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Snow Job


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Skiing has always been as essential to my life as breathing. My parents first put me on skis at 2. I grew up on the slopes of New Hampshire, then raced in college. I was married last year in the mountains, then recently purchased my first house near our local ski resort. I live the ski life. So the thought of being snowed in at a ski resort has always seemed like the ultimate getaway to me. Lots of snow. No way out. No guilt about missing work. What’s not to like? You have no idea.

At 5 a.m. on a Tuesday in mid March, I wake to the high-pitched sound of my husband’s Toyota truck stuck in the driveway. A late-season blizzard has dumped more than 2 feet of heavy, wet snow overnight. As the assistant patrol director of Eldora Mountain Resort in Colorado, he feels a responsibility to get to the mountain. As a lifelong powder addict, I feel it, too. We dig his truck out, he backs it up 20 feet, and it gets mired in the snow again. This happens for three hours straight until we feel nearly hypothermic. We give up on the truck, trudge back to the house and change into drier ski clothes. I throw extra clothes into a backpack and consider taking my toothbrush, but decide against it. I’ll never leave for a ski trip again without it.

Armed with boots, skis and poles, we break trail through waist-high snow to the main road, then hitch a ride to the ski area. Stuck cars litter the shoulder of the road, with many of them already half-buried. It’s a bonafide powder day.

When we get to the resort at about 9:30 a.m., my husband grabs his radio and jumps into action. People in the liftline are growing anxious as they wait for the lifts to open. The snowflakes fall faster and heavier. The lift slowly starts, and the crowd cheers. The energy is pure powder-day anticipation. On the lift, I mentally map out my first four runs in order to beat the other skiers to the untracked snow.

There’s almost too much snow. Experienced skiers face plant all over the slopes. Everywhere I look, people are digging for lost skis. Steep runs are the only option. It’s snowing harder, covering our tracks before we reach the bottom of the lift. Although my thighs and quads burn by noon, I ski until the last chair. I locate a ride home for my husband me, and we plan to get chains for our truck once we get home. As we head to the car, we hear a report of a small avalanche on Shelf Road-the only road in and out of the Eldora. We head to the patrol room to get more information.

We soon hear reports of cars stuck on the road, people abandoning their cars and then running away from slides. It seems like a miracle that everyone is evacuated from the access road without any injuries. With more than five slides now covering the road, it is quickly closed. No one is allowed out of the resort. And no one can get to it up, either. Sounds like a dream come true.

So we head to the bar, where we’re told that we will all be spending the night at the resort-all 250 of us. Everyone starts to party, giddy with anticipation that we are now part of a closed-membership club that will be able to ski the more than 3 feet of new powder that’s fallen since the day before. It’s dumping outside and rowdy inside. Hey, we have food, heat, bathrooms and beer-and a raging blizzard. That’s a skier’s ultimate lineup.

Kids, parents and a whole ski team are among those stranded. Everyone heads to one of two base lodges and makes a sleeping nest with jackets, tablecloths or anything else they can find. With the buzz of grooming equipment like mosquitoes all night, I sleep terribly.

We wake to twice the amount of snow as the day before. The resort now has 6 feet. The parking lot looks like a mogul field as snow covers all the vehicles. Everyone is buzzing. The buzz quickly turns to groans. The patrol tells us that the lifts will not run today. There’s just too much snow. And the lodge roofs are in danger of collapsing.

We now face Day Two in lock-down. The ski patrol worries abouut people who need medication-such as seizure meds and insulin-who are unprepared for spending a second night away from home. The avalanche danger on Shelf Road has doubled. Storm clouds roll in, preventing helicopter evacuation.

Three patrollers are picked to ski down an old mining road. After breaking trail in chest-deep snow for nearly four hours, they are met by three other patrollers up from town who give them medication. They spend another three hours getting back to the resort.

The vibe the second day is more subdued than the night before, as we realize we’ll be sleeping on the floor again. People remain calm and pass the time by playing with homemade decks of cards, shoveling out their cars or throwing snowballs at each other.

Our only chance out the third day depends on the weather. A Colorado Department of Transportation helicopter is scheduled to bomb the steep, rocky faces of Shelf Road. The helicopter can only fly if the skies are clear. Eldora is in danger of running out of food.

The sun shines on the third day, creating surface hoar-when ice crystals on the snow’s cold surface stand up like tiny soldiers. People armed with shovels dig out each other’s cars. Everyone looks longingly at the prodigious snow on the slopes that we cannot enjoy. The irony of being trapped at a ski resort and not being allowed to ski doesn’t escape me.

The first helicopter that lands at the base area captures everyone’s attention. A medical patient who has spent two nights under the patrol’s care is airlifted to the hospital. A second helicopter lands with the new sheriff of Boulder County. Then the cavalry arrives.

A giant U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter comes into view. I’m standing with some patrollers behind a fence that encloses the landing zone-a giant “H” spray-painted on the snow. The force of the air nearly knocks us back, and we kneel down in unison. The helicopter hovers momentarily over the H and then drops down precisely on the designated spot.

The rotors slow their spinning and the flight crew jumps out to unload supplies. Boxes of lunch and water are unloaded. Eleven people with chronic medical problems are loaded into the massive aircraft for a free ride to civilization. All the spectators are envious. The pilot allows patrol to take a photo with him. He mentions that he flew in the first Gulf war, which makes us feel even more isolated, as we realize that a war is raging and we know nothing about it.

After CDOT finishes bombing later that day, country road crews are able to plow the access road. As the sun sets, we’re allowed to drive down Shelf Road in small groups. Numerous avalanches line the road, and we can’t help but feel nervous until we reach the valley floor. It has been 56 hours since I first rode up Shelf road Tuesday morning to enjoy a powder day. Now all I want to do is to go home-where 88 inches have reportedly fallen since we left.

Eldora doesn’t open for two days after we leave to allow crews to clear the snow and control the slopes. I still can’t get out of my driveway three days later, but I ski out my front door to the main road and head up to the mountain to ski. The bottomless powder has already grown a thin sun and wind crust. But I feel good being there, as if I’m back in the time warp where I couldn’t get to work, where I had time for conversations with new people and was able to forget the world’s problems. I guess I wouldn’t mind if this happened again sometime-but then I’ll have my toothbrush with me.