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I think it took two hours of being on pro patrol at Mount Baker for someone to comment on my skis—a pair of Armada Traces with frame touring bindings and a meager 108mm underfoot.
“You’re gonna want bigger skis,” one of the guys said in passing—literally while passing me—on his Liberty Genomes, a 141mm underfoot ski that is a favorite of Baker patrol. Meanwhile, I continued to wallow through textbook Cascade concrete as we set up the ski area for opening day.
I spent the day with an armful of unruly bamboo and soaked leather gloves, and it didn’t take long for more gear suggestions to trickle in:
“Ski straps make it easier to carry ‘boo,” someone said, his bunch of bamboo notably unchaotic. My own bunch was strewn about, pointing wildly in every direction except the one I wanted as I avoided getting any wayward sticks stuck in the snow in front of me.
“You should always have two pairs of gloves, or get some fishing gloves,” another patroller told me later in the day. (He works as a commercial fisherman in the summers.) I had jokingly wrung out my leather gloves at lunch, producing a steady stream of rainwater and accumulated dirt from the bamboo. He suggested the commercial fishing store at the marina in town. “They’re like seven bucks, you should go get a pair tonight.”
I never did buy those gloves and regretted it on every single rainy, 32-degree day after (it was many). I did procure a pair of ski straps out of the back of my truck—which I promptly lost—and after much coercion from other members of patrol, a new pair of skis.
They weren’t actually new skis, but they were new to me. In fact, they had been rock skis for at least two seasons before they landed in my grateful possession—a transaction that involved one fifth of top-shelf whiskey. A woman on patrol witnessed my struggles on one too many manky control mornings and—understanding the inability to buy a new pair on a whim—offered them over. As if their price wasn’t enough of an indication, their given name upon this offering was a fair forewarning of their condition: the Clapped Out Armada VJJs.
The Clapped Out VJJs had lived a long life before ending up in my possession. For one, they were eight years old. They’d also been used hard and put away wet following countless days of everything the Cascades can throw at you over eight winters of ski patrolling in the stormy Pacific Northwest. They were 120mm underfoot and exhibited the strongest Big Stick Energy I’d ever experienced. They were undoubtedly rock skis. And they were perfect.
Control mornings were nonetheless exceptionally easier with their floaty rocker profile and wide berth. One of my first days on the VJJs was arguably one of the deepest days that I worked that season. We spent the morning opening terrain in a bowl that empties into a deep canyon, running to the center of the ski area. I and another female patroller threw our remaining bombs as the sun rose over the canyon’s walls, before dropping into perhaps the rarest of commodities at Baker—cold, deep, sparkling snow under the type of violet sky that comes just after sunrise on a sunny winter day. Not one tip was buried, not one wallow was had, and we arrived back at the chairlift beaming at the rare fortune of it all.
I shelved the old, narrower Armadas (which were actually, technically, younger than these “new” Armadas) and went all-in on the Clapped Out VJJs.
The beauty of the VJJs wasn’t their structural integrity or even the dizzying purple top sheet with gigantic owls that have spirals for eyes—eyes that would often nearly hypnotize me on solo chairlift rides. Their beauty, really, was in their story before they made it to me.
Megan—the previous owner—had been on patrol at Baker for four seasons as the only woman and had been a Crystal Mountain patroller before that. In her four years at Baker, she had learned a thing or two about having the right pair of skis for the job—and was as skeptical about my 108s as the rest of the crew. Two months of significant early season snow (264 inches through November and December) and day after day of control work in winter solstice darkness and conditions consistently described as “Snowmageddon” convinced her I needed a better tool for the job. She told me she’d used the skis on many “snorkel-worthy” days at Crystal, and made it clear that success as a patroller in the Northwest meant I needed to embrace the Big Stick Energy.
I’m not on patrol anymore, and I finally bought a brand-new pair of proper powder skis. But the VJJs are still in the garage, waiting for me to take them out on particularly variable Baker days. There’s a certain legacy in their core shots; in their now floppy (maybe you could call it “damp”) construction after years of use; in their weird and heavily damaged top sheet—all reminders of the winter I spent in all the mank the Cascades could throw at me.
The skis and I will likely part ways when their time with me comes to its natural end. They don’t deserve to live out their life in the garage. I think that day is coming soon. So if there are any Pacific Northwest women out there who might need a pair of skis for their first season on patrol, I’ve got a roaring deal for you: Local woman willing to trade a pair of skis that have seen it all, including a lot of rocks, for the low price of a customary fifth of whiskey. It can be bottom shelf this time.