If there is anything the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Social Justice Demonstrations of 2020 have in common, it is the matter of personal freedom, or lack thereof. Compared to these national and global issues, the abrupt termination of a ski season is small potatoes. But for those who pursue skiing as a key recreational outlet in life, the shortening of one season and the dubious prognosis for another threatens yet another aspect of our collective freedom in the Year of the Lockdown.
By no means do I wish to make light of the current situation, but with this article my aim is to take the reader on a flight of fancy and pure escapism — skidom! I am an optimistic person and believe that giving thought to what brings us joy is good for the psyche. Despite the recent woes of the world, we all have great ski memories to reflect on and give us hope for more glorious slope time ahead.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. How much do I love of skiing? Let me count the ways, including physical exhilaration, family time, friendships and camaraderie, scenic beauty, new cultures, regional cuisine, and the horizons-expanding adventure of travel. But perhaps the most unique joy skiing gives me is a scintillating sense of exploration and liberty to push personal limits in a snowy, mountainous realm where most mortals fear to tread. As a guy who spent 40 years behind a cubicle in Dilbert-like servitude for our Federal Bureaucracy, this is no small thing!
To quote Martin Luther King, “from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” Here are thoughts and photos from moments in my ski life that have given me the most powerful feelings of exhilaration and personal freedom. I hope to inspire you to share some of your favorite ski memories in the comments section after this article.
It started when I was a kid. Beginning in the late 1960s, my Dad rented a Scotty trailer several times from military special/recreation services to take us skiing at Blue Knob, PA. He was brand new to skiing and trailering. Only a neophyte would take a non-winterized trailer to spend a weekend at the 3,100-foot summit parking lot of Blue Knob in the dead of a 1960s winter! We shivered all night, but I still remember those trips with awe and wonder. We were Jean Claude Killys by day and Sir Edmund Hillarys by night.
In March of 1976 I drove on a solo ten day trip from the Washington DC area to Colorado on my spring break at the University of Maryland. It was my first time skiing out west and an eye-opening experience of the highest order. I visited Winter Park, Vail, and Aspen and skied packed powder under deep blue skies at all three. My magic carpet ride to the Rockies was a 1969 VW Beetle that I slept in several nights on the trip, including once each in the parking lots of Vail and Snowmass.
After decades of skiing in America I finally skied the Alps on a one week trip to Austria in February 2003. I went with a friend and we were on a modest budget. We stayed in the city of Salzburg and used a regional shuttle bus to visit five nearby, lesser-known ski areas. The skiing, scenery, cuisine, and cultural aspects of the trip were outstanding and each day was a very different adventure from skiing in the US including my first ride in a bubble chair, first close-up view of a glacier, touring castles and the boyhood home of Mozart in the city of Salzburg, etc.
Riding the bus to new ski areas every day allowed me to get a good look at the countryside of Austria, the birthplace of skiing. My eyes were like saucers all week. Huge ski areas, undiscovered by Americans, lay around every bend of the road. I’ve always been focused on the closest, best skiing I could get to, which generally involves the mid-Atlantic or other parts of the US, but I still very much yearn to go back to the Alps.
My wife Kathy and I have four children. With Kathy’s great support, each of them was introduced to mid-Atlantic skiing at an early age. In December of 2003 we took the whole gang, ranging in age from 10-19, on their first ski trip to the Rockies. It was a heck of a family adventure and in my inimitable knucklehead style, we did it the hard way by driving in a minivan from Northern Virginia to Colorado over the Christmas Holidays. There were some moments of stress in the confinement of the minivan and some moments of great freedom on the slopes at Eldora, Loveland, and Winter Park.
The two really big ski nuts in the family are myself and my son Vince. Over the years he and I have had some epic ski times together, particularly when he got older and I was able to enlist him as a driving partner. One of the first and most memorable of our father-and-son cross country ski road trips took place in 2009 over Easter Week of Vince’s senior year in high school. We drove from Virginia to Colorado and skied two gloriously sunny days at Loveland and Arapahoe Basin. Then it snowed 2-3 feet over our last three ski days at Copper Mountain. Interstate 70 was closed for a period, but the free Summit Stage bus kept running and we utilized it from our motel in Frisco to partake in amazing powder skiing in light crowds. This was a skier’s coming-out party for Vince in the deepest fresh snow of his life up until then.
Many of us have the itch of an inner ski bum that we’ve never quite satisfied. I retired from my US Government job in January 2015 and immediately undertook a nine week ski trip. Free at last! I skied ten different ski areas in five states (CO, UT, CA, NV, WY) and put over 8,400 miles on my Subaru Outback. After being a weekend ski warrior for nearly 50 years, this was the trip of a lifetime.
