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Breckenridge Revisited 28 January 2010

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A month and a half ago I wrote off Breck as crowded and uninspiring. Its blues bored. Its crowds shaved away the corduroy in what seemed like minutes, leaving an inconsistently slick crust that sent gapers, and ocasionally me, careening out of control, destined for the yard sale — that debris field of gloves, poles, skis and limbs that reveal the path of truly epic (I am Spartacus!) fall. I told myself I wouldn’t ski Breck until the real snow came. And yesterday, that snow fell, just six inches of it of course but it arrived on the heels of several more. Breck’s Imperial and Six Chairs had opened a while back, too, but for the first time they led to snow worth skiiing.

So I made the trip, and discovered terrain that redeems the resort.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen pitches so steep that I stop for a moment, but it’s been even longer since I’ve encountered areas I avoid altogether. The Lake Chutes at the top of Imperial Bowl churn stomachs, and from the Imperial Chair you can watch the intrepid souls who stand peering over the 12 foot cornice. If they can negotiate that, then, well, it’s just a matter of taking on the 45-degree pitch while avoiding the pillars of rock that jut out of the snow at odd intervals. They do it, though, those peerers. They make the drop. They take the turns. All for that chairlift audience, whether they realize it or not.

But I’m less adventurous and more appreciative of my intact body. Maybe with more snow I’ll take it on, which means for now I can content myself floating through Breck’s abundant snow. So much of the terrain exists above treeline that even with more than one million visitors a year the resort can offer a few good turns here in Summit County.  Skimming on through the glades on Wednesday powder, I rescinded my moratorium on future Breck visits because after all, skiing is about chasing the good snow. I’ve never known a groomer that induced ear-to-ear grins, but get the snow falling and you’ll hear the powder-giggle, the knee-deep holler, the spontaneous, shared cheer. Now I’m just waiting for my own Lake-Chutes-omigoshoooooooooowooooo!

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Vail Powder Day 25 January 2010

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Another lazy Sunday post that illustrates just how worn out I am after a day spent working through knee-deep powder. But it’s a good kind of laziness, the kind that a ski-bum blog ought to cherish. So here are some photos that do just that. Notice, too, the smiles on all the faces.

More below the fold.

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Wolf Creek 22 January 2010

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Is it bad form as a Vail employee to talk about Wolf Creek? Eh, probably, but after work today, I can’t really contain my excitement. 16-22 inches tonight, then 9-13 inches tomorrow during the day? This southwestern Colorado dumping ground deserves another look, even if it is five hours away, and perhaps more than that, it deserves a road trip — our first of the season.

I’d intended to stick to a tight budget, one that would save nearly half my income, but as it’s become more obvious that life will get in the way, and that a real job with real income will follow, I find myself less inclined to thrift any more. Maybe I can spend that money. Maybe I can indulge just a bit more. After all, it’s only retirement that’s at stake…

And yes, it’s easy to say that the benefits of compound interest will mean that later in life, I’ll be able to consume (relatively) more, but I wonder whether certain activities benefit from a less advanced age, if skiing wolf creek now with x dollars will count for more than the same amount of time at age 65. In essence, then, I’m asking whether experiences themselves grow at a compounded rate, the interest of nostalgia together with the increasing value of photos and shared times. Eventually these carefree days will end, finally snuffed out by family and obligation and responsibility, each of course bringing their own reward, but for now, it’s possible to live just a little bit longer at the brink, chasing whatever fancy may arise.

That discussion you’d rather avoid… 17 January 2010

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Reading through the Times’s “Week in Review” this afternoon, I came across an article by Denise Grady I’d missed on Monday, an exploration of doctors’ end-of-life discussions with patients. You get to the heart of the issue fairly quickly:

Guidelines for doctors say the discussion should begin when a patient has a year or less to live. That way, patients and their families can plan whether they want to do everything possible to stay alive, or to avoid respirators, resuscitation, additional chemotherapy and the web of tubes, needles, pumps and other machines that often accompany death in the hospital.

Grady goes on to point out, however, that most MDs eschew these guidelines and the hard questions they require in favor of mollifying patients with tangential information (“your treatment regime involves x, y, z”) or avoiding the subject all together until it appears that death is imminent.

Over the course of my father’s own, unsuccessful, battle with cancer, I don’t recall that we ever got around to chatting about these sorts of things, and instead found ourselves at a loss for what do when he died unexpectedly in the hospital — without a will. Yes, he and my mother had planned on laying out everything in advance, but the exigencies of his illness intervened in that last month, leaving those hard questions unanswered.

