Passport: Frozen Stuck in Middle America

How the Polar Vortex nearly grounded my ski trip

The waiting game. PHOTO: Blake Jorgenson
The waiting game. PHOTO: Blake Jorgenson

As soon as our wheels touched down, I knew something wasn’t right. With temperatures outside plummeting to negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit, our 747 blasted through wind-whipped snowdrifts as an army of orange vests frantically battled to free terminal bridges from layers of ice. The Polar Vortex—hours earlier just another dramatic Weather Channel creation on a computer screen—was suddenly very real, and Detroit International Airport was Ground Zero. This was not going to be good.

It was only a quick stop, a simple plane change on a trip from Seattle to Montreal. This was supposed to be the easy part. In Quebec’s largest city, a crew of skiers waited for me, a group that I would follow across Eastern Canada for a POWDER feature on urban skiing. Like any collection of mobile ski bums, they were a tough crowd to track, shifting with the changing weather patterns and rumors of promising features just a few hours down the road. In other words, they were a logistical nightmare. Crazy East Coast storms had already derailed my first eastbound flight, and after missing them in Boston and then Burlington, it felt like Montreal was my last shot.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard once said, “For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts.” Well, my adventure kicked in somewhere 20,000 feet above Minnesota, but, like any skier with the promise of sliding downhill dangled in front of them, I was going to find a way to make this trip happen—or be physically restrained in the process.

I sprinted down the airport’s moving walkway, my swinging ski boots threatening to take out any rolly bag in my path. Lungs on fire, I rounded the corner as the flight attendant locked the bridge door behind her. Against all weather odds, my flight hadn’t just left on time, it had left 10 minutes early—and without me.

Breathe. This article could not die on a frozen runway in Middle America. It just couldn’t.

I pled my case to a desk agent (something to the effect of having a family emergency business obligation that my whole future and the future of my unborn children depended on), but was indifferently tossed into a swirling river of standby passengers, flowing from gate to gate, hoping that one of our tickets would be the lucky one that hopped on that flight and left this Arctic apocalypse behind.

But no one’s number ever got called, and the departure board quickly turned into a colorful mess of flashing red and orange lights. The airport, for all intents purposes, froze to a halt.

As the herd continued to blindly chase cancelled flights, the scene became increasingly desperate. Ice had shut down heating in several terminals, people started constructing sleeping nests out of handbags, and one guy scribbled up a pitiful cardboard sign that read, “Phone dying, out of money, parents worried, HELP.” I had stepped off of a plane and into a Twilight Zone.

Six painful hours passed and it was clear no flights were heading to Montreal that day, and maybe not the day after either. If I was going to make this happen, it was time to get out of this airport. I started chatting up the herd, and eventually found a collective just as desperate to get out of transit purgatory as me. We bounced around options, and realized that while trains and buses were out of the question (and price range), a rental car might be our last ticket out of town. Split between the group, the drive would take 13 grueling hours, but we’d be in Quebec by sunrise.

That’s how two aeronautical engineers, a sous chef, his college girlfriend, and a drained American journalist ended up at the Canadian border in a Kia Sorrento. After somehow convincing an agent that five strangers from three different countries in a rental car were not a threat to national security, we pushed north, fighting icy roads, sweeping fatigue, and a speeding ticket in Eastern Ontario. Along the way the Canadian couple pointed out the hometowns of national treasures Justin Beiber and Avril Lavigne, but in my over-caffeinated and half delirious state, the only thing keeping me moving was the thought of a warm bed at the end of the road.

Turning down one final cup of French Roast, I finally passed out on the chef’s couch as daylight crept its way into the city. My bags sat somewhere in a Midwestern cargo hold, but my feet had made it to Montreal a little over 24 hours after leaving Seattle.

Early the next morning, I parted ways with my road ally, returning the rental car to the airport I was supposed to fly into a day previous.

When the ski crew pulled up in a dusty Subaru, I finally took my first real sigh of relief. It was time to go skiing.