Twenty-seven inches of fresh on Dec. 9, 2003. After several lean winters in Aspen, when six inches was celebrated as a big storm, this was a monster—and everyone was out on the hill. Until about 1 p.m., anyway, when the heavy attrition always sets in on serious powder days. Bogged down by lunch legs ("I never should have had that huge brownie), gear malfunctions ("these goggles are worthless) or ski snobbery ("there's no more untracked, dude), it's all just an excuse for full-body exhaustion ("I'm whipped). But it's an honest, wholesome whipped, and in the afterglow of the day that produced it, it's hard to take offense at the complainers.
During that particular December and early-January storm cycle, it snowed so hard and so often in Aspen (four feet in two days at one point) that the locals got all goofy about the holiday bounty. "What a gift, we'd exclaim. "Mother Nature is really getting into the spirit of the season—as if Mother Nature somehow gets sentimental around this time of year.
Christmas gifts and skiing have been inseparable in my mind since I was a boy. It wasn't just because one year I might get a new pair of skis, or, the next, some old-fashioned corduroy knickers and high socks that my parents loved (never mind that they were ridiculous snow-magnets and made me look silly). It was because having two weeks off from school to ski every holiday season was a huge present, all that any snow-crazed kid could ask for.
Sometimes our family packed the car and drove to Jackson, Wyo., or Steamboat, Colo., or Red Lodge, Mont., for a long holiday weekend. But I was just as happy at our home hill, Hogadon Basin in Casper, Wyo. I could gladly pass the whole Christmas vacation ferreting through the thick woods that lined Boomerang, my favorite run, getting lifted off the ground and spun like a propeller for a full hundred yards by the old, creaky Constam T-bar, or helping my dad rebuild an abandoned 40-meter jump so we could wait the rest of the winter for enough snow to bomb down it.
After moving to Aspen at age 14, I spent my holidays getting all the skiing I could handle by training with the Aspen Ski Team. This wasn't buddying up and wallowing through the powder, the way I had in Wyoming. Horrifically, we spent more time packing powder for race courses than skiing it. But I was still out there, playing on snow every day. And, just like in my dreams, skiing fast and not getting yelled at for it.
Once I was out of high school, I started discovering—and appreciating—more early-season gifts. In December, the crowds haven't arrived yet—and neither have the bumps. All the slopes are new again. And it's always seemed to me that the snow is fresher and somehow more exciting in December. Or maybe there's just less of it, so there are more terrain features to play with. Or to avoid. As I get older, the skiing in December seems more real, more authentic—more the way it used to be when I was a kid.
When I was 18 or 19, we got two and a half feet of snow the day before Thanksgiving, on top of warm, bare earth. Some friends and I inaugurated the season by holding on for dear life to two waterski ropes hooked to a boom in the back of a buddy's pickup. We roared around town at 6 o'clock at night, dodging people, puzzled dogs and bare manhole covers, trying not to drift over into oncoming traffic. (You know the term "rock skis. When you're a teenager in Aspen, you have road skis.)
It was nearly as exciting the next day on the mountain, when with each turn you risked having your skis bottom out on the warm ground under the new snow—snow that was prone to giving way in big, wet slabs and sliding for several feet.
Aspen gets dumped on over the winter holidays as often as not. And when it hits, it's giddy, yell-out-loud, It's a Wonderful Life stuff, falling like manna from heaven, especially for the local powder junkies, who have usually convinced themselves over the summer that we'll never see the real sttuff again. "Not like back in the day, man....
And then, boom, here it is, in all its windshield-scraping, where's-my-ski-gear, closet-digging, just-get-me-to-the-mountain-Lord glory. Sparkling like diamonds in the cold morning air, piling up on your legs on the chairlift ride, catching in your throat because you're laughing so hard while you're trying to ski through it. Liberating, mind-bending, gift-of-the-gods snow.
Certainly some years it's a more generous gift than others, but that's the way gifts go. The truth is, we're all incredibly fortunate, whether we devote our lives to skiing or just make it out once a year during Christmas vacation.
After you've seen more than a few ski seasons come and go, you learn that it's not about the fancy new skis, the holiday trip, or even the sweet 48 inches in 48 hours we got in December '03.
The gift of skiing gets delivered each season when, deep or dirty, we head out to the mountains again in search of something to slide on. The gift is another winter of having the chance to ride, to go fast and be free in the mountains, to put everything else behind you.So every December before my first run, I remind myself to be a kid again, to appreciate the sport with wide-open eyes. With skiing, that's easy to do. And that's another gift.