My longtime ski buddy, Rick Stalker, was given the nickname Rickus-Dickus by fellow Snow Country Magazine ski tester Tina Vindum, an honorific that instantly adhered and has remained intact ever since it was bestowed. (If you ever met the ever-radiant Tina, you would instantly understand why her nicknames have the power and permanence of a Constitutional amendment.)
Over the course of the last three decades, Dickus and I have conspired to take a road trip to Snowbird, usually aiming at dates in March. This season’s impending episode evoked all the tasty anticipation of past adventures, interlaced with obstacles that constantly threatened to incinerate all our carefully calculated plans, beginning with the business of finding affordable flights.
To summarize this phase of our operation, affordable flights did not exist. As recently as January, I had flown round trip from Reno to Salt Lake City for under $300. Even if we were eager to pay twice that amount, every seat on Southwest Airlines was already spoken for. Nimbly switching gears, we reverted to an automotive solution, setting our sights on a Sunday arrival that would get us to Little Cottonwood Canyon the same day as our host flew in from LA.
Mother Nature had other ideas, cooking up an “atmospheric river” that was due to assault Reno on the eve of our departure. Our new course of action was the only option left: get out of town a day early, just ahead of a ferocious storm front that was bearing down on the Sierras. We couldn’t allow the fact that we had no reservations to stay anywhere that night to deter us. We got out of town while the getting was good, figuring that, worst case, we could find accommodations somewhere on the other end of our trek.
Ha! It seems hotels have a pact that Saturdays are so special, they deserve to be celebrated by trebling all room rates – which somehow was still insufficient to discourage occupancy – so finding a safe haven wasn’t the slam-dunk I’d hoped for. Then I remembered that a Realskiers.com member had once cavalierly remarked that if I was ever in Utah, he’d love it if we could hook up for a spot of skiing.
Never let it be said that I am lacking in chutzpah. I dug out the Realskiers’ adherent’s phone number from an old email and pitched the pitiful tale of our plight to this kind soul whom I had never even talked to, much less met, before my impertinent call. Dickus and I ended up having a lovely dinner with our new best friends – whose names I will not reveal, lest they be subjected to further unsolicited visitations – and spent the night in opulent comfort in their new home in Park City. To David and Carol, my bottomless thanks for your extraordinary hospitality.
My ever-insightful Dear Readers will note that, while Dickus and I had made it to Utah, it was now Sunday, which is the worst possible day to try to navigate between two of the most popular skiing destinations in America. As we left Park City that morning, we drove past an incoming flow of vehicles that stretched to the horizon, only to join a similar conga line of nearly stationary traffic that was crawling up the road to Snowbird. No matter, we had made it, more snow was due to arrive soon – the atmospheric river we had dodged coming out of Reno – and all was right with the world.
By Monday morning, a dawn Dickus and I had been anticipating with all the uncontained wonder of four-year-olds on Christmas eve, the overnight snow had accumulated sufficiently to trigger the infamous inter-lodge interdiction that prohibits everyone in Little Cottonwood Canyon from leaving their lodgings. This all but assured us of catching the first tram up the mountain, the proverbial best of all possible worlds.
The only way down that was ready for public consumption was Regulator Johnson, a broad but merciless pitch where the gravity stream is unrelenting. It took me a couple of turns to adjust to, well, everything: the pitch, new skis, limited visibility, oodles of other frenzied skiers and riders alongside me, the mere fact that I’m careening down the side of Snowbird after what felt like two hours of “sleep.” Oh, and the total inadequacy of the oxygen supply at this altitude that obliged me to pause while I heaved up bits of lung matter.
Once the initial shock subsided, I was fine. Better than fine, actually. I had one of the greatest ski mornings of my life. I found a rhythm immediately on the last, long pitch on Regulator, which teed me up for multiple forays into the trees around the Gad 2 lift. I think it was the second or third run we took into this terrain when we made first tracks into the chutes skier’s left of the lift line, which led into a pine glade with obscured entries to further plunges. At one point, our host and guide darted between tight trees, so I followed in a parallel path that opened into perfection: an utterly uncut channel, just wide enough to accommodate a mid-radius turn, covered in 18 inches of pixie dust and stretching straight down for a hundred yards.
Somewhere far beneath my feet, ancient bumps set a rhythmic rise and fall with every turn. As I sank in the belly of each arc, the uncut snow erupted into flumes that flew over my shoulders and splashed me in the kisser. I rebound out of every arc into an effortless transition, hands held high and forward, ready to sink into white silk again. Rise, sink, rinse, repeat. Rise, sink, rinse, repeat.
We continued to find unblemished pockets of powder, but nothing we would ski for the rest of the week would touch the sense of elemental perfection I found in that long slot in the trees. It was a moment that made all of life make sense and seem purposeful, if only for a few seconds.
We would have a couple more high-quality days that week, but we also lost two days due to weather so foul it rendered this immense mountain utterly invisible. The term used for such conditions is usually “flat light.” What we experienced was the absence of all light, the dark of deep space, only without the stars. We took all of one run on Wednesday, just to get back home, and on Friday the onslaught of another atmospheric river again engulfed everything in an impenetrable haze, a sort of “dark light,” if such a thing exists.
So it came to pass that what we had hoped to be 5 days of skiing evolved into a 6-day trip that shrank to a 4-day window, minus 1 total white-out and 3 canyon closures. Dickus and I opted to get while the getting was at least marginally good, and headed west into another onrushing wall of precipitation.
The rain wasn’t just falling; it was being hurled by brutal winds that caused the great torsos of all the semis on the road to sway like palm trees. Dickus somehow managed to steer us safely through the belly of the beast, until the clouds broke up and the headwinds, while still strong, had lost their ability to terrify.
A road trip is akin to a quest, for one must leave the familiar behind and strike out to seek an unknown fortune. The challenges of travel allow us to see ourselves in a different light, and open our minds to influences we didn’t anticipate. If taking a trip is a form of learning, what did I learn from last week’s adventures?
First and foremost, the primacy of the friendships forged in skiing’s crucible. Dickus, the Dude and I genuinely care for one another. There’s more to our mutual support system than just skiing, but skiing is definitely at the epicenter.
Secondly, skiers will endure anything for a shot at fresh powder. Why else would anyone sit in traffic for three hours to travel just a few miles uphill? Why even try to ski when you can’t see where you’re going? Why do skiers hold out hope for freshies, when the entire expanse of a mountain Snowbird’s size will be tracked out in an hour?
The third most vivid take-away from my latest road trip is the tide of humanity that materializes whenever and wherever it snows. Not only does it take an eternity to get to the resort, when you arrive there may be no place to park. Should you make it all the way to the hill, you’ll be sharing the slopes with a swarm of others, which made me wonder if anyone in and around Salt Lake shows up for work on a powder day. My new nickname for SLC is “Home of the Two-Day Work Week.”
Finally, I was reminded of why we endure so much abuse just to indulge in a sport that holds us in its thrall. There’s something holy about the moments when everything falls into place. All it took was ten perfect turns in a mini-cathedral of uncut snow, seemingly created just for me, to validate a lifelong addiction to this crazy, wonderful sport. For a few moments, I was young again, charging a fall line with an ideal pitch that rewarded aggression.
Rise, sink, rinse, repeat.
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