Alone at the Top

Travel
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Alone at the Top

A true, enlightening tale of interest to anybody who's ever dodged a snowboarder, cursed a liftline, lunged for a lunch table, raced for an untracked line or sought a moment of quiet solitude atop any of America's most popular mountains.

Fast. It feels fast—that's the only way to describe it. Weightless, free. I drop over a blind knoll, the tips of my ears burning in the wind. I don't care what's ahead. Adrenaline has trumped good judgment. So I go faster, this time over another blind knoll and suddenly into the wide open, onto a corduroy boulevard that stretches out before me and rolls into the distance like Gatsby's last dream. With the trails empty as far as the eye can see, the only injury I'm risking is a cramp in my cheek from a wide, permanent grin. And then, because I can, I stop.

"HelloHelloHelloHello?"

Nothing. I try again: "Hey! Is anybody out there?" Nobody says anything, because today, here at Vail, there is nobody. There's only the sound of the wind whistling across the steel cable of a Doppelmayr quad, which sits empty and unmoving at the top of Swingsville. The chairs sway a little in the breeze, but otherwise there is stillness. Even Vail's wildlife—the paranoid squirrels, the larcenous noonday jackdaws—are out of sight.

"Vail for one," the editor had said. "Everything groomed and open. Just for you. We can make it happen. Interested?"

Vail is the nation's most visited ski resort. On a typical midseason weekend day, the mountain might play host to 17,000 skiers and snowboarders. But for one day in April, I'd have America's most popular alpine playground to myself. More than 5,000 acres, dozens of lifts, seven bowls. I could ski where I wanted, when I wanted, as fast as I wanted—and then find a good table at lunch. This was to be a one-off event, the editor explained, an experiment in fantasy fulfillment. There'd be a handful of other folks on the hill—people to turn the lifts on and off as I needed them, various resort officials going about their end-of-season business, a photographer, obviously—but I'd be the only real skier on the mountain. Was I interested? Who hasn't spent an hour stuck in a liftline; who hasn't been shushed by a librarian; who hasn't done what they were told for 40 years and wished for a little freedom? Oh, I was interested.

8:30 a.m.: Independence Day Dawns
I'm so excited my teeth are swimming. You know the feeling: You've done the clomp-clomp through the snowy parking lot, and now all that's left is the ride up.

The excitement, though, has taken its toll, and the bathroom at Lionshead is locked. From a practical standpoint, this makes sense. When you've got to go, you've got to go, but everybody's gone, so they've closed it. I spy the employee lav through an open door in an abandoned ticket office and slip inside.

When I emerge back into the empty sunlight, I notice the gondola has been started up by an unseen hand and is now humming loudly. Or it seems loud because there is no other sound— the plaza is empty of people, music, excited chatter.

The moment reminds me of the morning my brother and I pulled into the parking lot at Disneyland after an overnight drive from Las Vegas. It was about 7:30 a.m. We were the first ones there. When they opened the park, we walked through the turnstiles, headed straight for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and boarded an empty boat. But something was wrong: They'd forgotten to turn on the sound. All we could hear as we floated through the dark tunnels was the clack-clack of animatronic dummies lifting pints of ale in a mute rendition of "Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum." Occasionally, the smoke machines would hisssss as cannons went off with no boom.

I find the same out-of-context silence in the base area at Vail. Interestingly, though, and despite the unnatural quiet, it's a full workday for the cleanup crew. Yesterday, the ski season's lt official day, was an alpine bacchanal, with barbecues, cocktails and more than a few bad ideas, as evidenced by the lace bra hanging in a tree by the pedestrian bridge. Today, as I walk over to the lift building, the plaza next to the gondola begins to show signs of life; the morning-after team with their Glad bags and work gloves has begun its glum search for aluminum and plastic.

That's when I experience my own version of the universal daydream about waking up nude at the SAT. Only in this case, I'm not nude but, rather, I'm the only one in the plaza wearing a ski ensemble while everybody else is in overalls. Yesterday,I'm a skier. Today, I'm mistaken. They: Carhartts. Me: Fancypants.

"Dude. Place is closed," someone says.

That's what you think. I walk into the gondola building. Empty. Cabins sliding on their track. Finally a nice lift guy there comes out of the control room and says, "Welcome." But his eyes betray a 93-octane envy. He knows.

[pagebreak]

The gondola doors shut behind me, the cabin sways suddenly, and I fly out of the building and soar up and above the empty trails. Below me and all around, there is nothing but open space. It's like a mirage.