In fact, in the six-month interim between Dad’s terminal diagnosis and his death, death itself never came up. Euphemism obscured the inevitability of it. We were going to “circle the wagons” or “dot the i’s and cross the t’s,” as if the family were closing on a house. Never once did anyone in an official capacity say and ask, “You are going to die. How would you like to spend your remaining time on Earth?”

The chemo regimes were a given, and every time my father arrived home from a visit to oncologist, he’d carry with him a new tome on the various cocktails which, according to the 5-year morbidity charts I’d been reading, might prolong his life another month. But it was on the government’s dime, so why not spend $20,000 a treatment? When Avastin and company failed, the questions still lay buried, this time under a mound of new information on Erbitux and its side effects that, frankly, seemed worse than the cancer itself.

I’m not angry that the oncologist never forced the issue of Dad’s terminal illness–I had already come to terms with mortality on my own–but rather that the culture surrounding cancer makes such discussions taboo. So much of the self-help literature, of which I’ve admittedly read very little, assumes that every cancer patient can win the fight, that indeed there is a fight to be won at all. And I think it’s just that assumption that makes it so difficult for a doctor to sit down with a patient like my father and say, “You will lose. This is not a question of whether but of when.” As Americans, we reassure ourselves with the presumption of individual agency. But by extension, that means terminal diseases represent just another obstacle to overcome: if the victim were stronger or more determined, she’d win.

If that’s what we believe, then, can we really expect our doctors quash any hope we may have, right from the get go? I think not, and that’s ashame. We’d do well to acknowledge that mortality is not simply a matter of willpower. To accept death is not to deny a love of life.

Skiing Switzerland 15 January 2010

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A little over two years ago, I packed my bags for a 7 a.m. flight, jumped on the pre-dawn train toward Geneve Cointrin, and boarded my plane home to America, leaving Switzerland behind — for the time being. But two weeks before that, I’d found myself racing alongside Lac Leman bound for the Val d’Anniviers by way of Sierre.

If those names don’t mean anything, that’s okay. Imagine this: nearly floating along one of the best rail systems in the world with no responsibility. The French Alps crash into a dappled Lake Geneva, steeper and more jagged than any geological formation should be. France begins over there, and on this gentler side, vineyards roll away from the train as you pass Montreux, Switzerland’s Riviera, then Martigny and Sion, tracing a path up the Swiss state of Valais — literally “Valley” because that’s just what it is, an eons-old swath of habitable terrain between 11,000-foot peaks.

Imagine Caesar’s army cresting the pass into this primeval world: the mountaintops running on into infinity, higher still in every direction, and there in the middle of it the Rhone, ice-blue with glacial run-off and guiding the way toward Lake Geneva.

Now imagine skiing here.

Bowls? What bowls?

The Alps are not the Rockies. Well, yes. Of course. But I mean that; though lower, treeline kicks in sooner leaving so much more terrain blissfully, unendingly sheathed in white. The American ski industry prizes “bowls” those rare areas devoid of trees where you can ski with the sun in your face and the wind in your hair/helmet for what seems like an eternity — wherever you point your skis, there you go. No pre-planned runs in a bowl. Nothing like that exists on the East Coast, however, and even out here in the West, Vail’s seven bowls drop jaws. It is simply too much terrain to be allowed.

In Switzerland, talk of bowls is a little silly, really, because everything goes on above the trees. The Swiss don’t even bother cutting pistes through the forests, instead employing a funicular to bring everyone to a more manageable altitude before dumping them onto the slopes. Around here, only A-Basin can hope to match those views. And even with the Beach in full swing, I doubt it can wrest away claim to most authentic skiing experience.

But perhaps I’ve let nostalgia get the best of me. After all, I learned to ski in Switzerland, braving icy bunny slopes and never venturing onto a chairlift for fear of (what seemed at the time) disastrously steep descents on the intermediate terrain. Something about it grips me, though — and I know that “something” lacks any necessary precision. Maybe I can parse out my meaning. Skiing Switzerland returns in snippets: the paralysis of fear on my first run, the Leffe Blonde left on the hotel roof to cool, the Ovalmaltine with the hotel breakfast.

That evening stroll.

The American resort ski-village attempts to replicate this experience, I think, but no amount of production value can recreate the twilight stroll through a centuries-old village. The last gleams of alpenglow fade from the valley wall and it becomes clear at that moment that for all the steeps and bowls and gnarliness encountered in American ski culture, the sport lives and breathes there with the Swiss.

