Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Renewing Reunion

Monday, March 12, Day Two at Taos, arrives crisp and clear, exactly the kind of morning that prompted some heart-happy mountain person to turn “bluebird” into an adjective. Yesterday was a behemoth of sunburned exhaustion and my body initially rebels at any thought of rolling off the air mattress and doing it again. But the mind, filled with dizzying ski dreams for the last eight hours, easily wins this battle. Coffee, ibuprofen, and eggs with red chile soon have me something close to refreshed, and as we wind up the cold canyon road to the Ski Valley, I'm irrepressibly giddy with anticipation.

Once we get off the lift, however, reality is more painful than peachy. Right off the bat, Sam – my partner in crime for the week – and his uncle Bill drag my sore and sunburned ass up into Taos' renowned hike-only terrain. The lift stops three-quarters of the way up, and if you want the mountain's steepest, most unique skiing, you must work for it. You must take your skis off, throw them over your shoulder, and trudge.

I've been skiing for about as long as I can remember, but this is something entirely new. From a tyke harnessed to my uncle on the hills of upstate New York to a middle school daredevil in Vermont to a mediocre high school racer, skiing had always been about the downhill. The speed, the rush, the risk.

During my college years, I spent summers as a backpacking guide in this same New Mexico high country, learning, as John Muir advised, to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Contact with nature became a central, necessary part of my life, but skiing – done much less frequently now – was an entirely separate endeavor, a vestige of my younger self. I was becoming more Thoreauvian than thrill-seeking. My giant slalom Dynastars sat rusty-edged in the garage at home.

So even when Sam and I realized we shared the same Spring Break and agreed to spend it skiing, I could not have predicted this. I'm slogging up through bristlecone pine, yesterday's pain searing through my legs with each small ski-booted step, a world away from those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too days of chairlift rides and bombing down the groomers at Okemo. Feeling like a shaggy, lumbering moose, I still manage to smile through gritted teeth as Sam gingerly waltzes ahead, deer-like in his lightweight backcountry boots.

The first climb is of course the worst, and we've soon surfaced onto the Kachina ridgeline. Yesterday morning was cloudy post-snow, but today we're greeted with the true Rocky Mountain wake-up call: brightest blue sky, snow-dappled peaks, deep evergreen groves stretched out in a visual smorgasbord that is really quite impossible to appreciate all at once. I look north and there are the Spanish Peaks of Southern Colorado, huge and timeless, present in a high-definition clarity of blue, gray, and white. Rising in the east is Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's tallest, towering over the Ski Valley like the steadiest of guardians. I stood on its 13,161-foot summit on the morning of my 21st birthday, but there's no room for nostalgia in my brain right now – the present is, quite literally, too breathtaking.

Yet past experience and emotions are inevitably a part of my time with this landscape, and when Philmont's own Baldy Mountain emerges through the Wheeler saddle, an irrepressible sense of homecoming arrives with it. Unlike yesterday, the entire ridge leading up to Kachina Peak is open for skiers and as we hike on, I hardly notice the lancing pain in my shins or the claymore-like skis digging into my shoulder. Sam has told me that for him skiing out here is as much about the ascent as the descent. It's a new concept for me, but it's suddenly ringing true. As we climb on, my buddy is still way ahead of me; now it's not just the altitude's physical effects, but its spiritual ones too that are causing me to tarry.

It's hard, maybe impossible, to put accurate words to the feelings I experience above treeline, but the ones that keep coming to mind are perspective and awe. Whatever creative force led to these mighty mountains pushing their way skyward and to my insignificant speck of a self being here, with intricate retinas and pupils capable of witnessing them; whatever master catalyst sparked the long, winding chain of events that led to such a moment – I have never felt more connected to that power than when I'm in a high place like this one. Daily concerns wash away in the presence of grand, overwhelming peace, and I feel miniscule yet mighty, fleeting yet full with praise.

