A Thanksgiving Skiing Story

A Thanksgiving Skiing Story

Last year my wife and I decided to snag a midweek opening at the crown
jewel of the 10th Mountain Hut System, the Fowler Hilliard Hut. Most
people reserve these huts months in advance, but we’re not that
organized.

Fortunately, we don’t have to be. As retail workers at a local ski
shop, we work weekends because that’s when most people shop. As such,
we get two or three days off in the middle of the week. This is a huge
perk for ski bums like us – the roads and slopes are empty, and
reservations for backcountry huts are easy to come by on short notice.

This particular time we hit jackpot. The Fowler-Hilliard Hut is
situated in a dream location for any skier. It’s on top of a long
ridgeline, and directly below it are acres of open terrain, perfectly
angled for supreme powder skiing. It’s ringed by the highest mountains
in the country, Elbert and Massive to the south, Holy Cross to the
west, Quandary and Democrat to the east and the magical Gore Range to
the north.

The original Fowler-Hilliard Hut had been around for a few decades,
but in 2009 it got struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The
10th Mountain folks scrambled to erect a temporary yurt, and in the
summer of 2010 they built a new, palatial version of this hut. It’s
the perfect ski lodge: you can literally ski out the front door and
make some of the best turns of your life.

My wife, Elaine, and I took a little gamble that there would be enough
snow and booked the hut for late November – right around Thanksgiving.
As it turned out, La Nina was more than kind to us, and we were graced
with amazing powder.

Getting to these huts is no easy chore. This particular one required a
3,500-foot climb up a steep jeep “road.”  We were a little nervous for
the skin up there. Elaine had been away from skiing for a few years,
though not by her own accord.

She has always been a passionate skier, learning the sport as a little
kid. She spent many years in various racing programs, but racing
really wasn’t her thing, not because she didn’t have the skill, but
because skiing on hard packed ice between red and blue gates didn’t do
much to satisfy her creative interests, her sense of adventure or her
independence. Turns out her favorite place to go was the bumps, steeps
and trees where she could challenge herself, far from the crowds, on
her own terms.

For Elaine, like a lot of us, skiing was more than just fun. It was a
place to find peace from the everyday challenges of life. Around 2007,
however, her health took a turn for the worse and skiing became
something that she was able to do less and less. Hospital stays and
medications replaced high-speed runs down Salto Glades, and after
three years that trade-off in lifestyle took its toll. This story has
a happy ending though: she got better, and at the beginning of the
2010-11 ski season was given a clean bill of health.

It was a tentative return though. Three years away from the sport had
an impact. The skins seemed steeper than before, and there was a day
last early-November at Loveland where there was some definite
frustration for her because her ability to ski bumps was not where she
wanted it. Her email moniker as a kid used to be “Bump Star”:
obviously there was a little pride involved when it came to skiing the
moguls.

As the Fowler-Hilliard hut trip approached, we skied more and more,
but a 3,000-plus foot climb with heavy packs is the real deal. You
can’t fake it and it was definitely a jump from the little skin and
ski sessions we’d been doing out our backyard.

We arrived at the trailhead and I tried to give her a little
advice…pace yourself and eat…it’s a long way to the top. Elaine is a
darn good skier, but mellow pacing on uphills isn’t particularly her
forte. Some people approach life with caution, and some people charge
it full gusto. Elaine falls in the latter category and I love her for
it. That said, it can lead to some interesting consequences on a long
uphill skin.

Her pace the first couple miles was akin to a Norwegian cross-country
ski racer injected with a half-dozen Full Throttle energy drinks.  It
was break-neck. I figured to myself, as I was trying to catch my
breath while struggling to follow her, that we’d be up at the hut with
plenty of time to settle in, build a fire, make some hot cocoa and
take an evening sunset run before a cold darkness settled in.

And then the bonk hit her. Medically speaking, a bonk is when your
glycogen stores are depleted. Most endurance athletes are quite
familiar with them – your suddenly swift pace is reduced to a crawl or
a full-on stop. Basically, you feel like garbage.

The only way to make the situation better is to eat food, preferably
chocolate or other such sugary delicacies. The problem is, once you
bonk you don’t quite get back to the same energy level until a few
days and hefty meals later. The temperature was plummeting into the
single-digits, the sun was dropping down along the horizon and we were
only about halfway up the mountain. We needed to keep moving.

The thing is, in comparison to the three-year pile of dung that Elaine
had been through, climbing another 1,500 feet was simple. A steep skin
track with a heavy pack is a lot less debilitating than endless
hospital visits and powerful yet debilitating medications. We took our
time, ate lots of chocolate and downed two thermoses of hot cocoa. As
we neared the ridgeline where the hut sat, we had one of those
magical, beautiful moments in life that only a skier can experience.

The sun had just dropped below the 14,009-foot Mount of the Holy Cross
and the sky was on fire. The fresh snow around us erupted in a
sparkling glitter. We stopped at a set of tracks – those of the
elusive lynx. We’d just climbed 3,500 feet and it was like nature was
rewarding us for our effort.

I looked over at my wife and saw the biggest smile I’d ever seen on
her face. As the sun set behind her, she put her hands in the air, in
what can only be described as a sign of victory. Victory over that
day’s long uphill, but more than that too. You see, even though she
had overcome her ailments from the previous three years, you could
still see in her eyes a certain fear that the problems could come
back. It wasn’t until that ski and that climb last November that I saw
that fear evaporate for the last time.

I’ve heard people mock skiing as a silly activity. A high school
teacher of mine once said to me, in front of the whole class as I was
heading off to ski practice, “There goes Dan…the world’s going
downhill and so is he.” That teacher didn’t get it, because he didn’t
ski.

I’ve seen skiing change lives and not just because it’s fun. It offers
a sense of freedom and adventure that simply doesn’t exist in many
elements of our world today. When my parents dropped me off at the ski
resort, I was free – for the first time in my life – to explore the
mountain and that world without supervision until they picked me up
when the lifts stopped turning.  That’s what skiing does for most
mountain people I know, and that’s why I think skiers are a little
more independent, adventurous and free than most.

Skiing in the woods and in the mountains makes you a better person. It
enlightens you and it makes you strong. But more than that: it heals.
As my wife will attest, being in the mountains, climbing them on a
cold winters day and sliding back down them did more for her health
and sense of self than any doctor or medication. Elaine was healthy
before that ski last November, but it took that magical moment on the
top of the ridgeline by the lynx tracks for her to truly feel alive
again. And after a whole winter of skiing and summer of training,
today she’s the healthiest of her entire life. When people ask me what
I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving, that truth is my answer.

Happy Thanksgiving to the Nederland skiing and snowboarding family.
May you have a great day with loved ones, friends, family, delicious
food, health and of course, awesome turns in silky powder snow.

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