On a snow-blown night, we take I-70 west from Denver over Loveland Pass, and, a while later, a left near Dillon Reservoir to Frisco. We’re meeting a group at a condo there. It’ll be our base for two nights. In the morning, the group will go to Keystone, to the east. We’ll go south, toward Mt. Quandary and the backcountry trails there. The plan is to stay away from the group, avoiding whatever awkward conversations that may arise, focusing, rather, on the snow.
That’s the plan. It is winter 1992.
We arrive intentionally late and are introduced to a wan chap – pale, thin, with beard and confused air. We are cordial, though it’s difficult not to ask the obvious: This couldn’t be the guy, could it?
In the morning after much shuffling, the group loads up and heads toward the crowds and lifts, and we head in the opposite direction, driving through Breckridge and then up a forestry road until the snow is deep and the SUV let’s us know that’s far enough. We start here.
We ski up the road until it turns, and then follow a trail that wonders off from it. We climb hard, and soon rise above the timberline. The day is windless. New snow is to the knee and light; the sun painfully brilliant. Near remnants of an old cabin we break for lunch and then lean back in the snow and doze. We’re chilled when we awake, the sun’s making an early exit from the day; the trees in the valley already dark and frozen. Coming down, we ride clouds of powder that rise with each telemark and we arrive back at the SUV hot from pushing through the turns. A great ride, he says, but he isn’t finished — it’s early. Besides, if we go back, we’ll have to share the company of people we’d rather not.
We agree to dry out, eat, and wait for the full moon to rise. Then, we’ll come back and take an old mining road up Quandary — a good ride in the moonlight. With the heater on high, we hang out at a Loaf N’ Jug, gas and food, for as long as humanly possible, which we confirm is two hours. Then we go to the trailhead. When we arrive, the moon is just over the mountains in a blue-ice sky. We click into our skis and start out as the evening darkens to night. Climbing steadily, we move up the shoulder of the mountain toward Boreas Pass. In those days there was more snow and fewer houses; we move through a white expanse marked only by trees and their shadows. After a long while, I begin to feel the cold and the altitude. By my watch, we are nearing the seventh hour of the day’s ski and I have at least an hour’s ride back. Finally, I tap out, leaving him on his own. His pace quickens with hardly a look back.
The moon is full overhead when I return to the SUV. It’s quiet. I go around back to clean ice off my skis. In time, laughter a long way off can be heard — he’s greeting skiers he passes on the way back. Good old endorphin high cures what ails ya, or at least makes it less burdensome.
I come around to the front, start the engine, crank the stereo and open the doors. Soon, “Losing My Religion,” rises into the night. It’s a song about being on the edge and lost as what to do about it, and maybe he needs to hear it. Disillusionment is a common enough condition, but when it comes in the form of a person, especially if she has an aptitude for the hard sciences and gazelle athleticism, then that’s a hell of a thing to have to deal with.
I see him coming back now, double-polling; a shadow flickering through the glow of that frozen moon. He glides past and around to the side: “Party.” I laugh. In the end, what did it all add up to anyway, but the toll you pay for living. In the spring all this snow will leave, but next year it’ll be back, and we’ll ski it all again.
We drive back to the condo laughing at what seemed so serious. A friend meets us at the door. “I almost didn’t make it back here. Erin, man, she doesn’t have any idea what she’s doing about anything. We nearly got lost. I wasn’t sure of the way, but I had to give her directions to get back here.”
Sometimes people do you a favor, but they do it in the worst way. Doesn’t matter, though, it’s still a favor. Later you can look back at it as such, though at the time it seems like the worst thing they could do to you.
In the morning we drive to Vail Pass and ski more deep powder.