PHOTOS: John Clary Davies
It was a shit start to the season. Vail was a single man-made run covered in regulatory signs ("No jumping!" "Slow Down!") and Yellow Jackets waving their arms at passing skiers to pump the brakes. Taos didn't have much more. Breckenridge limited us to the bunny chair. Steamboat introduced us to something that wasn't really skiing at all--just sliding around like drunk chickens on scratchy, head-rattling ice.
Christmas had me headed toward Mount Hood. A full week at the old family cabin and well, well, well, would you look at that? A storm was stacking up. The forecast called for snow every day that week.
And it looked like it was going to deliver. The drive out of Portland was complete chaos--a frozen rain circus. All lanes were open to all directions of travel. No signs were to be obeyed. Every one for themselves. On the hill toward Troutdale, an old man in a Datsun Truck with a long gray beard that matched his long gray hair stared intently ahead from the driver's seat as his car rolled backward. Closer to the hill's summit, two women in sweatpants smoked cigarettes as they pushed a spinning Camry. I passed both with insouciance. Later, incredibly, frighteningly, they passed me. I pictured them cackling as they fish-tailed through life.
The cabin had a foot of fresh snow and it wasn't stopping. The drive in on the narrow road was like a white evergreen cave. The snow on branches stacked as high as the moss drooped. The saplings sagged in on us. Upon arrival, my two toddler nephews and I were so excited we immediately put our snowpants on and rolled around the snowy road like idiots. It was Christmas. The family was together again. It was dumping. Nothing else mattered and it was all beautiful and glorious.
Still, the mountain needed more. One more blast and everything would open. The weather people indicated that the precipitation was going to take a break and then reappear. So we lapped the magic carpet. The 4-year-old scored some mint Rossignol R2D2 skis. The 2-year-old rented QST’s barely bigger than his boots. We gave them Skittles at the bottom of each lap and stood in line on the lurching conveyor belt.
The family left and my fiancé and I took a day at Mount Hood Meadows--turning a spry 50 years old this year! The run with the softest snow was called Willow, which skied like a late May afternoon--a patchwork of soft bumps, rocks, roots, stumps, and weeds.
The next morning, we woke to a steady patter of rain on the metal roof of the cabin. Surely it was snowing higher on the mountain. We looked at the thermometer. It was 38 degrees. No… We drove up to the ski hill. A dark, incessant downpour to the top. We went to Charlie's, ordered beers, and didn't say much. I saw a longtime local I knew there. She said Skibowl might not even stay open until New Year's. The downpour lasted three days. It cut the snowpack in half.
Alas, this was all just a part of being a skier, we reckoned, which requires patience, endless optimism, and cheering--pleading--for a change in degree or two. It also means focusing and appreciating the details, because sometimes everything else is like a patchy, icy run--kind of ugly and depressing if you think too hard about it.
The day the storm cleared, we drove to Skibowl around 4 p.m. to meet a friend for night skiing. Upper Bowl would not be opening. It's still not open. But it had been a while since we'd seen the friend, who is probably the guy with whom I've skied with more than anyone else in my adult life.
That night was fantastically clear. It was nearly a full moon. Mount Hood radiated light. It looked like it was aglow from within its great depths. It looked like God.
As the flood lights came on and Hood dimmed to a massive silhouette, we loaded the red Multorpor double chair and it ascended into the misty white light. We didn't ski anything steeper than 30 degrees, but nothing about it was mundane. We found poorly lit zipper lines, patches of soft snow on the fringes, and mini daffy-booters off stumps. Snowboarders lurked like gremlins--off in the shadows or directly in the middle of runs sprawled on their backs.
The runs took no more than 60 seconds. On the chairlift back up, I thought about how everywhere I had skied this season had some small feature--a jump, a bump line, a knoll worth airing, a community worth knowing--that gave the day a jolt of joy and energy it wouldn't otherwise have had. The snow didn't deliver over our holiday, and it hasn't throughout most of the West this season, but the skiing was still the highlight of the trip.
When we got back to our home in New Mexico, the first thing we noticed was the surrounding mountains had no snow on them. It was heartbreaking for both selfish and ecological reasons. Regardless, we're headed up to Taos this weekend. We're going skiing anyway.