Some Days Are Better Than Others

Then: Father and Son at Hunter Mtn, March 2005.

Then: Father and 9-yr old son at Hunter Mtn, March 2005.

I’ve often said there’s no such thing as a bad day’s skiing, only that some days are better than others. Still, on Sunday morning, it looked like my positive thinking was finally and permanently going to be undermined. Knowing that we were going up to Burlington on Saturday to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday at our older son’s college town, I’d long planned to spend Sunday on the VT slopes with that offspring: Campbell gets a $100 season pass for Sugarbush as a local college student yet, as a freshman whose computer nerd buddies are non-riders and skiers, doesn’t take advantage unless I come on up and out with him.

Having committed to the date, I’d also committed to one of those advance e-tickets that gets you a discount, along with a clearly printed ‘No refunds’ policy. I’ll be honest: had I not done so, I wouldn’t have set the alarm Sunday morning, I wouldn’t have made the three phone calls to check that Campbell had done likewise, I wouldn’t have waited for him twenty minutes outside his dorm anyway, and I wouldn’t have made the 40-mile journey out from Burlington to the ski area. For when we hit Sugarbush around 10am, the rain was coming down, the car park was empty, the slopes were covered in clouds, and the lifts to the summits were closed because of ice. The Sugarbush ambassadors welcomed us with the words “Greetings, intrepid adventurers.”

A couple of hours later, having already navigated around one mal-functioning lift and a few pleasantly soft if somewhat slushy runs, and by now completely soaked through, not only to the Under Armour but to the point that the foam in Campbell’s goggles was literally dripping water into his eyes, the Heaven’s Gate chair to the Lincoln Peak summit re-opened. We went for it. We appeared to be the only ones. And when, half-way up, the lift ground to a halt, we spent a full ten minutes suspended in mid-air, no one to the front of us, no one to the rear, and no one navigating the slopes beneath. (At least to the extent we could see the slopes beneath: visibility was limited to approximately 50 feet.) We didn’t care; we were having fun catching up with each other: the seven weeks since I’d last seen him was, in fact, the longest we’ve ever been apart. Besides, at the very moment we went to use Campbell’s phone to check that Sugarbush knew there were a couple of customers on the lift, it resumed motion. When it finally deposited us on Lincoln Peak, we figured, what the hell, we’ve both got new equipment that seems to serve us well, we might as well go down the hard away. We doubled back and headed under the lift.

Campbell later described the moguls on the Spillsville run as “ice cubes,” to which I would only add that they were embedded in a sea of frozen sugar. Simply put, the rain at the bottom of the mountain had been coming down as ice up top and had deposited a thick layer of teeth-shattering crust. Our equipment made so much noise trying to navigate the bumps (including a fair amount of side-slipping and heel-riding), and the visibility was so poor, that after about a minute of jarring every fibre of our body and deafening any one who might have been within 500 feet (which was probably nobody), we took a break. The elements did not.

“It’s hailing, isn’t it?” said Campbell, looking up at the sky and wiping his goggles.

“It is,” I confirmed, registering not just the sound but the sensation of large gobs of frozen water ricocheting off my Spyder jacket.

We laughed. And then we resumed our ‘run.’ It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t pretty, though neither of us felt particularly challenged by anything other than our own misguided exuberance in taking it on in the first place. By the time we got back to the lift, it was closed once more. The lift to the Castlerock summit did not open all day, as far as we could tell. As for the lack of on-piste skiers, we found them all at lunchtime – in the Castlerock Pub, mostly season pass holders with their kids, having wisely called it quits and taken up VT’s other great sport, craft beer drinking.

Not us. We went back out and kept at it until 3pm. And over the course of the extra hours it was confirmed: there truly is no such thing a bad day’s skiing/riding – at least not when you’re with your teenage son, who you’ve been going to the mountains with for over a decade, since the days he could barely stand on a board, since the days he used to fall all the time and burst into tears as a result much of the time, since the days when he was frightened of getting on and off the lifts, since he used to get upset if you went too far ahead of him even if your plan was always to stop up and enjoy watching him descend, and since the period where as a half-pint he used to wait his turn on the half-pipe, and call out in his ten-year old’s voice, “dropping in,” much to the amusement of the hardcore teenage riders.

“You know that I didn’t choose to get good at snowboarding,” Campbell said to me on a Sugarbush chair lift a few weeks back, during his college’s family ski weekend. “You made me get good.”

I asked him if that was a compliment, and he was non-committal in the way that teenagers need to be to their parents. Either way, the fact is that now, he’s really good. Some of the credit goes to his new board, a gift through a friend with connections, but much of it goes to him. And okay, I’ll take some of the responsibility too, for pushing him when he didn’t always want to be pushed. As such, I don’t care that he now zips along ahead of me, and that on Sunday he bemoaned, albeit cheerfully, about how slow I was in comparison. (I’d been warned of this moment by older ski dads for several years now, and it was actually something of a joy to experience the changing of the guard.) No, what matters – what has always mattered, since day one – is the time we spend together, the conversations and interactions, the banter and the back-and-forth and the laughter and the occasional argument and then the genuinely honest father-to-son chair lift dialogue, dialogue that we  have never had anywhere else and which, perhaps because of this long-term connection with the slopes, we probably never could have anywhere else. Navigating the mountain’s terrain is a part of it, of course, but we’re navigating some greater terrain in the process. And, both literally and metaphorically, we always make it to the end, in one piece, and that much warmer and wiser for the shared experience.

Now: Father and Sons, 18 and 9, on top of Lincoln Peak at Sugarbush, Feb 2014.

Now: Father and Sons, 18 and 9, on top of Lincoln Peak at Sugarbush, Feb 2014.

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