One might expect that that the desire for first tracks would wane, perhaps even disappear by a person’s 62nd year. But Helicopter skiing in British Columbia has consistently been on my to-do list since the ‘70’s. The vivid dream persists: a perfect run down a big open bowl, powder rising up around me like a cloud of fairy dust, the adrenaline, the prefect rhythm, the magic of being one with gravity and the terrain.
As the years have passed the dream has come less often, moved off center stage, become more sporadic, gotten nearer and nearer to the missed opportunity list, but it has never died. For the last seven falls, I have debated whether or not to buy early-bird ski tickets, whether to ski at all. In every year but one, I have bought the tickets. In every year I have skied. But thinking about something that once would have been automatic, to ski or not to ski, was a troubling sign of geezerhood. Four years ago, after much anguish, I finally bought new skis, trading in the skis that were taller than I was for some short, hotshot skis that have tips on both ends. My first time out with them, a nice twenty-something man had to point out to me that the reason I was having so much trouble getting my boots in the bindings was because the skis were turned around, backwards. The embarrassment might have been enough to send a solo, older-lady skier to the lodge, but it didn’t.
So when I saw that one of premiums for a Kickstarter campaign my friend was running to fund his film was cat skiing in Steamboat Springs, I had to go for it. It was too expensive for my budget, and it was not heli skiing. But it was close enough, and I had a little windfall burning a hole in my pocket. I faced the fact that the window for heli skiing had shut long ago, and given the enormous carbon footprint of heli skiing, this was the perfect substitute.
I signed up for March skiing in December. Then my big, hot knee started its tantrums. Three fluid-sucking trips to the doctor didn’t do much – no diagnosis, no magic wand. In mid-February, the doctor told me she thought the only answer was to get it scoped. I told her I would take it skiing and see how it did. If it would ski, I would postpone scoping until at least after the cat skiing. Amazingly, when put to the test, the knee managed to string together 10 runs without a problem. Sure that evening, it was an all-Advil night. But the knee worked. I was psyched. The big hot knee was going on the big cat ski.
I watched the weather for a couple of weeks before the date – March 10th. No snow, and a series of warm days – in the 40’s – seemed to indicate the folly of the whole idea. But, the cat was going. So on March 9th, my husband drove me to Steamboat. I checked in with Steamboat Powder Cats, leaving them with the heaviest boots they had lifted in decades. In the late ’80s, after years of aching feet and lost toenails, I finally found a pair of comfortable boots and decided to stick with them.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I was nervous. The questions haunted me. Would my knee would really hold up, was I too old, how would the snow be, would I be too slow, would others have to sacrifice runs for me? Lying in bed, my brain produced an endless list of anxieties. But the next morning I was ready to ski. I was on cat “B.” There were 12 of us. Clearly I was the oldest, and I was one of only two women, the other a 20-something daughter of a father with sons and nephews along. They were from Philadelphia and had been skiing with Steamboat Powder Cats for years. This was their first of two days with the Powder Cats this year. The other party was made up of a couple of ski patrollers who had heli skied ten times over the last 20 years, a 30-something friend who was taking his “free” sixth trip (buy five, get the sixth free) and two other 20-somethings, all from Buffalo. Each of the two groups thought I had come with the other.
A van ride, a transfer to the cat, a short ride, and we were standing at the top of the world ready to ski. Because it hadn’t snowed in days, the only good first-track snow was on the north-facing slopes in the evergreens. The first run, I was shaky. The borrowed skies were fatter and longer than mine, the trees closer together than those I have chosen to ski in recent years. I fell once, but popped back up and was not the last one to the cat. Whew. Given the recent conditions, first tracks in three inches of powder was amazing. The next run was similar, a little less nerve wracking, no falls. I was getting into the rhythm. But the third run I fell into one of the many skier-sucking tree holes and could not get out without help. I was embarrassed. But when I got to the cat, I saw others brushing snow off places that don’t get snowy unless you crash. I wasn’t the only one. The next run we went for even deeper woods. At the top, the guide gave us instructions about what to do if we got separated – this was a run known for separating people. But the bottom line was, “Stick with your buddy.” Oops – no buddy. When I told the guide I didn’t have a buddy, he looked at me a bit amazed. He hadn’t really thought about it. Graciously, the father from Philly offered me a buddy spot with his daughter and him – a threesome. They were fluid skiers. I followed her and that helped me establish a rhythm. But they also skied faster than I did. For the rest of morning I tried not to be the last one to start my descent, but also to be careful about people caught behind me moving at a faster pace. Two runs later, it was time for lunch.
The lunch, in a perfect cabin setting, was delicious. Burly powder guides served us with humor while illustrating that it also takes some skills to wait tables. Maybe not the skills it takes to be powder guides, but the skill of carrying more than one plate at a time comes in handy if you are going to serve more than 12 people a day. Thankfully for them and for us, they weren’t.
After lunch we chased spring snow on south slopes, much of the time in aspens. I finally looked up and out and really saw what was there – the ranges of mountains displayed at our feet. And I finally, relaxed and skied. In the aspens it’s a lot easier to see what’s coming. They were not nearly as close together as the evergreens had been and avoiding the much smaller holes was easier.
The warm afternoon sun worked its magic, loosening up both the snow and the camaraderie in the cat. There was more chatter. People, now realizing that I was alone rather than with the “other” group, started talking to me. One person remarked how brave I was to have come alone. Others offered help – carrying my skis up a hill, offering me a hand in what one guide called “drunken snow” at the bottom of the cat’s steps. I took a hand, but the skis were mine to carry. I am no sissy.
Thirteen runs later, the memories were imprinted, the challenges met. It was a gorgeous day surrounded by incomparable scenery and generous people who took me in, treated me like I was with them, even though I was not. And despite the advice from the two guys who had been 10 times that I must heli ski, I won’t. I am satisfied. It’s time to forge new dreams, to live more quietly on a planet that has given me so much, from whom I have taken so much. The memories that I will carry for years from cat skiing, the pictures in my head are the views, the wild country, the snow on the peaks. The things that no one in the cat talked about. These gifts don’t require the noise and the carbon footprint of cats and helicopters. A good adrenaline rush is memorable, but it’s time I start to think more carefully about the price of those memories when they come so easily, enabled by so much smartness of humanity, and for cat skiing so many roads carved into so much wild country. If I now reflect on the memories of hiking to Lake Blanche or backpacking in the Uinta Mountains, I realize that those memories, earned in the wilderness, in quiet respect of the land, are far more indelible and meaningful. I’ve learned a lesson, and now I can revise my dreams.