Skiing With Cave Men

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Chevy Silverado tire tracks make for quite enjoyable early season nordic trails. 

Camaraderie. That was yesterday's word of the day. 

It was demo days, the annual gathering of the ski shop employee world, where we convene on Loveland Ski Area to test the latest and greatest ski equipment. Even for the jaded among us, this is a thrill. It's like being a car salesman at the Indy 500, a baseball fan at Yankee Stadium…ok, that's overstating it. But it is pretty damned cool. If I ever get to the point where testing brand new skis seems mundane, slap me. 

The skis were all great. Seriously. Absolutely amazing. Skis today are works of art. They carve easily, they plow through everything, the make it EASY to ski. Much different from the Rossi 4SK's and Kastle skis of old, with about 3 mm of sidecut and 200+ cm of edge surface. The engineers and designers have essentially made skiing an easier thing than ever to learn. And that fact has to be good for the world. 

While the skis were all great, the highlight of the day was undoubtably spending good quality time with my friends and co-workers from the greatest mountaineering store on the planet, Neptune Mountaineering. Time away from the shop, just skiing, having fun and feeling like a rat pack like the one's we used to have in high school. Good people, and I'm truly honored to work with each and every one of them. 

Today, it was Elaine and my first nordic ski of the year. I've been craving nordic, and it's time. The nordic center isn't open yet, so the Asnes Nansen's and 3-pin leathers got the call. We took a chance on snow and headed up the old favorite from last year…the five mile jaunt to 4th of July Trailhead. 

It was actually…good. Where there was snow, and for 90% of it there was, it was at least a foot deep. The wind has been ripping here the past few nights though, and the open sections got scoured. Still, it was a good ski. 10.5 miles round trip. I got to see the wild, angry wind pound the summit of South Arapaho, like some godly peak in the Himalayas. Now that's an adventure for this winter. Ski from home to the top of South Arapaho and back. 

The kick and glide and stride makes me happy. The synchronization of arms and legs, moving like a dancer across the snow. Cross country is the most true form of skiing, the most ancient, and if you look carefully enough, you can see flicker of the cave man fire through the black of the mid-winter forest. Those tracks, an ancient wolf, a mammoth, of another world. They have been cross country skiing for many, many millennia. I'm proud to be part of that heritage and family. 

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Ancient cave art from the Sami people in Northern Scandinavia. Moose and skier play the ancient game. 

And the Storm Begins

Magic

I look out the window and snow is falling, dancing in the front spotlight. They are saying up to a foot between now and tomorrow morning, and that really changes everything. It's very possible that that foot will not go away until sometime in late-April, and that means there will be an opportunity to ski each and every day from our front door. 

Suddenly skiing is a daily occurrence. Dog walks become backcountry skis. The mountains on all sides open up, nordic trails here, little pockets of turns there, adventure everywhere, white capped mountains, wind plumes ripping off the divide, rosy, cold cheeks. It's so beautiful, it's almost too much to take in, it overwhelms the senses. 

Tonight was an exciting night, as we placed our order for wax for the season. It's something I've been doing since I was in high school, and it's part of the ritual of preparation for the winter to come. 

I have a story tonight. When I was a kid, living in Oslo, the U.S. Ski Team stayed at our house. As you might imagine, it made an impression on me. The year was 1982, and the World Nordic Ski Championships were being held at Holmenkollen in Oslo. This was not an uneventful World Championships, as U.S. skier Bill Koch introduced the skating technique to the world stage and proceeded to win a silver medal in the 30 km, an unprecedented achievement for an American in a sport utterly dominated by Norwegians, Swedes, Soviets and Finns. It shocked the Norwegians, and I took a little pride in being an American living there when it happened. He actually changed the sport for good at this race and introduced a technique that is a major player in today's nordic ski world. 

Bill Koch did not stay at our house. But the U.S. Women's Nordic Ski Team did. My dad was the U.S. Army Attache in Oslo, and as such was the primary U.S. Army representative in Norway. A big part of the job included entertaining foreign diplomats, so we had a house of a decent size, paid for by Uncle Sam. And on this occasion, the diplomats were replaced with athletes, and the U.S. Ski Team were the honorable guests.

I was really young. But I remember. Our basement was turned into a wax room. This was before the time of massive national team waxing semi-trucks. I don't even think the U.S. women had a wax technician in 1982. Nordic ski racing – especially women's – was tiny in 1982. But the athletes were there, and they were way cooler than any technician. They entertained my child questions, showed me the process of waxing skis, and I took it all in. 

A cool experience. Skiing has given me a lot over the years. Lots of memories, lots of sense of achievement, lots of pain, but a lot more joy. I feel so blessed to be able to do it again this year. 

Another winter begins tonight. 

First Ski Tour Ecstasy

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The first ski tour of the year always surprises with crispness. There is a sharpness to it all – the cold air, the white snow, the blue sky, the first strides. The mountain ahead rises, rolling and stark. Yet for its starkness, this mountain is an old friend. So many days here, and the truth is, we kind of own it. It's our mountain, and I want to grab it and possess it all for myself. 

