Last Saturday was opening day of the ski season (for chairlifts, that is) and I couldn’t be happier. This is my third decade of sliding around on snow and opening day never loses its allure, despite long lines and limited terrain. This season marks my seventh year as a passholder at Whitefish Mountain Resort, formerly known as the Big Mountain. I moved to Montana to ski. And ski is what I do.
Over the years I’ve weighed my ski aspirations against my weak career options. I didn’t move to the mountains to be a successful ______ (insert profession here). I moved west because I’m drawn to mountains and snow and feeling free and wild in those sacred places. I’m also a very good product of my childhood: growing up in northern Michigan, careers and professions were not things my parents or their friends or even my friends discussed. Sure, we knew folks who were lawyers and doctors and my parents certainly worked hard to make a living but when winter rolled around there was one thing my family did well: ski. I grew up watching Warren Miller movies and reading Powder Magazine–I aspired to ski in the mountains and little else.
Each ski season, I have a wealth of good memories that I tap into and cherish: the long touring day under blue skies, the perfect race run, the deep snow that tickles my face, run after run, and the good times with friends darting between trees and toasting beers at the end of the day. Riding the chairlift on opening day (pretty much a sacred holiday in our household) I thought back t0 my very first day as a season pass holder on Big Mountain, a few years back in 2005. It was my first real winter in the mountains and I was young, anxious and thrilled.
That year, the mountain opened before Thanksgiving and I met up with a group of guys I met earlier in the week at the Great Northern Bar & Grill. The previous winter I was living in Bigfork and there was barely any snowfall, so I’d only skied at the Big a few times. I didn’t know the mountain well and put my trust in a group of locals, beard clad and all too willing to tour the new girl around the mountain. As the day progressed and the inversion brightened on the summit, the group shifted and sorted until it was just myself and Eric, a man 20 years older and a telemark skier. He asked if I wanted to ski NBC. Not knowing what NBC was but thrilled to be skiing, I said yes.
“Just don’t get caught,” he said, as we got off the chair. He raced down the Ant Hill and I followed behind. I barely saw the orange rope closing off East Rim before I ran into it. Eric instructed me to hurry across the traverse.
Up until this point, the novice that I was to big mountain skiing, I knew very little about closure and cliffs and chutes. Oh, I knew a lot about red and blue paneled gates and how to teach people how to ski, but my knowledge of Rocky Mountain skiing was limited. However, chasing after Eric, I didn’t want him to know this, whatsoever.
Eric led me to the top of NBC a narrow chute. I gulped. I knew I was a good skier, but it was the first day of the ski season.
“Don’t fall,” he joked as he hopped into the tight chute.
I watched him hop through the chute and I noted a few trees and logs sticking up out of the snow. It was still very much early season and the coverage was thin. Eric disappeared into a copse of trees at the apron of the run. I nudged the tips of my skis off the edge and gave way to the pull of the terrain.
I made a few slow jump turns and thought, This is it! I’m doing it! Yes!
Half way down the chute, I augered into the snow. I flipped over and rolled, like a ragged doll, down the chute. One of my skis fell off. Don’t slide, don’t slide, I told myself. I kicked my boots into the snow, trying to stop my fast descent. I gripped the snow with my hands and looked for Eric. I didn’t see him. I caught my breath, took off my other ski and boot packed up the chute to locate my other ski. It stuck out of the snow, tip first, like a fence post. I was mortified and tried as quickly as I could to click back into my skis and save whatever face I had left and negotiate the rest of the chute.
Eric was watching me from below and I found him hiding in the cover of the trees.
“You can’t fall there,” he lectured.
“Okay,” I quickly said. “I’m sorry.”
At the end of the day, Eric invited me to the Bierstube. The cold beer assuaged my embarrassment over my messy wreck in NBC and as the night wore on and I drank more cheap beer, my excitement for almost-skiing my very first chute overcame me. My lips became very loose and as I wandered around the ‘Stube and met more and more ski bums, I bragged that it was my first ski season in Montana and I had just skied my very first chute in my entire life.
Standing in front of a small circle of bearded men, I told them the whole story of how I met this guy Eric and how it was the first day of the ski season and how he took me down this run called NBC. I explained my wreck and how excited I was to ski my first chute. It was great! I felt great, especially after my fourth PBR!
Two of the guys chuckled. “NBC, you say?”
“Yes!” I said.
One of the guys grabbed my forearm. “Hi, I know you’re new here and this is your first day on the mountain but we’re on ski patrol and NBC is closed. As in, you should not be skiing it and you really shouldn’t be bragging about it at the ‘Stube.”
Oops. Insert foot into mouth. I drank the rest of my beer and walked away from ski patrol. Good move, new girl.
I learned to ski NBC, when it was open, of course, and to not fall down it (although some days I don’t ski it well). Now, I try and make it a daily habit and when I enter the notch, I think back to my first day on the mountain. I was so happy and eager and willing to explore the mountain that I’d knew be my home that I’d follow anyone anywhere. Now in my 30s, I’m no less excited but a bit more cautious about who I follow and where.
Let it snow!