Best of 1999

First Tracks

Sitting at my desk in the middle of summer, I find myself remembering my best day on skis last winter: January 25, Copper Mountain. Twenty men and women plan to ski 66,000 vertical feet in one day. I am one of them. I haven't skied 66,000 vertical all season, and I'm not sure I can today. I wonder, will I wuss out before completing 30 runs on Copper's new high-speed six-seater? Will l fall and rip my fragile body to pieces? And most important, will I suffer the ultimate embarrassment of bringing up the rear? Some members of the group are veterans of the 24 Hours of Aspen. I haven't skied flat-out fast since racing downhills in high school.

We catch the chair at 8 a.m. As we approach the top terminal, the first skiers are already tucking and gaining speed. Our group skates away from the lift and tucks down the first pitch. No turns. So far, so good. We accelerate down the next pitch, gaining serious speed. Still no turns. Adrenaline has jolted my body to full alert, and reason is screaming danger. At around 50 miles per hour, my anxiety spikes, and I arc a few turns to control my speed.

But turning, I discover, takes more effort than not turning. Even on this first run, my thighs begin to burn. Worse, my liftmates are growing smaller in the distance. I can either wimp out or go faster and catch up. I can stand pain much more easily than humiliation, so I put my skis in the fall line and pray. I feel like I'm free-falling, the wind pressing against me, howling in my ears. I am way outside my comfort zone. Then my speed peaks. I have an epiphany: I can handle this! I rocket into the lift maze, charged with excitement and relief.

For the next six hours, I give in to the sheer thrill of speed. I complete the 30 runs just after two o'clock. I am not injured. I am not dead last. And since that day, I have not gone a week without dreaming of doing it again, faster. This winter, for sure. a