Have you sat a chairlift and watched an ermine scuttle below, or listened to the swish-thud as a tree claps its hands and drops its snow? Have you relaxed during the ride and tasted powder flakes on your tongue as they luff down on a windless morning? Lift skiing gives me such glimpses of the backcountry, and whets my appetite for the real thing.
I recall one lift in Aspen that climbed through a sublime stand of conifer. The trees echoed perfection, and their caps of newly fallen puff made you hold your breath for fear of hurting a tableau as fine as any painting in the Louvre. A rabid skier I knew called this the pointed forest. When he spoke of those trees I knew he got something fine every time he rode that lift. He skied with the power of a locomotive; one swish of his tails could blow up moguls the size of buffalo rumps. I’m still touched by the contrast in his sensitivity to those trees.
I’m sitting in the cafeteria of Ski Sunlight, our local small-town ski resort near Glenwood Springs Colorado. A few hard-core telemarkers skim the hill; a lone snowboarder surfs in for a burger; a dozen alpine skiers brave the ungroomed crud. My 4-year-old son is taking a bargain ski lesson that includes 1/2 price day-care and lunch. Miracles happen.
I need a rest day so I brought my laptop and sit here keying these words. Lisa hooked her skins on and she’s walking up the hill for a workout. Rain sluiced our house roof all last night. I knew the wet snow in the mountains would be good for Colorado’s bottomless depth-hoar backcountry. But that means today is a good one for avoiding avalanche terrain. Hence our yo-yo skiing.
Though my focus is backcountry ski touring, lift skiing has always been part of my life. For a few of my formative years in Aspen you could get a season ski pass for peanuts, and day tickets were reasonable when you considered the comparison of costs like dating Aspen ski instructresses. But such affordable skiing soon became ancient history now remembered only by a few ex-skibums. Presently around the U.S., much lift skiing comes dear with stratospheric prices.
The irony is that growth in backcountry skiing gets a part of it’s impetus from the often stogy and frequently pricy ski resort industry. People learn to love skiing at a ski area, then discover it is cheaper without lifts — and often a more memorable experience. Sure, gearing up for backcountry skiing costs bucks, and you need a reliable automobile. But pencil out the numbers and the backcountry costs less.
So we’re a backcountry family, but we spend time on the ski lifts. How do we fit it together? Around the United States a few smaller ski areas try to maintain middle class pricing. One such area is little ol’ Ski Sunlight here in Colorado. We take advantage of it. Lisa needs time in downhill mode, and lifts are the way to get it.
As a mid-life male with physical limits I need practice too. In the backcountry after a 3:00 AM start and 7 hours of climbing, skiing can feel like a crazy incompetent dance. My skis have a life of their own at the top of a snow coated Colorado fourteener; but every turn’s as critical as the twitch of a heart surgeon’s wrist. So I keep my form by lift skiing. It’s a deliberate drill. On occasion I’ll ski my backcountry gear to fine-tune everything, and I always seek out natural snow and steep terrain. A little bump skiing is good for timing and form, but only in small doses — there’s no bump skiing where I’m headed!
I’ll confess to something else about the ride-up and ski-down repetition of lift skiing. It’s about refinement — about essence. It’s about stuffing your hip into a curve, feeling the g-force pull at your cheek, and rocketing out for the next carve on the tail of a pair of fiery performance skis. You can take that split second and work it like Da Vinci worked the perfect smile. Over and over, you refine each tiny part. You feel your hand position change by fractions, you pressure the rear of your boot for a split second longer or shorter. Your actions are micrometer dialed. The world narrows to you, the snow, and the purest path between two snow crystals: the cut of a steel edge.
Voltaire said “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” If Voltaire skied, would he have said the same thing about inventing ski lifts? Who knows, but I’ll bet he’d have had a good word for the backcountry — and might have enjoyed sitting a lift chair and tasting a snowflake or two.
(A version of this article was published in Couloir Magazine, December 1994)