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Better Than Powder

Fall Line

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It’s a choice Alta day. Not a ton of new snow, but still the stuff skiers’ dreams and memories are made of. The wind is blowing hard, with the hill empty enough to provide free refills on every run. This isn’t the famed Alta light and deep, but absolutely the kind of snow that makes everyone a hero. Having just missed a fatter-than-fat powder day earlier in the week, I’m in need of some heroics. And living in Little Cottonwood Canyon since 1981, this is the type of day I usually find myself ripping High Rustlers and Lone Pines from first to last chair. You know the rule: “No friends on a powder day.”

Yet I get hoodwinked into spending the day skiing with my barely stem-christieing 7-year-old son. I cringe at the thought of him lasting two runs before needing warmth or fries or hot chocolate. I find myself lamenting that I’ll miss the kind of day that still keeps me skiing full-time after 20 years.

Normally Sammy would be in school, but he’s up in Alta for the morning working on a school project. I hang with him for two hours, then plan to put him in ski school while I go out and get some for myself.

Alas, it’s just not to be. After lunch he stands there with big brown eyes and pleads with me, “Come on, Dad, I wanna go skiing with you.” It goes back and forth for a few minutes. I try to explain to him that the old man needs some time skiing by himself. I’m feeling grumpy about it, and I’m definitely leaning toward dragging his butt up to ski school. I can almost taste the vertical; it’s been snowing all day and I’m jonesing bad. Then I look into his face and see how much he wants to hang with his dad, and I cave in. “Alright, Samo, we’re going skiing.”

We take the ropetow over to Sunnyside. “I want to show you some cliffs I went down the other day,” he says. I chuckle to myself, because I know his jumps are 1-foot woop-dee-doos. I find out his cliffs are 10-foot-vert rocks with a crease of snow between them. He straight-lines the slot and stands at the bottom feeling like Jeremy Nobis, getting even more psyched when I jump the tiny cliff band for him.

He rejoices as we tear down the flats, his arms flapping around like wings, looking for more of his jumps, cutting into the woods and 10 inches of uncut. When his fingers freeze in his gloves, he heeds his old man’s words for the first time of the season and puts on his mittens. On the chairs he asks countless questions, just as I had asked my dad as a boy growing up in Queens, N.Y. He promises he’ll make turns but just wants me to stop telling him when to do so.

Next time down we ski a steep, short shot at the top of Sugarloaf. I don’t tell him it’s a black run until we get to the bottom. It brings back memories of my first black-diamond on K-27 at Hunter Mountain, N.Y. Then Sammy finds himself on something even steeper, something he’d normally have me carry him down. He traverses it and works the softer snow on the edges like a pro. A couple on the hill watches him and looks impressed. Not as impressed as his old man.

The mountain always empties early on snowy, nasty days. By the time I start to get cold I fully expect him to want to head in, but we stay out for five more chair rides. I think back again to when I was a twirp, my younger brother bagging the day and sitting in the lodge while I hung in there with my dad, comrades in the cold. Thirty-five years later, I still remember that it was 12 degrees that day.

At 3:45 pm, we’re on our last ride up Sugarloaf when I look at the closed Backside and think about my usual ski partners hurtling out the High Traverse on their season-long hell-bent quest for maximum joy. Somehow¿and I surprise myself¿I couldn’t care less. I don’t know if Sammy will recall this day years from now but his dad sure will. It’s my first great ski day with my boy, him leading, not being led.