Tough Love

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The idea of a vacation is different for everyone. For some reason, my parents' idea of a good time was packing four kids into a station wagon every January and driving 12 hours from the San Francisco Bay area to Jackson Hole. The annual week-long pilgrimage had one purpose: to teach us how to ski powder. My dad believed there was no skill more valuable. And there was no better place than Jackson-where the runs are long and steep, and the snow is dry and deep-to get us to shut up and ski.

I went back there last winter for the first time in 18 years because it was my parents' 40th anniversary and Jackson Hole's 30th. And because the reports of record snowfalls were too much to resist. After hearing so much about Jackson's nouveau cowboy chic, I expected it to be much different from the ruggedly hospitable place of my memories. To be sure, some things were different:

Then, getting to Jackson was a 12-hour drive; now it's a two-hour direct flight. Then, we crammed into shared beds at the bare bones Hostel; now, we spread out in a luxury log cabin at the ultra-buff Spring Creek Resort. Then, dinner was our choice of Calico Pizza or Mangy Moose burgers; now, you need a Zagat's guide to help you decide on a restaurant. Then, there was no grooming to speak of except on the speed run down the Gros Ventre; now there are a host of ballroom-smooth steeps all over the mountain.

Many things had changed, but three things had not: The mountain is beyond compare, whining is beyond reproach and Corbet's still scares me to death.

My parents have behaved quite well over the years. And so, though I wanted to relive my hyper-active youth, I figured I'd cut them some slack during their stay. I'd allow them their first truly relaxing child-free Jackson Hole vacation, which included things like lunch breaks, socializing with old friends and skiing on marked trails.

But could I still capture the magic of this place without the accelerator pegged? I would need a playmate, a victim actually, to complete my return to the scene. So I brought along a snowboarder friend who had the midwinter blues. From what I remembered of the place, Jackson was just the therapy she needed. Of course she could handle it, I promised,with mock confidence. It wasn't the terrain that concerned me. It was the maintenance factor. I knew that once we were on that mountain, at the top of 4,000 very vertical feet, it would be impossible to stop or wait, no matter how much moral support she needed. Gravity sucks you into a feeding frenzy, and survival rules apply.

My friend arrived late Thursday night and awoke to her first taste of what was coming when I forced her to get out of bed at 7 am Friday morning. "Gotta be at the tram dock by 8 to get the first tram," I explained. The 10-minute waiting rule is about 9 1/2 minutes too long at Jackson. And making the first tram, even on a non-powder day, is a matter of principle. At the top, my friend strapped herself into her snowboard as I took off down Rendezvous Bowl, thinking it was a bit steeper than I remembered.

Looking up from the bottom, though she was only a spot, I could see her fear. I was nervous-for her well-being if she didn't make it down in one piece, and for mine if she did. By the time she reached me, she was covered with snow, but her fear had been replaced by exhilaration. Right then I knew she got it-the Jackson Hole tough-love phenomenon. It's an unspoken version of those unconvincing parental assertions we endured as kids:

This is hurting me more than it's hurting you; you'll thank me later; I'm only doing this because I love you; what doesn't kill you makes you better.

In skiing, tough love is the express route to improvement. While you're trying to keep up, instincts and blind faith take over, and by simply surviving you jump light years in confidence. I'm convinced Jackson Hole's tough love treatment built the foundation for both my World Cup downhill racing career and my life-long love of tthe sport.

That first run set the tone for the next three days. Each run my friend pushed herself. She never complained, and never turned back. Meanwhile, I had hooked up with a friend from New York City, an ex ski racer who also had brought a comrade in need of a spiritual boost. We decided to do our friends the greatest service possible, and took off at full-speed-sailing off cat roads and down chutes, dodging rock outcroppings, skipping down mogul fields, threading through trees. It was just like the good old days, when keeping up with my brother meant putting all sensibility aside. I had thought by now I was smart enough to stay within my capabilities. I was wrong.

All this time, my parents were content just to watch us perpetuate the tough-love tradition, so I still hadn't really skied with Dad. But it was our last day, and I had been looking forward to heading out of bounds-a mission in which I doubted my father would partake. Dad loves powder, but he's also a big fan of chairlifts. He'll walk for nothing, except maybe the powder in Cody Bowl-the Promised Land, just opened by the ski patrol that day. The great white expanse stared at him, openly dared him (as none of our group would) to join the fun. Just as five of us were taking off for the trek , Dad noticed we were being briskly led by the oldest official member of the Jackson Hole Air Force. He grabbed his skis and said, "I'm in."

My father once got me down a steep hill by placing a succession of cherry cough drops in the snow, which I scooped up as I slid down the entire run on my stomach. I don't remember the crying, though it was well-documented. Instead, I remember the feeling of accomplishment when I looked back up from the bottom. Now it was me doing the bribery, luring him up the boot-packed trail with nothing but water, and brief moments to catch his breath. You'll thank me later, I assured him, as we pushed on. As a skier passed, and Dad imagined one more set of tracks in Cody Bowl before his, he picked up the pace. When he worried that the snow, once he got to it, might be wind-blown or crusty, I reminded him that all snow is good snow. And when I felt guilty about hurrying him I reminded myself that you have to be cruel to be kind.

He was exhausted, but nearly giddy with expectation. Waiting for us was the powder in Cody Bowl, then over the next ridge a seemingly endless run of untracked powder and corn snow-new territory and a new memory for both of us. All he could say at the top was: "Where's my cough drop?" But I could give him no candy, not a drop more water, and no more resting time than what it took to put on his skis. I love you Dad, but as they say, paybacks are hell.

SKI senior editor Edie Thys competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympics as a member of the U.S. Ski Team. To see previous Racer eX columns, visit the Racer eX page on www.skimag.com .