Skiing: A Bumpy Love Story

I leaned on my poles at the intersection of Why Not and Vagabond, green and blue runs, respectively, low on the mountain at Steamboat. I mentioned to my dad that he could probably handle going down the blue, and he declined. I saw a mellow blue run, and my dad, a little more than a year away from retirement and tired after skiing all day for the first time in five years, saw potential to crash and prolong his already too-long career of working on his feet for several more months.

Behind me, the father of a girl who was maybe five years old gently suggested to her that they try the blue run. She was maybe a little scared and he encouraged her to give it a shot, but only if she wanted to. My dad and I didn’t stick around to see how it turned out; we turned our skis down a slushy Why Not and ambled our way down the mountain.

My dad and I both had our first day ever on skis at Steamboat in 1987, when I was eight and he was 35, a year younger than I am now. We came out from southwest Iowa for a week that year—kids skied free (they still do) and we crammed four families into a four-bedroom condominium off the south side of the mountain. We came back the next year, and the next, and then didn’t get back for 25 years, until this year. My mom mentioned her dream of coming back to Steamboat every year until we finally did it. As I rounded the corner to the gondola for our first ride up the mountain, the last strains of the theme song from Welcome Back, Kotter, played over the PA: Welcome back, welcome back welcome back welcome back.

I think I thought I was pretty good back in 1988 and 1989 and 1990, but I was probably just your typical gaper kid going too fast down all the blue runs and only getting down the blacks if I could break them up into five sections. I think those trips to Steamboat might be some of my parents’ favorite memories of those years—my dad named our only family dog after a run there, Heavenly Daze.

I never got that into skiing as an adult, never tried to get 100 days in a season, never moved to a mountain town to bump lift chairs or work some other job just so I could ski. I hardly skied at all from age 13 to age 26. I bought one Vail Resorts Pass my first year in Colorado and learned to snowboard. But I also learned that I-70 is a giant traffic funnel going up to Summit County on weekend mornings and in the opposite direction going back down to Denver on the weekend evenings. And I learned that standing in a 300-person lift line at Breckenridge made me feel like a lemming—and if I was going to live in the middle of 3 million people, I wanted to do something different than they all did on Saturday, not just move our traffic jams up 5,000 feet in elevation.

Instead, I climbed and backpacked, and when winter came, I climbed ice a handful of days, went to the desert a few times, but mostly just avoided ski resorts. I sold my snowboard, got an AT setup, and took an Avy Level 1 course but only skied five backcountry days a year in my best years. Sometimes I felt weird that I didn’t do the one thing that people always assume you do when they find out you live in Colorado, but I couldn’t make skiing worth it in my mind whenever I tried. A handful of super-shitty snow years came and went, and I gave myself a little pat on the back for not spending a bunch of money on a ski pass.

But my mom kept mentioning the idea of going back Steamboat “one of these years,” so I finally said Let’s do it and reserved a condo for a couple days in February. My girlfriend didn’t know how to ski, but I figured hey, what better reason to learn? But I thought our friend Elizabeth would be better at teaching her, so they went out for an initial “lesson,” and I followed up with several very slow, mellow, easy days of skiing. At Loveland Ski Area, lift tickets are less than half the price of Vail’s (or Steamboat’s), you can’t get a massage or buy a fur coat anywhere in the vicinity—but they have great french fries, a ton of terrain, and no bullshit. It would be kind of fun, I thought.

Then I found out Loveland lets you ski uphill anytime you want, as long as you have a free uphill access card. Hilary and I each got one. We skinned up a thousand vertical feet, pulled off our skins right about the time the people on the first chair were unloading at the top of Lift 2, and we skied down. No beacons, no shovels, no avy danger, just a quick burn to the top and a run down a groomer before work.

My 12-year-old self would have thought I was an idiot, but my 36-year-old self started to fall in love with skiing again. I had a single powder run on one of those mornings after I skinned up 1000 feet. Then another one, on another day. I started concentrating on making good turns, telling myself “speed is not a skill,” and I got a dozen really pretty turns on several days.

I forgot about adventure, the way I thought of it while climbing long rock routes—uncertain outcome, full accountability, managing multiple variables—and just reveled in what ski lifts give us: a ride up so we can concentrate on WHEEEEEEing all the way down. Once, on a mile-long run through six-inch powder with about 120 feet of visibility, I turned to a complete stranger and yelled This Is So Good. He was about half as into it as I was.

gondola

I figure if you learn to ski when you’re a kid, you’re probably only a slower skier than your parents for a little while, your whole life. For the first few years, you’re young and dumb and don’t understand or care about the pain and/or consequences of crashing. Later, you get a little smarter, but as you do, your parents get a little older.

We had a kind of tough first day back at Steamboat, and I think Mom and Dad were surprised that skiing wasn’t exactly just like riding a bike when you spend a few years away and your legs forget how to do it. This time, compared to the last few times they hopped off a plane and clicked into skis, confidence came a lot harder. I followed way behind, just in case they fell, and when they did, tried to help them up, or help them click back into their skis. On Day 2, it went way better: A 20 percent chance of snow turned into four inches, and they cruised down a bunch of blue runs and I was overjoyed they got a powder day.

Dad quit while he was ahead, just after noon, and Mom went back up the gondola with us for a few more runs. The sun had come out, and all the powder had been pushed around into moguls with crusty patches in between, and she started falling more and more. I knew she just wanted to get the most out of the day, and I knew that because she kept saying “This might be our last time here,” the kind of thing you say when you’re 64 and you know you might not get to a lot of places one more time in your life.

