November 28, 2005

The Bitchin'ist Snow on Earth

Just about 6 months in Utah now. And finally, the snow is falling. We were starting to think we were snow repellants. We left New England just in time for record snowfall, and it seemed every other resort in the country was getting hit. This time last year, Utah had a 5-foot storm. Regardless, Alta opened on Friday with mostly manmade snow. We diligently attended the first day, making our turns on groomed runs, to get ready for an inevitable pounding of snow. The reports were scattered. We were to receive anywhere from 1-30 inches in the next few days. But we were optimistic.

I awoke at 3 o'clock Saturday morning to the sound of raindrops. Raindrops in the Salt Lake Valley very often mean snow in the canyons. I laid awake until 5:30 when my curiosity brought me to my feet. I checked the snow report online. Only 4 inches. But that was enough to peak my excitement. They warned that "the lake effect" might kick in. The Great Salt Lake has a way of sucking the moisture out of the weather front, creating dryer, lighter, fluffier snow than anywhere on earth. Hence Utah's trademarked slogan, "The Greatest Snow on Earth". By 8am, Alta's site was updated with a magic number: 12 inches! I got dressed. Sarah was not feeling well and opted to sit this one out. Sympathetic and conflicted as I was, she encouraged me to head up the canyon alone.

As I drove up the East Bench of the valley, the rain turned to snow and I watched as each driveway had more snow than the one before. The drive up the canyon got progressively worse, but I arrived at Alta unscathed. There was a small crowd of Pagan snow worshipers. Each car in the Goldminer's Daughter parking lot slept under a white blanket with its windshield wipers extended to welcome the accumulation. People ran or skiied from their cars to the Wildcat Lift, a rickety two-seater with no restraining bar. I threw my skis down by the empty lift line and clicked in. A group of locals collected after a run. These kids live in Little Cottonwood Canyon and ski with baggy, technical gear, HUGE powder skis and full facemasks. One of them told another about an encounter he had just had with another skier, somewhere in his vapor trail halfway up the hill: "He was like, 'HEY! Are you the kid that almost hit me?' I said, 'No. I'm the kid that just ripped a BADASS TURN around you!!'" Overhearing this, I laughed out loud, and they looked at me with smiles.

I rode the lift alone and watched the skiers below, putting on a powder skiing clinic. When my feet finally hit the ground I scooted right, remembering the steep glades on the western side of the resort. I traversed hard across the open snowfields and stared down the steep pitch. I arrived at a chute between clumps of trees and figured "what the hell?" I dropped in aggressively and struggled through the first few turns. It probably resembled Batman's futile struggles when caught in a fishing net. But it felt amazing. I was floating. After a few runs, I relaxed a bit and found myself making turn after turn with snow pouring into my chest. Occasionally, I'd plow through a fresh pillow-top and take in a breath of snow. Choking on snow is better than death by chocolate. It's a sense of guiltless gluttony, unrivaled in the human experience. At times you find yourself buried in impossible places, with a mentally ill grin on your face. At one point, my ski came off under the snow. It took me about 25 minutes to find it. On another occasion, I was seduced into a hole 12 feet deep. Climbing out was tough, but I was so hysterical, I didn't mind. Then I watched another skier follow my track right into it, despite my two-handed Carlton Fisk Impression. We shared a laugh.

Alone, on the chair, I wondered when this had happened to me. I learned to ski as part of a compromise with my girlfriend. I learned to ski to BE WITH her. I used to go skiing because it was what SHE did, not what I did. I used to stick it out and pretend to like it. When did I BECOME a skier??? When did I start losing sleep over it? When did ski films become my pornography? When did ski gear become my fashion statement? When did I start leaving my wife at home to go skiing?? Was it when I traded in my Audi for a Subaru? Was it that weekend at Jay Peak? Or the years of smiling through frigid Maine weather like a badge of honor? Was it when I started growing a beard in the winter and peeing my name in the snow? Was it when I moved to Utah? Or was it long ago, when I made my first snowman? When I prayed for a white Christmas? When we spent hours perfecting a groove on the sledding hill? I guess I always was this person. I just never knew it, and I'm just now getting familiar with myself. I guess I'm learning to walk again.

Sunday was even more spectacular. The snow had carried through the night and was still going strong. Sarah and our friend Tracy joined me. We had a blast in the powder playground. We stayed around the Wildcat lift, knowing that the other side of the mountain had not enjoyed the same coverage. All told, we received over 2 feet of snow as light as Splenda sugar substitute. Whoever came up with the slogan, "The Greatest Snow on Earth", was NOT a skier. They may have been a world traveller, versed in all kinds of precipitation. Or perhaps they were simply arrogant enough to assume the Earth would be compelled to agree. But while I'm not disputing the claim, If that person WERE a skier, the slogan would be "The BITCHIN'IST Snow on Earth!" For once, we were in the right place at the right time. And that was just the opening weekend.

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