A hundred million square yards of corduroy wait for an arc, a slice, a parenthesis.I instinctively turn to share the thrill, to backslap somebody in the gondola. Nope, that's right, I forgot: I'm on my own.

9:15 a.m.: The First First Tracks
At the top of the hill, I walk onto the snow, drop my skis and click in. I couldn't possibly be happier. I could take a left or a right or do nothing. Or all three. It may not be a coincidence that the first trail I see on the way up is called Born Free, and the first trail I pick for the way down is named Avanti, Italian for "Go!"

So I do. I pole out onto the gladed flats above Avanti's long, steep middle pitch and start to feel the speed build. And build. Just for the fun of it, I scare myself silly. Then I slow down. Then I go fast again. Trees whip by. Lift towers disappear. It's quiet. The hill comes up to meet me, and I fly through the scenery.

It should be noted here that skiing fast is fun. But skiing fast when there are no snowboarders sitting on their duffs tying their shoes on the blind side of a dropoff is bliss. It takes a while to get to bliss, though. First, I have to make it past guilt. Whether I like it or not, I was raised a Yankee Calvinist—an Easterner who likes to keep his pleasure under wraps. Things that feel good, you know, are universally held to be morally wrong. In fact, like most skiers, I realize at this moment that I'm not conditioned to seek bliss. I'm conditioned to avoid a lawsuit. Still, 10 turns into my first run, I can't believe how exciting it is to make huge, slightly scary super G—size arcs without having to look up the hill to see if somebody is going to blindside me.

Just above the base of Lift 2, I stop to listen: nothing but wind, a couple of birds somewhere, and the chatter of a few hundred aspen leaves shimmying in a rogue gust. And then, far off, I hear a voice. It's a lift operator, talking on his phone a few hundred yards below me. Pieces of sentences and muffled consonants float up to me in soft drifts. I've heard this kind of thing before, on summer nights next to a lake, when single words can travel long distances, like telegrams, on the humid air. I ski down and go up again.

10:30 a.m.: Castaway
I'm scared. Well, not scared in the same way Tom Hanks was when he was stuck on that island in that movie, because let's face it: In about an hour and a half, they're opening Two Elk Lodge and I'll be having the glazed duck. What I'm scared about, I guess, is that without anybody to share this amazing day with, and after each successive ride, I wonder if I'm really having this experience at all.

11:30 a.m.: Transcendence?
Skiing alone for hours is transcendent in the same way running long distances can change you. At first, there are distractions—thoughts that intrude on your actions, muscular complaints, stray dreams that pop to the surface like soda bubbles. And you can't help but focus on the external stuff, like the beauty of the day, the thrill of knowing that while a million things could have gone wrong, none of them did, and you're here.

But after three hours of skiing solo, a lot of life's daily considerations fade in the glare of repetition. Run after run, turn after turn, with no one to talk to, and nobody to fuel your most basic need to show off, or to complain, or to shout, the rumble and glide of the activity lulls you into an active, meditative fog.

That's when I turn left at the top of Lift 11 and head over to take what turns out to be the greatest run of my life.

At this point in the late morning, I'm getting very tired. My legs have a dull but not yet debilitating ache, and my lungs are starting to get chafed by the dry air. So I decide I'll distract myself with a long, cool change of pace. At the top of Lift 11, with my back to I-70 and my front to Blue Sky Basin, I glide over to a part of Vail that's usually either empty or, in the way traffic jams sometimes coalesce out of nothing, packed to the rafters. Today, of course, it's empty. In fact, part of the transcendent nature of this day springs from the way my choices take no time. No stopping to consider the hour, the place, the weather, anything. Just movement for its own sake. It's one of the few times I can remember since childhood that my breathing, my skiing, my life has been utterly without brakes, totally without friction.

I turn left and head down, fast, toward the long road that rides along the crest of one of Vail's best north-facing trails, Northstar. To get there, I take a quick glide along Timberline Catwalk and then a left, and drop down onto its first pitch. I lay my hip over, almost parallel with the hill, and begin the first of what I hope will be a hundred huge, perfect turns.

The trail's first steep has a series of giddy, diving rolls that, if timed right, let you soar inches over them, and then, cradling you in your own weightlessness, drop you softly into the compression at the bottom of each. This goes on for half a mile. Ahead of me, I see where Northstar merges with Northwoods, a steep, rolling boulevard so enormous, so dense with choices, I can feel myself getting pulled into its orbit.

