Crossing A Threshold

Sometimes the mountains we climb are within us.

By Paddy O'Connell

I shuddered off the voice from the past as I skinned up Last Dollar Road. It had been two years since I’d last skied in Telluride, the place I called home for six, the place where I had tried to find some semblance of peace or oblivion at the bottom of every bottle and every baggie I came into contact with. Telluride existed in my mind as my accidental siren, unintentionally luring me onto its shoals. I returned sober to reclaim it and to ski it on, of all days, St. Paddy’s.

Over the phone, my friend L.B. and I had made a tentative plan several weeks in advance for a St. Paddy’s Day adventure. L.B., affable and charismatic, would organize the crew and get the permit from San Juan Hut Systems, acting officially as the unofficial trip leader. On a beautiful morning in March, Spoon, Paul, L.B., and I met at Whipple Meadows. Richie and his pup, Boots, would join us that evening. It was warming up and the sun skipped through the aspens as we embarked on the trudge uphill toward the Last Dollar Hut.

We began the skin together but L.B. pulled away first, towing our hefty supplies, which of course included corned beef, cabbage, and red potatoes, in a 10-dollar plastic sled behind him. Then bearded and perma-smiling Spoon disappeared, which was only half bad because ol’ Spoony doesn’t wear deodorant. Then goggle-tanned, jovial Paul was out of sight, and I was left in solitude, accompanied only by my exhausted Midwestern lungs and swirling thoughts. How much coffee is too much coffee? Should I have put my kilt on for the skin? An up-kilt breeze would feel pretty nice right now. I have got to lose some weight. I can probably blame everything on the altitude. Man, it is hot. My body started to burn. I felt sluggish.

First right foot, then left foot, right foot, then left foot. I breathed audibly with every step. Right foot, then left foot. My face and chest were on fire and my legs were heavy. Right then left, right then left. My head was busy. Noisy memories escaped a buried vault. Right foot then left foot. I doubled over my poles, resting my shoulders on the tops of the grips. The tears came with exhausted breaths, then laughter—and gratitude. My time away from the San Juans had made me physically soft but had delivered me from the darkness of addiction and the edge of death. I had gained “the sober 40” and resigned myself to skiing the small hills of the Midwest. But never mind my weak quads, short breath, and Irish jiggle. I was the healthiest I’d ever been in my life and grateful to be alive. I laughed with the pain, and then through it. Right foot, then left foot, right then left.

We spent two and a half days at the hut, ate pounds of bacon and corned beef, subsequently stinking up our sleeping bags and ski pants, yippee’d and hollered, hugged, high-fived, laughed like eight-year-olds at a sleepover, and even skied a little. But for me, the best part of the trip was getting there, and I do not particularly enjoy skinning. I am a skier. I love the turn. But on that ascent up Last Dollar, I shed not only sweat and tears, but also excess cargo from another life. I crossed a threshold and entered into a new provision of my recovery. So much depends on patience and time. And just moving your feet, right foot, then left foot.

>The Last Dollar Hut is open November 25 to June 1. Call 970-626-3033, ask for Kelly, and ask her about the L.D. Chutes.



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An avalanche in Wolverine Bowl set off by a ski patrol bomb. Photo courtesy of Jim Plehn.On March 31, 1982, a massive avalanche tumbled down California’s Alpine Meadows, killing seven people in the most devastating slide ever to hit a ski resort. Why nobody has written a book about this until now is a mystery to us. But when California-based writer Jennifer Woodlief—a former lawyer, Sports Illustrated reporter, and author of a biography of skier Bill Johnson—stumbled across the now 28-year-old story, the book deal was inevitable. A Wall of White: The True Story of Heroism and Survival in the Face of a Deadly Avalanche, comes out in paperback this February.The story, much like the avalanche it documents, starts out slow, adding layers and building momentum. And then, suddenly, it comes crashing down. What Twilight novels are to teenage girls, A Wall of White is to skiers: an engaging tale with a heroic, made-for-Hollywood ending. (Woodlief is currently in negotiations to sell the story to a film studio.) It wasn’t all tragedy: A woman named Anna Conrad was rescued after spending five days buried in a building collapsed by the avalanche. To report the story, Woodlief conducted extensive interviews with the victims’ families, the rescuers, and the lone survivor. “The hardest part of it all,” Woodlief says, “was the initial reluctance of people to talk to me this long after the incident. I had to persuade them that I wasn’t going to exploit them or sensationalize what happened to them.” Sure, the cover and title are a bit dramatic, but the story inside is a painstakingly researched tale that’s been waiting to be told for nearly 30 years. [$25;]Click to the next slide for an interview with Woodlief and Conrad...

A Wall of White: A 1982 Avalanche Revisted

A new book tells the story of the deadliest avalanche in ski-resort history—which happened 28 years ago. We spoke to the book's author and the slide's lone survivor, a woman who spent five days buried in a building collapsed by the avalanche. By Megan Michelson.