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Best Of: Burn the Clown


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Welcome to Ski Camp, a backcountry rendezvous held deep in the San Juans. (Full disclosure: “Ski Camp” is not the event’s real name, but I’d like to return without getting maimed.)So have you written down your frustrations?” Chris politely inquires shortly after each new guest has shown up, shed his pack, and clicked out of his bindings. “Well, OK-now shove them up the pi~nata’s ass.”

Thus is one introduced to Ski Camp, a backcountry rendezvous held deep in the San Juans. (Full disclosure: “Ski Camp” is not the event’s real name, but I’d like to return without getting maimed.) It’s here that an increasingly large number of us gather each May for an alpine powwow that at some point took a wrong turn and got completely out of control.

Like the people who created the event, however, it has endured. Through good times and bad, we’ve always had Ski Camp-or, more accurately, we’ve done Ski Camp somewhere between nine and 11 years. No one can recall when it began-which is why next year we’ll be celebrating our second annual 10th Anniversary.

The first annual 10th Anniversary, which occurred this past spring, drew more than 75 people, most of whom we barely knew-a situation that derived from our efforts to pick up women at gas stations, convenience stores, and bars on the drive to the event. This laudable tradition, it should be noted, has often led to confusion and crushing disappointment. One year, we gave directions to a pair of gorgeous blondes in Park City; they didn’t show up, but their boyfriends appeared wearing plastic Viking helmets. Despite such setbacks, though, the essence of this clandestine event involves openness and hospitality-or something like that.”We welcome everyone who shows up-especially if you happen to be a blonde ski goddess,” says Guy, our chef de cuisine. “All you have to do is get here-that’s the price of admission. Well, that and 10 bucks a night.”After the rigging is complete, a massive, dome-shaped expedition tent bedecked with Tibetan prayer flags is surrounded by 20 normal-size tents illuminated at night by bamboo tiki torches. The snow kitchen includes three Dutch ovens, two propane tanks, and four industrial-size burners. On the first day, we appoint a Water Czar to see that the jugs are filled, a Groover Czar, who keeps the portable potties clean, and an Alcohol Czar, whose job is to make sure no one commits the cardinal sin of sobriety.

As the days unfold, the energy slowly builds to a crescendo until, on the final evening, we hold what is, to the best of my knowledge, the world’s only banquet at 11,000 feet that features raw tuna. This year, a new twist was added to Sushi Night: Everyone lined up on the opposite side of camp, chopsticks in hand, and raced to the supper table in a Le Mans-style sushi start.

Which is where Shamu comes in. Sort of.

Tradition calls for the sled race to begin after the last of the sushi is devoured. This year the bar was raised a notch with the debut of a large, black-and-white inflatable killer whale sled, which Chris dragged to the top of the run and boldly flung himself onto before rocketing downslope. He achieved a cetacean land speed record before the whale harpooned itself on a rock and catapulted him into a gulch, driving his femur into his hip socket with enough force that, several days later, two hairline fractures would appear on an X ray at the Gunnison emergency room. (The ER nurse who processed the X rays will reportedly be attending Camp next spring.)

The wreck of the blow-up Shamu created so much drama it threatened to usurp Ski Camp’s crowning moment. Each year, our pre-camp supply run involves purchasing a large pi~nata for $39.95 at the Durango Wal-Mart. The pi~nata, which is-for reasons no one has ever explained to me-almost always a clown, spends the week dangling from a pole in the center of camp. As the days go by, everyone takes slips of paper on which they’ve written down all thee frustrations-the evil bosses, the failed relationships-that have blighted their lives during the past year, and shoves these grievances into a hole which Guy has bored into the clown’s rear end with his kitchen knife.

After the sushi dinner and the sled races are over, the pi~nata is doused in lighter fluid, tiki torch oil, and the last of the tequila, then burned. The idea, as I understand it, is that our dark thoughts and bad energy are released in a fiery burst into the night sky. It’s a good ritual. This year, though, while watching flaming strips of paper explode from the posterior of a clown, it occurred to me that our version of Burning Man has never really worked for me. The essence of our backcountry rave has less to do with the absurd theatrics in which we indulge, and more to do with the fact that the skiing totally rocks.

Earlier that afternoon, I had climbed 1,500 feet up a nearby peak with Guy, James, Zach, and Larry. We made our initial turns separately, but on the final pitch, we decided to ski in tandem, five abreast, as a joke, of course. Our line was far from epic-and yet, through some odd alchemy of the moment, it all came together and we achieved synchrony, flawlessly braiding turns and laying down a signature in the snow that some may have interpreted as disturbing evidence of latent adolescent homosexuality, but to us bespoke symmetry and connection and beauty.

When it was over, we gazed up at our tracks and confronted a vision of such breathtaking perfection and visual poetry that the five of us lapsed into silence for almost an entire minute.

Then we got drunk and lit the place on fire.