Back in high school my J.V. assistant basketball coach, Joel, told me that skiers who never fell down, never improved. They needed challenge to better themselves. I think he worked in metaphor to tie to shooting free throws or taking a charge or something.
This thought entered my mind a few minutes after my second run of the morning. I laid down like a Harley rider sliding his bike under a flatbed trailer to avoid decapitation. Control the fall was my millisecond’s thought after I caught an outside edge on uneven snowcat track, but before I pinwheeled down Elk Ridge, one ski a hundred feet up the run and me spinning in a spray of white ice down below. I tried to set an edge with my remaining ski, but mostly it just continued the revolutions. I would love to have seen it in third person, drone footage. I think I would have laughed.
A Good Samaritan brought me my ski. “Thanks.” That’s my fall for the day. I clipped back in and watched my speed on the next few descents, a little wary of a fall at 50 MPH. But I was just warming up…. the improvement.
When the temperature rose into the 60s the mountain softened and called me to the bumps. Spring corn sprouted for acres and called me to carve between, around and over moguls.
Riding the John Paul Express lift I looked to my right up to the top of Allen Peak. The tram providing lift access now closed for the season meant only the truly eager could start a run from the top of the range where the 2002 Olympic men and women started their insane runs down the mountain at 90 MPH. So eager that the daring would trudge up another two-hundred vertical feet through the thin mountain air for the honor of risking life and limb just that much more.
It doesn’t look that steep. It was my last day. Even if I break something I will not miss any ski days. I began to feel the nag of potential regret for blowing the opportunity, so I shoved off the lift, snapped the bindings off and started to climb.
Coach Joel whispered like a hoarse ghost in my ear, “Challenge.” It only took three or four minutes to hike up the slope. As I passed the Ski Patrol shack their white cross flag felt like a good omen, it being the Swiss national flag. My forefathers waved to me in the taught fabric snapping in the steady twenty mile an hour breeze.
I sat in the soft snow that absorbed hours of blinkless sun on this blue bird day. Hadn’t the night shift guy three days ago told me how spring corn was like second powder, how soft it carved? I caught my breath from the climb and looked in every direction. Ogden and the Great Salt Lake to the west, the spine of the Wasatch front stretching north and south and the more sparsely populated Ogden Valley to the east with more snow capped peaks in the distance. This is a pretty spectacular place to die.
This is not a post mortem post. I carved joyously toward the line of trees. The exhilaration. Challenge accepted. I stopped before Easter Bowl to rest a moment. The thighs scream to work through those turns. Mr. Nightshift was correct, the soft snow does carve, but unlike powder, light as down, spring snow is heavy, oatmeal. Making the tips always release is a skill for more expert skiers than myself. Once I reached the glade and bumps I did Joel proud, I improved three times the rest of the two-thousand vertical feet to the bottom. Twice down on my side, and a third, a full backflip where I landed on my head. My skis still on my feet, so onward.
Alright dammit, four falls. I’m going for broke, Joel.
Improvement day carved through Mt. Ogden Bowl, Powderhound Bowl, Surprise Bowl, White Lightning, WFO, SowBack, Strawberry Fields. I jigsawed that mountain to pieces.
The Strawberry express closed at 3:30 so the final vestiges of the day had, but thirty minutes back off John Paul. I attacked a run called Roy’s with new confidence. I’m improving, Joel.
Instead of zipping down the switchback groomer from the top I hucked off the ledge instead. I discovered rocks protruding from the snow. I deftly darted around them. I cut into Roy’s like room temperature butter. I dodged trees. I missed boulders. I felt pure delight. Then I nearly saw the light, followed by darkness. Jump missed, tips down, I flew over them, my face deep in the snow. This biff, the type that leaves love notes of ice in the helmet vent holes, the goggles, and tucked behind the belt, wedged down the front of places. This type of fall one picks out over time, until the last ice chip slips down the pants for a chill thrill. I compounded this experience by doing the exact same thing the final two times down the mountain, probably in the same acre of Roy’s. The last one hurt because I dropped at speed, but I missed the jagged stump invisible from above on the run. I skied down elated, only my hand a little scraped. I have never had that much fun on skis before. Tip of the snow packed helmet to you, Joel. I improved.
My legs in much better shape after skiing 207,000 vertical feet in five days needed a cool down. So driving back through Ogden Canyon I stopped at the Canyon Trailhead, to put some vertical back by climbing up. At first I did not think it promising since it is right on the edge of the city behind a large transfer station. Gargantuan electric poles hold up transmission line out of sight over the ridge, but I started to climb anyway.
With each switchback I gained altitude. Soon the transmission lines stood below my feet. Eventually the sound of the constant rush of traffic, dulled to a crash of distant shoreline. The sounds of the city struggled to ascend with me. I smelled the dried sagebrush blossoms that leaned into the trail. I avoided the prickle of the many cacti.
I smelled the juniper berry. The quiet of the mountain now amplified the crunch of gravel under mountain bike tires far below me.
The trail ended on a promontory overlooking the entire city, I could see the Great Salt Lake shimmering into the horizon. Farnsworth and Nelson Peak made faint shadows through the haze south of Salt Lake City. I enjoyed a fantastic last day here because I mustered the courage to hike to terrain.