As you may have gathered from reading my prior blogs, I was never a gifted athlete, but I always enjoyed outdoor activities. Aside from hiking and water sports, my greatest passion was skiing. During my time with the YMCA, the Junior Leaders were given the opportunity to go on a weekend ski trip to Iron Mountain, Michigan. The cost of the trip was underwritten by a generous Y donor, and I jumped at the chance. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and my mom was a little reluctant to let me go, but since two of the Y staff were coming along, she gave her consent.
We arrived to our motel late Friday night after a five hour drive from Chicago to discover that the bag containing the donated ski jackets we were supposed to wear the next day were left behind. Fortunately, the Ski Patrol on the mountain was nice enough to donate some of theirs for us to use, along with the boots and skis the Y rented for us. For those unfamiliar with the topography of the Midwest, it’s all pretty flat. Iron Mountain should more aptly been named Iron Hill. The only Midwest ski area that has any real elevation is Boyne Highlands in the upper peninsula of Michigan, but that is an eight hour drive from Chicago, and even that is pitiful compared to the Rockies or the Sierras.
Iron Mountain did not have chair lifts for skiers, only tow ropes to pull you up the hill. (It still beat placing the skis on your shoulders and hiking up the hill, as was done in the old days.) Our first lesson was how to grab the rope while standing parallel to it by squeezing slowly, then holding on until you reached the top. If you grabbed too quickly, you were jerked forward flat on your face. You also had to learn to control the skis and keep them in the track made by previous skiers, or you ended up either under the rope, or too far from it. I quickly learned that you needed to have leather gloves, rather than the wool ones I had with me, as the rope soon burned holes in the wool. Lucky for me, someone had an extra pair. Once on top, we were given lessons in how to control our speed and direction by using the classic beginner snowplow technique, and most importantly, how to stop. By the end of the weekend, I felt comfortable enough to relax and enjoy the experience. I was hooked on the sport!
For Christmas, I persuaded my parents to buy me a pair of leather ski-boots, as well as wooden skis with bear trap bindings. The closest ski opportunity to Chicago was Wilmot Mountain 1 ½ hours by car from our house. Imagine a hill devoid of vegetation, 748 feet high, covered with ski chairs and pommel lifts, and hordes of skiers waiting to be hoisted to the top so they could enjoy a 2-5 minute run down the slopes, and you have Wilmot. The next closest ski area to Chicago is in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, an hour further north. It has slightly longer runs, and surrounding pine forests, making it my favorite of the two. Neither of my parents skied, but they dutifully and repeatedly drove me to these spots, and paid for me to have lessons. In those days, lift tickets hadn’t reached the stratospheric heights they are today, and not having to rent equipment, along with bringing our own lunch helped keep the costs bearable for our limited circumstances. Looking back now on how the experience must have been for them, I am doubly grateful for the sacrifices they made on my behalf.
Bill, one of the friends I made on the Y swim team, was an experienced skier, having been involved with the sport since the age of five. When we were in college, he invited me to drive with him over spring break to Arapahoe Basin in Colorado. He and his parents were friends with the Dirkums, a family who built a lodge for skiers from logs Mr. Dirkum felled in the surrounding forest. They had four athletic children, including the oldest, Rolf, who was on the US Olympic Ski Team. Grandma Dirkum, who was in her late 80s when I first met her, still skied on 205 cm. skis, and could carve a trail better than most on the mountain. She would be up at four in the morning baking biscuits served with fresh churned butter and fresh fruit, and getting breakfast ready for the guests staying at the lodge. After returning from a day on the slopes, we were treated to incredible meals of salmon, home grown potatoes, and savory stews, followed by her amazing fresh baked pies. Then, when you could barely move, everyone gathered around the fire place, Rolf would take out his guitar, and encourage us to sing along with the rest of the family.
Located just over Loveland Pass, A-Basin, as the locals referred to it, has an elevation of over 12,000 feet, and some of the best spring skiing in North America. With miles of trails and grand scenery, it’s a skier’s paradise. Located far from Denver or any major city, the night skies provide a breathtaking star scape unseen by any city dweller, with clean, crisp, pine tinged air that makes you happy to be just alive. Being there for the first time, I felt more connected to the world and to life than I ever had before.
There is a memory from that trip that lives with me to this day. After a night of snow, we woke up with the pines covered with their new white gowns, the scent of fresh biscuits and coffee from the kitchen, and the feeling that this was going to be a grand day. After our hearty breakfast, I found myself with Rolf and Bill. We were one of the first people off the chairlift at the top of the mountain. The runs were covered with a half foot of fresh powder, a skier’s dream. Rolf was soon leading us down the run, carving majestic turns, with his skis sending plumes of powdery snow up in the air all around him. The only sound was the rustle of the wind in the trees, and the soft whoosh of the skis. The powder soon covered our parkas, and the sun was coming up behind us. As the rays hit the particles of snow on Rolf’s parka, it turned him into a shimmering rainbow, floating through the clouds of snow. Bill and I both stopped and just watched him glide down the slope. We turned to look at each other, neither of us saying a word, but realizing this was a moment neither of us would ever forget.
As my life progressed and I became more financially secure, I was able to take many more ski holidays in some truly wonderful places. In the process, I met a number of people, a few of whom would become lifelong friends. When my son became old enough, I introduced him to the joys of the sport, and proudly watched him gain mastery until soon he became the one I was trying to keep up with on the slopes. Skiing provided the opportunity for us to spend uninterrupted blocks of time together, something I cherish to this day. Until his life took him to live in other parts of the world, he was my ski buddy. I continued to ski for almost forty years of my life until an unfortunate incident by another skier left me with injuries that despite surgery, ended my own skiing career. I still miss the sport, the beauty of the mountains glorified with a mantle of snow, the sparkling air in the morning, and the sense of satisfaction after completing a good run over a challenging course. I still have my ski gear, though realistically speaking, I know I’m not likely to use it again.
More to follow…