[pagebreak]

And that's when it happens. For no apparent reason, I throw my skis sideways and stop. I was worried about something. I don't know what. Somehow, after all the freedom, after all the open, free sailing, and despite hours of evidence to the contrary, I don't trust the emptiness. I haven't yet truly let myself go. I've been pretending. Kidding myself. A stupid, private anger rises up in me and I let out a shout. This is the chance of a lifetime. What the hell am I waiting for?

11:45 a.m.: The Best Run of My Life
Northwoods is a gigantic version of Northstar, with a series of swells that resemble frozen tidal waves. In a fit of pique, or clarity, or both, I decide to surf the thing—to let the terrain take me where it wants to go. Close to the edge? Fine. Near the islands of spruce trees that split the trail in two? Why not. So fast I may or may not fall? OK. Whatever. Go.

And so I do, skiing faster and faster, until my skis no longer turn in the snow, they just tap-tap-tap across little frozen wavelets, over small jagged imperfections. The clatter is hypnotic. The tiny, percussive pops under my feet crawl up my legs, run through my hips and groin, rattle my guts and sweep across my chest and shoulders. There's a hum in my ears, and a roar, too. My lips feel like they've just been kissed. Avanti, baby. Go.

12:30 p.m.: Sirens in Stretch Pants
Lunchtime is when I discover I'm not alone ont in the same way running long distances can change you. At first, there are distractions—thoughts that intrude on your actions, muscular complaints, stray dreams that pop to the surface like soda bubbles. And you can't help but focus on the external stuff, like the beauty of the day, the thrill of knowing that while a million things could have gone wrong, none of them did, and you're here.

But after three hours of skiing solo, a lot of life's daily considerations fade in the glare of repetition. Run after run, turn after turn, with no one to talk to, and nobody to fuel your most basic need to show off, or to complain, or to shout, the rumble and glide of the activity lulls you into an active, meditative fog.

That's when I turn left at the top of Lift 11 and head over to take what turns out to be the greatest run of my life.

At this point in the late morning, I'm getting very tired. My legs have a dull but not yet debilitating ache, and my lungs are starting to get chafed by the dry air. So I decide I'll distract myself with a long, cool change of pace. At the top of Lift 11, with my back to I-70 and my front to Blue Sky Basin, I glide over to a part of Vail that's usually either empty or, in the way traffic jams sometimes coalesce out of nothing, packed to the rafters. Today, of course, it's empty. In fact, part of the transcendent nature of this day springs from the way my choices take no time. No stopping to consider the hour, the place, the weather, anything. Just movement for its own sake. It's one of the few times I can remember since childhood that my breathing, my skiing, my life has been utterly without brakes, totally without friction.

I turn left and head down, fast, toward the long road that rides along the crest of one of Vail's best north-facing trails, Northstar. To get there, I take a quick glide along Timberline Catwalk and then a left, and drop down onto its first pitch. I lay my hip over, almost parallel with the hill, and begin the first of what I hope will be a hundred huge, perfect turns.

The trail's first steep has a series of giddy, diving rolls that, if timed right, let you soar inches over them, and then, cradling you in your own weightlessness, drop you softly into the compression at the bottom of each. This goes on for half a mile. Ahead of me, I see where Northstar merges with Northwoods, a steep, rolling boulevard so enormous, so dense with choices, I can feel myself getting pulled into its orbit.

[pagebreak]

And that's when it happens. For no apparent reason, I throw my skis sideways and stop. I was worried about something. I don't know what. Somehow, after all the freedom, after all the open, free sailing, and despite hours of evidence to the contrary, I don't trust the emptiness. I haven't yet truly let myself go. I've been pretending. Kidding myself. A stupid, private anger rises up in me and I let out a shout. This is the chance of a lifetime. What the hell am I waiting for?

11:45 a.m.: The Best Run of My Life
Northwoods is a gigantic version of Northstar, with a series of swells that resemble frozen tidal waves. In a fit of pique, or clarity, or both, I decide to surf the thing—to let the terrain take me where it wants to go. Close to the edge? Fine. Near the islands of spruce trees that split the trail in two? Why not. So fast I may or may not fall? OK. Whatever. Go.

And so I do, skiing faster and faster, until my skis no longer turn in the snow, they just tap-tap-tap across little frozen wavelets, over small jagged imperfections. The clatter is hypnotic. The tiny, percussive pops under my feet crawl up my legs, run through my hips and groin, rattle my guts and sweep across my chest and shoulders. There's a hum in my ears, and a roar, too. My lips feel like they've just been kissed. Avanti, baby. Go.

