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Parallel Universe: Who's Counting


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Day 1:

November 20, Alpine Meadows, California

Opening day and everyone gets to ski for free. The crowd is mainly Tahoe locals, laughing, jostling in the queue, hailing friends who haven’t been seen since the thaw. Ski season is finally here, and it’s gonna be a good one. For once in my life, I’m going for 100 days.

The first time I considered how many days a year people ski was in the mid ’80s at a Warren Miller movie. A market research survey started all the trouble: “We’re giving away a sport-utility vehicle, but first, tell us: What’s your household income? What other sports do you do? How many days a year do you ski?” I counted. That can’t be right, I thought. This number is less than 20. I tallied again. My friends’ faces drooped, too. The skiers in the movie were getting over 100 days a year. We folded the questionnaires into paper airplanes and let them fly.

Three months and 10 days out of a year. That’s one hell of a commitment. Impossible, perhaps, unless you live at the base of a mountain. But I plan to live at Tahoe and Whistler this winter. This is my chance.

Day 6: December 4, Whistler Mountain, British Columbia
The new Peak Chair opens today, accompanied by fluttering Canadian flags and the fanfare of alphorns. At the top I make a run off the back side, away from the throng pouring off the lift behind me. For the first time this season my skis take over, flowing with the contours of mountain and snow. Suddenly I’m tingling with that feeling usually reserved for new love.
Scott Gaffney ski-bums in Squaw Valley, California, as a cameraman and ski-moviemaker. Mainly he just skis. Since graduating from college in ’91, he has logged an average of 160 days a year. In 1992¿93 he got 206 days, all in the Northern Hemisphere. “My life revolves around skiing,” he says. “It just adds up.”
Gaffney keeps score better than just about anyone. In tiny, meticulously neat print, on whatever calendar has fallen into his hands for free that year, Gaffney notes exactly what lines he skied each day, and with whom. “It’s a reference. I can look back, read a few words, and remember that day,” he says.

Day 32: February 1, Snowbird, Utah
Last night a storm blew in, dumped huge, and then ran away, leaving more than 18 inches of champagne in its wake. Ski pro Jim Conway is a walking muscle, but somehow I tail him through a morning of nonstop laps on the Tram. The snow is so light it explodes when we drop into it, billowing over our heads. We can’t even bring ourselves to stop for water. The tram is filled; everyone is wide-eyed and grinning. Nothing seems to matter but this parallel universe, skis on the snow, body in the flow, mountain air cleansing the soul.
What constitutes a ski day, anyway? At Whistler-Blackcomb, each senior manager sets a goal for ski days per season; their standard for a ski day is a minimum of five runs. Gaffney’s standard is that significant effort must be exerted; a day on skis that’s mostly film work doesn’t count. Those of us who’ve spent our adult lives laboring under fluorescent lights have a simpler definition: If you click into your bindings and glide across the snow, then it counts as a day on skis.

Day 49: March 2, Purcell Mountains, southeastern British Columbia
Last night I lay awake under the full moon and did the math. I won’t make 100 unless I log five days a week through the first week of May. Today I’m flying with R.K. Heli, in a big ship with 11 men. It’s the tamest heli-skiing I’ve done, but it’s still sheer bliss. At almost 50 days, I feel like everything the so-called real world says is important is simply melting away. What was that super-important thing I was supposed to do today? Oh, right. Ski.
In Maine, 75-year-old Paul Schipper has skied every day Sugarloaf Mountain has been open for a solid 20 years. On Valentine’s Day, 1999, he hit 3,000 consecutive days. He’s shooting for 5,000. That’s a bit out of my reach.

DDay 59: March 27, Squaw Valley, California
It’s good to be on home turf. Gaffney’s log reads: “KT, 2 waterfalls, Cornice 2 Classic Stager, Skiers’ left of Classic, Tower 16. Sunny but windy. Keeping snow cold. Skied with Susan R.”
My record keeping is much simpler. On a tiny piece of paper tucked into my journal, I scribble the date and place, then make a hatch mark every time I’ve racked up another 10. Still, when I look at the list, I see mountain ranges and the faces of friends, athletic goals achieved and dreams realized. I see myself finding my groove, setting priorities, and having more fun than I’ve ever had.

Day 80: June 1, Whistler Village Stalled at 80.
Sitting in Starbucks in Whistler Village. A shaggy employee clomps out of the back room in his ski boots. A friend waits outside.
“What are you doing?” asks the manager. “Trying to crack 100?”
“Yup,” says the booted barista. “We’re so close, too. Today is 98.”
“Better get going,” the manager says. “Get your priorities straight!”

Susan Reifer tallied 86 ski days before Blackcomb closed August 2.