It wasn’t the snowiest winter in North America, but it was MY winter. I lost about 20 pounds, got in really good ski shape, and had a marvelous time. I bummed around the country by myself for the first half of the trip meeting friends here, there and everywhere. It was almost too much freedom. I had to take a couple days off each week to recover and avoid physical burnout. Then for the month of March my wife joined me at a nice condo in Summit County, Colorado. The skiing continued, but at a slower pace and we enjoyed a second-honeymoon in a beautiful mountain environment. Later, when I returned to part time work as a Defense Contractor for a few years, it only made the memory even sweeter of my nine weeks as a ski bum.
Up until now I have talked mostly about great ski vacations or recurring activities from my youth, but the essense of skiing sometimes boils down to a single thrilling moment, run, or achievement. One fine day in the winter of 2017 my son Vince, now a PSIA L-3 instructor, led me, DCSki member JohnL, and another friend named Brian down a super steep and beautiful chute at Snowbird, Utah. Vince called it North Chute.
It was a spring day and the snow was soft and nicely edgeable. North Chute slants off at an angle near the upper section of Snowbird’s aerial tramline. It’s bordered by cliffs and is so precipitous that the four of us kicked loose sluff as we took turns going down it one-at-a-time in single file. Everyone in the group skied it well and safely. Talk about exhilarating! It was one of those runs that evoked mandatory high-fives from all participants upon completion.
If that moment at Snowbird was about being caught up in the excitement of a really steep run, then at Mt. Bachelor, Oregon in late December 2012 the liberating power of skiing came to me in a vision of absolutely mesmerizing beauty. Mt. Bachelor is a dormant volcano with the near-perfect shape of a cone. In the right snow conditions you can ski in any direction, 360 degrees, from the summit lift. During my visit the entire layout was open and we made several runs down the lightly-trafficked backside of the mountain. It felt like we had a private mountain to ourselves. Dodging snow-hoodoos (trees covered with a thick blanket of snow and frost) for a couple thousand vertical feet, the views here were no less than otherworldly.
In January of 2013 I was on a trip with my family that would include visits to five great ski resorts in the Tahoe region of California. But it was at little Homewood Mountain Resort where a short bit of exploration led us to one of the best and most secluded views of Lake Tahoe that any visiting ski tourist could ever hope to stumble upon. It required about 10 to 15 minutes of poling on a long cat track, including some herringbone climbing to Quail Face, a side-country zone on the southern fringe of the ski area. When we finally stood in complete isolation atop a wide slope called Main Cirque, the deep blue lake seemed so big and so close that we could have reached out and dabbed it with our ski poles.
In April 2019 I enjoyed another great ski run with my son Vince. It was 1:45 p.m. on a beautiful spring afternoon when we took the High Lift t-bar and saw a bunch of hikers climbing above all lifts to the 12,162-foot peak of Crested Butte, Colorado. We spontaneously decided to join them. It involved perhaps a 300-foot vertical climb that was easy for Vince, but I took it slowly. It was worth the effort. The 360-degree views from the summit were stupendous in a year when the Rockies were loaded with snow.
After hanging out on the summit for a few minutes, we dropped a pleasant snowfield off the northwest face and followed a somewhat sketchier traverse (Banana High Entrance), passing a bunch of classic chutes on the front/south face of the mountain such as Peel, Banana, and Funnel. We chose Funnel Chute on that run from the summit. It chokes down to a narrow pinch called Deep Throat and there’s a huge rock cliff bordering the entire right side of the chute. Wow, it was a super picturesque run consisting of nearly 3,000 continuous vertical feet of double black diamond terrain.
I could go on and on about adventures at Alpine Meadows, CA, Aspen Highlands, CO, Blackcomb Glacier, BC, Mad River Glen, VT, Le Massif, QC, Saddleback, ME, Zell am See, Austria, etc., etc. But it’s time to wrap up this walk down memory lane and discuss the future. Next winter could be a little weird. I expect we’ll all be wearing mandatory masks or gaiters. Hugs and kisses may be replaced with ski pole clicks or thumbs-up from six feet apart? But I still contend that being outdoors at a ski area on a low-crowd weekday while dressed for winter and taking some basic precautions has got to be one of the best and most fun ways to socially distance. And watchout; when we finally get a surefire vaccine and return to normal you are going to see some all-time-great apres ski parties!
I’d like to give a final three cheers for the freedom of skiing and steal the French motto: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Nothing in this crazy world amounts to a hill of beans if we don’t take care of each other and find a way to enable all of us to experience true freedom, including recreational activities like skiing. The best part of human endeavor is sharing our joys and successes with each other in the pursuit of happiness.
Now, tell us how you have been freed by skiing!
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.