12:30 p.m.: Sirens in Stretch Pants
Lunchtime is when I discover I'm not alone on the island. Or, perhaps, I've skied so long and so hard and have spent so much time not thinking, I'm starting to hallucinate. Yeah. That must be it.

Because right there in front of me, so close I could reach out and touch them, are 10 beautiful women in tight ski pants, arching their backs, pouting their lips, pushing out their chests and generally acting like they're starring in a bad beer commercial.

Actually, it looks like there might be 20 of them. I smile the smile of a man dying of thirst who knows without a doubt that the watery oasis before him is a mirage, but who is still aware enough to appreciate the beauty of the lie.

This is what has happened: I have come up to the top of Lift 14 for lunch, to the timbered hugeness of Two Elk Lodge, and by some quirk, the manager thinks I'm part of a group of 20. There's enough food in front of me to feed the Denver Broncos. Tacos, steak, tortellini, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, julienned potatoes, peanut butter (jelly somewhere, I'm sure), soup, pizza, drinks and about a bushel of french fries.

I'm hungry, but still distracted—the fake women cavorting outside are giggling their mirage giggles and shaking their mirage behinds, and I'm not really sure what to do. It dawns on me that even though the restaurant manager is talking to me, and his radio crackles with the sound of somebody somewhere talking about snowcats, I can't deal with reality quite yet. Assuming this is reality.

It doesn't help that the women in my dream choose that moment to walk past me speaking Swedish. They're like sirens in stretch pants. And though I'll find out later that they're models shooting a skiwear catalog, right then, I realize I need to get a tray and step outside, to the other side of the lodge, where it's quiet. At a picnic table on the ridge, I'm alone again, and my breathing returns to normal. I eat, then head out for one last run.

The name of the trail I pick for my solo swan song—Slot—doesn't do justice to the round perfection of its porcelain-cereal-bowl openness. I turn down into its big, wide embrace and start skiing again, in long, open arcs. The bowl is empty and warm and sunny. After about 25 turns, it occurs to me that the trail is like one of Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstoppers—no matter how long you let it dissolve, the candy lasts forever. With no trees and no other skiers, my perspective gets skewed, to the point where I'm quickly back at open-throttle, and weightless, too.

I turn to my right, and then to my left to share the moment with somebody else. I'm alone.

NOVEMBER 2005

e on the island. Or, perhaps, I've skied so long and so hard and have spent so much time not thinking, I'm starting to hallucinate. Yeah. That must be it.

Because right there in front of me, so close I could reach out and touch them, are 10 beautiful women in tight ski pants, arching their backs, pouting their lips, pushing out their chests and generally acting like they're starring in a bad beer commercial.

Actually, it looks like there might be 20 of them. I smile the smile of a man dying of thirst who knows without a doubt that the watery oasis before him is a mirage, but who is still aware enough to appreciate the beauty of the lie.

This is what has happened: I have come up to the top of Lift 14 for lunch, to the timbered hugeness of Two Elk Lodge, and by some quirk, the manager thinks I'm part of a group of 20. There's enough food in front of me to feed the Denver Broncos. Tacos, steak, tortellini, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, julienned potatoes, peanut butter (jelly somewhere, I'm sure), soup, pizza, drinks and about a bushel of french fries.

I'm hungry, but still distracted—the fake women cavorting outside are giggling their mirage giggles and shaking their mirage behinds, and I'm not really sure what to do. It dawns on me that even though the restaurant manager is talking to me, and his radio crackles with the sound of somebody somewhere talking about snowcats, I can't deal with reality quite yet. Assuming this is reality.

It doesn't help that the women in my dream choose that moment to walk past me speaking Swedish. They're like sirens in stretch pants. And though I'll find out later that they're models shooting a skiwear catalog, right then, I realize I need to get a tray and step outside, to the other side of the lodge, where it's quiet. At a picnic table on the ridge, I'm alone again, and my breathing returns to normal. I eat, then head out for one last run.

The name of the trail I pick for my solo swan song—Slot—doesn't do justice to the round perfection of its porcelain-cereal-bowl openness. I turn down into its big, wide embrace and start skiing again, in long, open arcs. The bowl is empty and warm and sunny. After about 25 turns, it occurs to me that the trail is like one of Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstoppers—no matter how long you let it dissolve, the candy lasts forever. With no trees and no other skiers, my perspective gets skewed, to the point where I'm quickly back at open-throttle, and weightless, too.

I turn to my right, and then to my left to share the moment with somebody else. I'm alone.

NOVEMBER 2005

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