Vail’s Underground Instructors 12 January 2010

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No Sunday post. Or Monday post. Our chili cook-off intervened, both on the night of and the morning after, but you should have expected that, right? At any rate, I’d put off discussing Vail’s response to underground instructors for too long, and now I’m probably the last one to the party that started almost a week ago when the Denver Post reported on Vail’s crackdown on “coaches” and “guides” who were accepting pay in return for something that looked like instruction.

But not only did Vail get involved, issuing a lifetime ban to the violators, the Forest Service jumped into the mix as well, smoking out the fake instructors in a wild west sting operation. Really. Whether they rounded up the offenders and dumped them at the feet of the local sheriff, I’m not sure, but what’s certain is that the whole affair has much of the ski-news reading public up in arms about something or other. Probably this quote from Forest Service range Don Dressler:

Our big message that we try to get across is that this is for public safety. We permit people who are licensed and insured and properly trained. I can understand the economics of the situation, and we sympathize, but we need to protect the public.

No one believes that. Protect the public from what? These “coaches” aren’t out wearing orange or blue jackets purporting to be fully-certified instructors, and I doubt that anyone purchases their services with that misconception. Clients see an alternative to the $575 they might otherwise pay for a private lesson, and while they may not realize that certified instructors come with the insurance backing of Vail, the very fact that Vail is now taking on these coaches and guides indicates that enough customers have seen them as a more attractive option.

In any event, licensing (as in “fully-certified and licensed”) seems more a barrier to entry than a true protection for the public. Instruction is instruction, valued on its quality, not the process that produced it. Slapping on certifications and saying they’re about public safety glosses over the anti-competitiveness of the system.

On the other hand, Vail’s swift response makes sense. The company alone holds the permit to operate (and to make money) on on those 5000+ acres of national forest, and in debates online, the freeriding instructors have variously been likened to solicitors in Wal-Mart and rogue hot-dog salesmen in a ballpark. In both cases, the impostor attempts to sell his merchandise on someone else’s property. But this is Vail’s house. It is the Vail name that lends their efforts credence, the Vail mountain operations that move skiers around the resort, and it is precisely Vail’s enormous draw that offers this black market for instruction the chance to exist. Try imagining a similar problem at any ski bump in the Midwest.

And as for the Forest Service’s involvement… well, yes, it was necessary. The government owns the land after all, and any monetary gain made off it, as poor Ranger Dressler pointed out, must occur with a permit from the Forest Service. Vail’s own agreement with the government relays a non-trivial percentage of its income over to Uncle Sam, and operating outside those agreements stiffs a notoriously stingy government.

So while it’s tempting to point the finger at Vail for cracking down on folks just out there to make a buck… erm, actually, I’d guess that adequately describes the situation. But the larger issues at stake: rule of law, protection of property rights, and the integrity of licensure (fwiw), don’t hold to the corporate-titan-vs-everyman narrative either. In the end, I suppose it’s just not as comforting to know that when The Man got his way, he could at least make a pretty good argument for it as well.

Keystone Powder Day 8 January 2010

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You’ll have to wait just a bit longer for a substantive entry — the one in which I was thinking about covering Vail’s crackdown on underground instructors — because I’m just too tired tonight. Jelly legs and a jelly mind after four and a half hours of skiing and 8 hours of work. It’s a hard life, I know, but you make more money than I do and go to sleep knowing your job won’t evaporate in a few months.

On the other hand, mornings like this one force out every worry. Bluebird skies. Knee-deep powder. Untracked runs and the silence of an unpeopled slope. For hours and I at a time I wallow in the comforts of solipsism. Well, maybe not true solipsism because my skis and the snow exist as well, but this moment-to-moment lifestyle departs in every respect from my singularly success-focused trajectory in college. Colorado offers possibilities like these. It’s hard to avoid taking advantage of them.

To be sure, real life will follow all this, hopefully complete with a more fulfilling day job, but as so many people on lifts and in bars have told me, now is the time for dalliance, to pursue powder and pleasure without regard for consequences. My resume, of course, is the consequence, yet I’ve chatted with so many corporate types who began life after college just as I have and so many who say they wish they had. At any rate, as the march and real world draw closer, I find myself wondering more and more often exactly where I should go and what I should do. Boulder? Seattle? D.C.?

Whatever may come, tomorrow morning will arrive first, and I’ll once again hit the slopes, set to ignore reality for just a few hours more.

Assorted Photo Entry! 3 January 2010

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I always tell myself I’m going to take more photos while skiing. And then I actually go skiing — this last time in Vail’s knee-deep powder, the kind that makes it impossible to think about taking on anything other than more knee-deep powder. Photography took a back seat, but there’s still some to share.

Goudey on top of Breck's tall thing.

More photos below the fold.

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