw the faces not of kids and part-timers, as one did on the morning trams, but of hardened experts, many of them ski instructors finally let loose for a late-afternoon freedom run. The tram closed its doors at precisely 3.45pm and then, ominously, failed to move. Ten minutes later, we were finally told of an electrical problem and the doors were opened again. Not one person out of 125 stepped out of the tram. This is an addiction after all, electrical faults be damned. Finally, fifteen minutes after its designated departure time, the tram took off on its 3,000 foot journey up the mountain. As we approached the peak, the conductor truncated the usual speech about which runs were open and closed and which was the easiest way down: “Okay folks, Lower Chip’s is closed for a race, you know the rest, ski safe, see you tomorrow.” And with that, the doors opened onto the peak and 125 people disappeared in an instant into their chosen route down the two valleys.

Me, I was looking for the Peruvian Cirque. It was labeled on the map as a single black diamond off the Cirque Traverse, a ridge that itself runs under the tram line for a few hundred yards, separating the Gad Valley on the west of the mountain from the Peruvian Gulch on the east. This ‘Cirque’ was, so the map indicated, preceded by two double-black drops into the Gulch. But maps are merely rough guides in these mountains; the more difficult runs are marked not by clearly-labeled signs but by gates with those warnings lacking only for skull and crossbones. I counted my way past the first gate, where ski instructors dropped casually over the edge into the abyss. I counted past the second gate, where hardened fanatics with big beaten old wooden skis barely thought twice as they entered the valley. Then I reached the third and final gate. This, certainly, was not a double black. No, it looked more like a triple black. Not only was the drop just about vertical for the first 50 feet, but it was marked by rocks and the occasional cliff before finally evening out into something approaching a 45-degree angle.

The view from the top of Snowbird: enter the Chutes at your peril

A boy no older than twelve, on skis, jumped off the edge ahead of his equally eager parents and navigated his way down the treacherous course like he was no more in risk of injury than if playing with his Gameboy.

I looked hard and willed myself to follow. But it was now 4.15 on my sixth consecutive day of skiing, I’d been out for six hours solid, I knew I was tired and I knew my left leg was below full strength. Besides, the sun had been burning through the snow all day and a fall down this face would not be in pure powder but across hard gravel and ice. I thought of my son in the hotel room, remembered my broken shoulder at the end of a long day on the easier coast some ten years ago, and reversed direction, a victim of maturity.

I continued along the ridge, looking for a way off to my left, into the Gad Valley instead. I came across brush and trees; this part of the peak was so exposed that it had been stripped of snow already. I started pointing my skis down the mountain and noted that there was a distinct lack of parallel trails to indicate that anyone else had taken this route all day. I noted too the dense trees, the occasional brush and the frequent rocks. Avalanche-control areas, marked out by ropes (a constant sight across both mountains in spring) were all around me, as if forbidding a legal path back down. I could make out the base of the Little Cloud Lift some 1000 feet below me, but damned if I could see the route to it. There was no one around to ask. And the mountain was about to close. I was on my own, alone.

I had no choice but to pick my way cautiously around the trees, between the rocks, and cut through one of the ropes despite the warning sign (not entirely confident that I wasn’t about to bring a mountain full of snow down on top of me), and then take the inevitable bumps slowly, surely and with great quad-burning concentration. A few minutes later, I emerged, out of high-altitude breath but fully intact, at the foot of Regulator Johnson and my long cruise back to base. The sun was still high in the sky, there was snow all around, and though I would be the last to claim I’ve any great skills as a skier (I picked up way too many bad habits back in my twenties), I had not taken a fall all day.

When I got back to the room (where Campbell was contentedly back in the online world), and took out my map, I realized that in abandoning my path down the so-called single black Peruvian Cirque, I had instead undertaken the double black Gad Chutes. On a mountain like Snowbird, this counts as a serious achievement. Life was good. The hot tub awaited, with its glistening view back up the mountain. The e-mail program would open back up when I returned to the east coast, and maybe not even then. For three days at Snowbird, I’d fully fulfilled the skier and snowboarder’s dream: to live in the moment.

Ah, the hot tub, the swimming pool, and a view of the Slopes: what more could one ask for? (Apart from a beer.)

At the Snowbird Center, there are the inevitable souvenirs. I was particularly taken by a t-shirt showing a snowboarder clearing a cliff-top. The slogan reads, “In most States, getting this high is a felony.” It’s funny. But the “high” does not need to be illicit. Living in the moment, being at one with the mountain, experiencing the absolutely purity of friendly competition with mother nature, one experiences an endorphin rush unlike any other. And it’s true, there is no crime involved in getting this high. So call me an addict. I’m already looking forward to next year’s fix.

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January 2023