By the time we neared the bottom of Buddy’s Run, she was frustrated and said, “I suck” when I skied up to help her get back on her skis. She said it just like I probably said it about basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, football, track, and every other sport I tried before I was 10, and here I was, helping my mom up, looking for the right encouraging words, and I said You don’t suck, Mom, you’re just tired and you don’t want to admit it. She agreed to get on a downward gondola car and Hilary and I skied down to meet her at the bottom.

I had come back to Steamboat about five or six years ago without my parents. I got separated from my friends early on and ended up snowboarding by myself for half the day, spending a lot of time on lifts looking off into the trees and staying in my own head. I remembered coming there as a kid, and how it all seemed like such a big adventure, exploring that big mountain, poking into the trees every once in a while, looking at the map and figuring out where to go next. I of course got a lot bigger, and the mountain even got bigger, but resort skiing had gotten smaller for me. It’s funny what we expect when we go somewhere after a long time away—we go in excited to see how the place has changed, and in the process of finding out what’s new and what’s not there anymore, we find that we’ve changed more than the place has.

I think in Colorado, if my life is similar to anyone else’s, your first experience with the mountains is on a chairlift. It’s pretty forgiving as far as mountain travel goes, since you have the free ride to the top, the ski patrol, the avalanche control, the signs, the lodges where you can get a hot chocolate at 10,000 feet, the clear-cut runs to the bottom—but I think for some people, it plants a sort of seed. Not the type that grows a fantasy about someday bouncing off moguls while wearing a $3,000 Bogner ski outfit, or buying a million-dollar second home in a mountain town, or picking out the perfect sweater just to wear while you do whatever “après” is supposed to be. But the seed that pops open one day and helps you realize that Wow, there’s more than just this. I could go over into those mountains on the horizon, or I could come up here in the summer and explore, or climb, or ski the mountains that don’t have lifts to the top.

On the drive back to the airport, my dad thanked us for “babysitting” them, and I tried to brush it off, because of course in the Great Balance Sheet of Parent-Child Transactions, two days of skiing is a blip, the least you can do for the people who raised you.

They got onto the plane back to Iowa, and I got to turn west from DIA and keep living in Colorado and putting together adventures around all over my favorite mountains and the desert just over those mountains—and maybe just skiing a little bit when some snow falls.

-Brendan

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16 Comments

  • I grew up skiing with my Dad. When he moved to Reno and I to San Diego, skiing with him became a once a year trip that I cherished. After a replacement hip and knee, he told me he was hanging up his boots for good. I cried that day.

  • Love this!!! It echos so many of my same experiences with skiing and the mountains in general. I’m currently back into resort skiing, instructing this season in fact, but always with the goal to improve my skills in order to extend the terrain I can cover in the mountains. And the ‘weeeeeeeee’ all the way down factor is just way more seductive than the screaming barfies. And there’s hot chocolate. And French fries. I must be goin’ soft in my old age!

  • Brendan, You made me cry. I am the 54 year old mom who is trying to get to Colorado full time. I don’t want to wait until I can’t make it down the hill but things are a little more complicated than I want them to be. You are right-those years with the kids really are the best ones. EVER!

    • As Cindy’s daughter, I can honestly say that she CRUSHES when it comes to skiing and it’s been incredible to have watched her grow into the awesome skier that she is. I also wanted to say that this article really hit home for me. My adventures started on ski lifts and in climbing gyms. Those experiences left me wondering what else I could do. I now live in Squamish and climb as much as I can and ski the days that are left over. Even though my experiences are amazing in themselves, the best part is that I am able to have those same adventures with my mom! Although she does sometimes feel like your parents did, she always finds a way to deal with those negative feelings. She’s a constant inspiration. Even though she probably doesn’t believe it herself, she’s going to be the 90-year-old grandmother who can still climb and ski well. Gotta love moms who crush!

      • Wow. Cindy skis and Olivia is living the Squamish dream, that is beautiful. My dad learned to ski on his 60th birthday, his brother learned when we was 21, and in turn taught me when I was 24. This story hits on so many things, age, parents, the very impermanence of life and our ability to experience it. The words aren’t important, the way you have used them is electric. I have read many well written things on this site, and only once felt the urge to say how great an article was. Thank you Brendan, I am going climbing again this autumn – who knows how many years I might have left?

  • Good stuff. I haven’t skied much, and I haven’t been in awhile. But those moments when you can link up a few big turns, man, that’s hard to beat. Hope my knees will agree with me the next time I get to go.

  • I skied twice in my life- once when I was 13, and again a year later, and then made the switch to snowboarding.
    After doing that for 25 seasons, I just went back to skiing a few weeks ago. It’s a lot harder than I remember, but man, does it feel good to learn (or re-learn) something completely new. 🙂
    –Mark

  • I just love your writing and your perception (and patience). And I’d like to ski with you two to say that in person. Please give H a hug from me (who she’s never met), she’s got to be awesome.

  • My only skiing experience was with Vicki on Holiday Mountain in Estherville, Iowa. This was a tremendous step up from Emmetsburg in which they had to build a wooden toboggan slide as there were no hills in town. To Kathy and Joe and a return trip!

  • For a guy who claims he rarely skis, you’ve done an incredible job epitomizing the ski experience- across all ages and levels. Excellent piece!

    Also recently read your book- The New American Roadtrip Mixtape and really enjoyed it!
    I totally dig your style. Keep up the good work, Brendan!

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