Mammoth Powder Part 3
Skiing is a curious sport. From the outside, it seems perfectly pointless. A close relative has asked me a few times, “So what exactly do you do? You come down and you go back up?” Well, yes, that is what we do. But in part it’s about how we come down, and what we come down on, and what we come down through: a combination of skill, equipment and terrain that makes some descents pleasantly comfortable, others fiendishly difficult and more still frighteningly fast. It’s these aspects that make skiing a sport, in as much as we exercise our muscles and push ourselves to physical limits and compete, if not necessarily in organized races (though that is always an option), then against our children perhaps (“last one to the lift is a rotten egg,” shouts my 8-yr old these days when he’s close enough to “tuck” his way back to base), and certainly against ourselves and our past achievements or lack thereof.
But then there’s the matter of why we come down. We come down a snow or ice-covered mountain on skis or a snowboard because we are in love with the sheer joy of it, to the extent that it rarely really matters whether it’s sunny or snowy or any manner of possibilities in-between as long as there’s something passing for a run under our feet; we do it because we like living in the moment, embracing the true zen of skiing whereby, for bursts of a minute or so at a time, nothing else exists in our mind except our focus on the process of getting down safely and happily; we do it because we admire the view when there is both sufficient time and visibility to take it in; most of all, we do it because we are addicted to the sense of freedom that it provides, the fact that, for now at least, we are in the great outdoors away from all other responsibilities. There are other motivations perhaps: the oddly suspended-from-reality chair-lift conversations with family, friends and strangers alike; the après-ski scene with its well-earned (if you’re lucky to have one) hot-tub, pint of beer, plate of fries, or glass of wine; the possibility in our younger years of finding someone beautiful (or just available) in the late night bars and clubs with whom to spend the night; even the aching muscles of the following morning have their own addictive qualities. But really we do it because everyone is searching for something in life that marries exercise and entertainment, tranquility and focus, laughter and liveliness and above all, something that changes and thereby challenges continuously. And for some of us, skiing is it.
Ask any skier and they will tell you: not only are no two ski runs ever the same, but nor is any one run ever the same twice in a row. A ski mountain is pliable and malleable, and its surface, the depth and consistency and placement of its snow and ice, is forever shifting according to temperature, wind and activity. Even a dedicated race course, with its gouged path through the gates, will be different next time you ski it for the very fact that you did just ski it, and affected it accordingly. As such, skiing may make you tired, but it is never tiring.
Skiing, then, is as much a pursuit as it is a sport. Skiers and their snowboarding brethren, much like surfers and other weather-conditional obsessives, spend their season on constant alert. I always maintain there is no such thing as a bad ski day, but I’d be the first to admit that there are great ski days, and that when they announce themselves – sometimes with no more notice than a fresh couple of inches overnight and a cold blue sky in the morning – it’s almost incumbent on the skier to drop what they had planned and head for the mountain. On the east coast, certainly, we tend to embrace perfect ski weather for the fact that we have so little of it: with average snow fall declining due to climate change, we treat our rare powder days as a gift from the gods and re-arrange our schedule accordingly. (I am writing this the morning after such a perfectly sunny powder day unfortunately fell on a mid-winter Sunday, and my local Hunter Mountain was so crowded that different lift lines encroached on each other for the first time in memory. And yet knowing that an ice storm was on the horizon for Monday, not going out to enjoy the conditions with the 8-yr old was simply not an option.) Out west, where annual snowfalls of 200-500 inches are the norm, and vast bowls like that of Mammoth Mountain sit high above the tree-line, and vast glades reside below the tree-line, and vast wide runs occupy all the spots in-between, and all for several months of the year for anyone with deep enough pockets to get there (and buy a lift ticket), perfect powder days are that much more common. Or so one would think. On the gondola at Mammoth my first morning there, I asked a pass holder how the conditions compared with the preceding weeks. His response was emphatic:
“You got yourself the best day of the season.”
It was close to the official lift-closing time of 4pm when I finally handed my skis in to the demo center. By that point I had spent several hours on a pair of K2 SideShows (174 mm long with a 90mm waist, 30% rocker for you tech freaks), a much more forgiving metal ski than the shorter but wider (170 length, 98 waist) wood core Volkl Mantras I had tried for much of the late morning. These K2s had thoroughly enlivened my experience, enabling me to tackle steeper and deeper chutes with increased confidence, and equally importantly, to head over to the multiple glades on the far east of the aptly named Mammoth and ski freely through the trees, claiming boundless fresh powder. I fell in love with the SideShows and asked the demo center to put them aside for me the next morning; to my delight, I was informed they’d be given a complimentary wax in the process.
