It was mid-March last year, a Friday, and a line of powder prospectors, skis on shoulders, tramped the Gold Hill road to Telluride's highest, wildest terrain. Seventeen inches of new snow swallowed each boot step. Nobody minded. In fact, I overheard a young man on the march behind me say that this was the "best day of skiing of my life."
Not Tuesday, I thought to myself, with its colder, drier foot-deep quilt overlaying Sunday's 14-inch blanket? Tuesday had been the most ecstatic day I'd experienced on Telluride's mountain in years. A day when feathery dunes so slowed the effects of gravity that I didn't need to hold on, not even while dropping the steepest slots through the cliff-bands. And Sunday, I'd heard from friends, was "the best day of the year, one of the best in a very long time."
I am hesitant to hang an "absolute best" tag on any ski day. Hazy memory is a factor. My first greatest ski day happened near the end of Eisenhower's first term in office. Recent history is another reason.
Early in the season last year, for example, I spent a morning in the powder with Alta's ski school director, Alan Engen. It was a day that local wags ranked only a seven on a scale to 10. Alta's blue-white, womanly shapes were draped in 16 inches of new, but wind had rippled the surface so that plate-sized chunks of snow flew out from our submarining shins. I had never had the luck to ski deep snow with Alan's famous father, a man credited with inventing many of the powder techniques we use today. I did ski some groomers with Alf when he was in his 80s. Even there, on two-dimensional snow, he wanted to show me the "ready hand," the "hipnick," the "Alta start." He was contagious, his joy in movement, the lightness of a life on skis.
And here was the son, middle-aged himself now, a courtly troll with a permanent smile, leading the way into East Greely bowl and down, arcing powerfully, effortlessly, crust plates flying then atomizing into snow flags streaming up and out behind.
But that day was not even the best day of the road trip. Even now I couldn't tell you which one was tops. Was it Day Number One, when Jimmy and I yo-yoed glittering, settled, windless powder at Snowbasin, Utah, with amused locals who led the way to untracked stashes, one after another after another, ad infinitum it seemed, until we felt drunk (Were we dreaming?), almost guilty, unable to force our cheek muscles back down into decorous, 40-something sobriety? A day when opportunity and repetition-so rare in large doses-opened inside us the space to experiment in the powder, to feel under the snow for new ways to stand and edge?
Or was the best day the Very Next Day, when we woke to 10 inches on the car, and another 10 fell before the bullwheel stopped? Unseeing forest creatures, we intuited our way down the mountain through gossamer curtains of flakes. Feet became feelers testing for the fall line. Legs and hips and chests like prows parted whipped-cream waves through the aspens.
And then I thought back to a few choice days in the backcountry nearer home. Like that day during a mid-season dry spell when there wasn't supposed to be any powder left that hadn't been baked by the sun into sheets of hardpan or pressed into sastrugi by ridgetop winds or rotted by the infernal temperature gradient into scary/beautiful, goblet-shaped grains as stable as sand-avalanches waiting for a trigger. And still we found lines off Red Mountain Pass that floated our skis, safe lines, silent, serpentine gullies only a track or two wide, invisible to a casual observer, like veins deep in the rock.
Or the time my two college-age girls came out with us over Christmas break with their snowshoes and snowboards, and their laughter bounced around the empty high alpine, and the snow in the trees on the run we call Fatal Attraction moved with us on almost every turn like slow rivers of Cheerios hissing around our knees.
Then there was the day at Mad River Glen in Vermont, on assignment, only two days to ski, when the storm broke and the sun beamed through, and all the evergreens on top of General Stark Mountain were bent double with rime ice and new snow. And on the way out to secret tree shots we ducked under arches of sparkling rime diamonds...
Nope. Can't do it. I can't pick one as "the best." At the time, I thought the youth behind me on Gold Hill a tad naive or perhaps just a little long on enthusiasm and short on experience. But maybe not. Maybe he is one of those lucky creatures like Mike Wiegele, the Austrian emigrant to Blue River, B.C., who addresses his heli-skiing guests every night at dinner.
Every night, for going on 30 years, he stands up beside the table and, eyes crinkled almost shut in joyous remembrance, he says, "This has been the best day of skiing in my life." Every night he says it. Whatever the weather or the snow conditions or the company. There isn't a hint of disingenuousness. He's telling the truth.
Every day in the mountains with skis on is a treasure never to be eclipsed. Celebration is the only appropriate response.
Peter is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com .