Cosmic romances pouring through my mind, I hardly remember that I'm actually here to ski. But as we stop partway up the ridge at the precipice to one of the treacherous “K-chutes,” a whole new kind of flood enters my brain: it's time for my first real big mountain skiing. Below me is a ten-foot, nearly vertical drop preceding several hundred feet of descent that seem nearly as steep, then the frosting as the chute mellows into a beautiful powder field that extends down to the resort's topmost groomers.

I watch as Sam and Bill expertly drop in and link their first carving, poetic turns. There's a second of hesitation as I realize that in my decade and a half of skiing I've never done anything as bad-ass as this. I flash through memories of middle school wipe-outs, of a hellbent ninth-grader waiting for the start of my JV run down the icy, rutted course, then smile slightly as the old “fuck it” mentality takes over. I push my poles hard into the ground, plunge my body forward and drop into the vicious slope.


There will be many more hours of skiing on this trip. I'll immerse myself in beautiful, challenging glades, stopping to lean against an aspen in breathless satisfaction every now and then. We'll hike above treeline a few more times for shorter, still-exhilarating drops off the ridge. Later in the week, we'll spend two days exploring crusty, snow-starved Crested Butte Mountain with a couple of my Philmont buddies. The peaks of Colorado will tower before us, even more jagged and indomitable than New Mexico's, but none of the many highs will quite match that second morning at Taos. Simply put, it was one of the most vital shots of time I can remember, a barrage of physical, mental, and spiritual stimuli to which I can find no previous comparison. Because as sublime as that slow climb up the ridge was, the experience was only partial until the blurred rush of the descent: the joy of carving a hard turn in the soft snow then plummeting down into the next one, feeling the body find its synergistic balance in the struggle to control itself against the force of the mountain. On the top of the ridge, I stood speechless in the midst of vast and ancient beauty. At the bottom, my heart pounded with the thrill of having, for a few minutes, tapped into that indifferent yet generous power.

Just that morning, not to mention the rest of the trip, was enough to reignite my love for skiing with the kind of flames it had once possessed, back when my buddies and I would watch ski movies all night then sweat all day building a little jump in one of our backyards. But now there was an added layer to my boyhood hobby. This was a new, more mature skiing, a pleaser of both my contemplative and adrenaline-seeking sides. A wholly unexplored world had suddenly opened its doors, a world as broad, imposing, and irresistible as the Rockies themselves. All of a sudden I wanted Alta, Jackson Hole, Whistler. Alaska, for God's sake, and not just the resorts, but the backcountry too. I wanted miles and miles of snowy ridgelines to traverse and endless chutes and faces and powder lines. I wanted the sweaty trudge as much as the heart-stopping drop-in, for it was all part of this bold, uplifting adventure. I had thrown my old Dynastars in the car expecting a reunion with that familiar friend named Skiing, only to find him changed tenfold for the greater, beckoning me with fat new powder skis to demo and arms opened wider than ever.

It must have been a similar welcome that John Muir heard at the top of that Douglas Spruce as he swayed like a dandelion in the heart of a Yosemite squall. He put it simply and best: “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

So what was I to do, having heard that call louder than ever? When Muir discovered the Sierras, he stayed for good. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think once or twice about doing the same after this trip. But the world is changed. It's not 1868 and I'm not John Muir. Student loans, car payments, and a strange budding loyalty to this little place in Texas have sent me eastward after a week that contained a month's worth of adventure. And you know what? As sad as it was to leave the mountains in the rearview, I was okay with it. Okay with pausing my ski dreams after just an appetizer, okay with those snow-dusted peaks returning to their role as distant attraction. Because the truth is the best times are the fleeting ones, the ones you can't have whenever you want. We so often forget the beauty of something when it becomes everyday. Perhaps it's best to restrain oneself from some pleasures in order to preserve their purity. The mountains will still be there this summer. And next winter. And whenever I find a full-time job closer to them that's as fulfilling as this one. Until then, I'll smile at the thought of that perfect bluebird morning.

The Silver Bullet in its natural habitat. Crested Butte, CO.