After a quick change of shoes back in my room, I headed straight down to the Yodler, conveniently located in the small lot between my Inn and Main Lodge, where I sidled up to the bar, ignored the multiple Austrian and German beers on hand and sank a pint of the local Mammoth Brewery Paranoids Pale Ale instead, gazing back up the mountain that I had, however ungracefully, more or less “conquered” over the course of the day. I’d like to say that the Mammoth Ale gave me just the right buzz, but after several days’ abstention, the exhaustion of the previous day’s travel and lack of sleep the last two nights, my intense six hours of barely interrupted skiing and the small fact that I was 9000 feet above sea level, it bypassed the buzz and instilled an immediate hangover. A soak in the outdoor hot-tub back at the Inn did nothing to help in that regard; I came back stinking of chlorine and other chemicals. No matter; I spent the evening recovering on my bed, watching The Hangover care of the hotel’s free DVD library. It was in appalling taste, right up there with Ted. I loved it.
You might wonder at my decision to visit a distant mountain on my own for three days and four nights, and whether loneliness might kick in at some point after the joy of the initial day’s (self-)discovery. I might have wondered too, but somewhere in the midst of arranging my trip, it turned out that a family of Kidsville Burner friends I had been hoping to visit in Ventura, were planning their own journey to celebrate mom’s birthday. Gwendolyn Alley and I had hit it off big time at Burning Man in 2009 through our mutual affinity for potent grape juice, and in 2011, Campbell and I camped alongside her, her husband Marsh and their 9-yr old son Reed. Gwen is a published poet, an active wine and lifestyle blogger, a keen cyclist and all-round doer; her husband Marsh is a stand-up dude and, as I was about to discover, Reed is a monster skier – perhaps not surprisingly given that he has grown up with Mammoth as his occasional playground. They were arriving Friday morning and staying through the end of Sunday; we made plans to hook up Friday lunchtime.
It proved the ideal division of time. After a day and a half as my own boss, skiing at my own pace (thanks to Mammoth’s iPhone App, I discovered that that pace was frequently pushing 50mph!), I was ready to play passenger and let someone else take the lead. One of the attractions of skiing – much as with running, cycling and, I’m sure, surfing and other similar activities – is that it doesn’t require a partner, or a team; it’s great exercise for the solitary mind. And yet it lends itself equally well to camaraderie and companionship, both on and off the slopes – and if you can balance the two, you have it made.
That Friday afternoon, I was led through the vast untapped bowl around Solitude and the Sunshine Glades, which young Reed appeared to know backwards. In particular, he had a passion for winding his way through the trees at a speed that is perhaps easier when you’re that much smaller and presumably less likely to hit them. I could only lament that my own Noel, but a year younger, has yet to experience this kind of vast expanse; I sense that his understandable fear factor when staring down narrow, icy black runs at Hunter would disappear overnight given such copious amounts of skiable terrain. The games room back at the hotel, the free DVD rentals, the gluten-free vegan options at the Green V (he has allergies) and the excitement of the gondola probably wouldn’t harm either. As it was, I spent my Friday evening over at the Lakefront Restaurant in the Tamarack Lodge, at the other end of the mountain, celebrating Gwen’s birthday with a bottle of luscious 2003 Marilyn Remark Syrah from the Arroyo Loma Vineyard in Monterey County, the kind of boutique wine that rarely makes it out of State. There was also a lengthy complimentary shuttle bus ride back up the mountain that entailed listening to an English girl called Francesca showing pictures of her family on her iPhone to the three American boys alongside her, comparing her body parts to those of her sisters and letting one male companion in particular know, “I went out with you because I needed a shag.” Ah, the English abroad: where would we be without them?
Mammoth Mountain might be several hundred miles from LA and San Francisco, but Californians are used to eating up large distances, especially when they’ve heard of a fresh dump on arguably the best ski mountain in the entire State. And so, on an appropriately larger scale, the Saturday at Mammoth reflected the similar traffic patterns I experience back at Hunter. Whereas on the powder-day Thursday, I’d had the gondolas and lift lines largely to myself, now there were people everywhere, with five and ten minute lines the norm. Whereas on the Thursday, my gondola conversations had been with local veterans patiently explaining the Mammoth micro-climate, now it was loaded with college age kids knocking back homemade cocktails at 11 in the morning and showing no shame for having knocked over an innocent bystander as the gondola passed overhead of a medic crew still attending to her. (And yes, I’m afraid they were snowboarders.) And finally, whereas the eight inches of powder on Thursday had carried over to Friday, so sparse had been attendance, now it was worn down to a more typically granulated surface, which ensured that my transition up to some seriously fat K2 HardSides (174cm length and 98mm width), designed for true expert skiers, demanded my utmost and complete attention if they weren’t going to knock me sideways. (Which they did, once or twice, but that was OK: I hadn’t taken a fall all season until my second day at Mammoth.) We slowed the pace accordingly, but I was still on the mountain from 9:00 am past 3pm. It’s hard to quit such a good thing.
Indeed, though my late teenage trips to Italy and Andorra live on fondly in my memory primarily for hedonistic reasons, and my week-long spring break sojourn to Utah in 2006 with Campbell for its father-son bonding, I handed back the K2 HardSides knowing full well that these three days at Mammoth had been the best of my life. Was it easy? No. Was it cheap? No. But would I do it all over again? Hell yeah.