We skin through the woods. A wide open view to the west, the mountains golden with the sunrise, the divide, the beyond. Across the stream, barely frozen, as winter finally wrestles control of the water from the grips of summer. Up the gradual section, feeling the stride, finding that rhythm, keeping the skis flat, not lifting too much. 

We pop out on the bottom of the slope. "Well, let's see what we can find," I tell Elaine. I'm feeling surprisingly good, so take the lead and break trail through 18 inches of powder on top of zero base. The key is to hug the trees. Up here, skier's right is the side of choice. The wind will deposit close to two feet of snow in some places off of just five inches of fresh snow (usually on skier's right), and leave it scoured bare in other places.

Damn this feels good. The oxygen filling the body so full, the lungs getting a slight burn, the legs working. I feel alive, more alive than ever, and genuinely happy. Strange. I feel good. Much better than any day last year. That's a shock to be honest, and it's a testament to the work of summer paying off. It's going to be a good fucking year. 

We reach a bowl, a place where the krummholz takes over, a dancing meadow of flowers and butterflies in the summer, and magical deposit of powder snow and giant smiles in the winter. Surprise, surprise…there is some skiing to be had. Not much, three turns here, seven there, and then scoot, scoot, scoot past bare sections, but it's definitely skiing. 

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A climb, hard breathing, spirits blasting, we reach the top. Huge grins and a longs hug. The first skinned summit of the year is a cause for celebration. Skin rip and tentative turns down. At first, it feels slow. And then, a patch of magic. One turn, two, three and more, floating through powder, not a rock nearby, freedom restored. 

We wind through old woods, friends and nooks, through more slopes of early season bliss. Even deeper down here, in the trees. We whoop and smile – a surprise powder day in early-November. We live a lucky life. 

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Back to the road, gliding, double poling, avoiding rocks. We look back on the slope, see our tracks, and feel a joy and satisfaction that hasn't been felt in a long time.

It's ski season, the best season of them all, and I feel happy. 

November

The White Strip of Death

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Loveland Basin sits right on the top of the Continental Divide. As such, it's usually the first or second area to open for the year. The location of this year's first day of skiing. In reality, about 3% of this terrain was open!

Today we decided to open the 2015-16 ski season proper with a day up at Loveland Basin Ski Area. We were fortunate enough to have a couple tickets given to us at a recent ski movie we went to and were both hankering to finally get on snow and start the year off right. 

We've made it a goal to ski the resort more this year. It's a necessary evil. Of my 150 days skiing last year, exactly two were at a downhill resort. I much prefer the backcountry to the crowds at the areas, but the truth is if you want to improve your skiing, you need the repetition that only the resort can provide (or, I suppose a helicopter could provide if you are Beyonce rich).  As such, we've committed to trying to get up to the resort once a week this winter to keep the skiing skills honed. 

It's well needed. I was not as confident as I would have liked this past spring on some of the steeper descents. So today it was back to basics – good body position, weight on the balls to mid of the foot, hands up, relaxed and ready. Skied slowish, trying to feel every inch of the turn, building all the way through the fulcrum, and the rebound and extension to the next link. It was a turn-back-the-page 25 years type of day, when I'd make my way down the slopes of Sugarbush with my coach Al Hobart analyzing every movement, and offering feedback on how to get it better. And then Al would go ripping down after us, powerful, compact, smooth, all 55 or 60 years old of him, and we'd all be like…damn, I want to ski like him. 

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My ski coach in high school, Al Hobart. A great human and an incredible skier. 

Truth is, I only felt that really sweet sensation on maybe 20% of my turns today. The rest were kind of sloppy. There were maybe six or seven turns that felt downright good. Not bad, really, after essentially a year off the downhill skis and 18 months removed from ACL surgery. I'll take it, and we'll keep having fun progressing. I like the early season repetition and tedium of building technique back up…it's a ritual I've been doing for some time now and it feels like home. 

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Day one photo from Loveland. Elaine's response to seeing this: "Great. I'm in the backseat, hands are in the gunslinger position and I'm caving." It's that time of year to be critical about technique and work hard to get it right. 

We kept it pretty short – a focused 120 minutes – as a result of being absolutely worked from a hard week of work (4 out of 5 late nights) and an overall groggy, exhausted feeling that, even with a double shot mocha, didn't ever go quite away. I'm looking forward to a return to a normal schedule and getting back in some sort of pattern. 

I did order a helmet tonight upon returning from the resort. We never wear helmets in the backcountry, but the resort is altogether too dangerous and random not to – especially when it's the white-ribbon-of-death early season. Goal number one for this season (any season really) is to stay healthy all year long – you don't ski when you're hurt badly – and the noggin is a good thing to protect. 

And so it's on, day #1 in the books. No skiing the next two days, but they are saying snow Wednesday and Thursday. Will it be enough to start building the base for local adventures? If not, we may have to do our semi-annual trip up to Bruce's Trail on Rabbit Ears Pass. After all, it's pretty hard to beat a couple days of nordic skiing, broken up by a trip to Strawberry Hot Springs!