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Best Of: Living Cheap and Steep

Features
posted: 09/09/2004

Growing up in Colorado, I had a lot of crazy ski buddies. But the craziest, without a doubt, was Mike Sides. He lived his life so fast that he was already bald by age 16-which, fortunately, meant he could buy beer for the rest of us. We skied together at Arapahoe Basin, because it was cheap, steep, and unpretentious. We were locals and proud of it, ridiculing the Texans in their matching outfits, Sno-Sealing our jeans, making frequent puff stops in the trees.

So of course we chose A-Basin for a gathering in Sides' honor. We pulled up to the Beach (the resort's famed social spot) in a Winnebago, unrolled the canopy, tapped a keg, and partied under the spring sun like we did 20 years before. We wore sparkling strands of Mardi Gras beads, because Sides never missed a Fat Tuesday in New Orleans.

But while his spirit was there, Sides missed our celebration. Earlier that year, when he turned 40, he'd begun a long sabbatical that involved surfing in Costa Rica, skiing in Patagonia, and caving, river rafting, and bar-hopping through South America. His postcards told the story: He was having the time of this life. On the last leg of his trip, he returned to the States to accompany his girlfriend and father to Egypt. Thanks to a madman at the controls, their flight, EgyptAir 990, crashed. There were no survivors. All I can stand to think is that at least they went down fast.

An engineer, Sides pursued fun with quizzical, scientific zeal. His fanny pack was always fully stuffed. He turned his ski helmet (a rarity back then) into a stereo: He cut a hole in his baggy brown jacket, attached his Walkman to the headphones, and skied to Nirvana and bluegrass. Once, vowing never again to slide in his ski pants, he wore his underwear on the outside for more friction. He could make a pipe out of anything-like a ski-boot holder. In his thirties, he lived in a VW van-why pay rent?-and kept a storage unit near work for his many pairs of skis.

Each winter, Sides and his buddy Frank Peacock rented a Winnebago and hit 14 resorts in two weeks. They'd drive into the dark parking lot, scarf down pancakes just as the slopes opened, and ski like maniacs. In the evening, wearing only swimsuits, they'd run like hell through the snow to the nearest hotel with a hot tub. They turned their RV shower into a beer vault, and one year, when they accidentally drove the rig three-quarters of the way over a cliff, they used the brew to bribe 40 guys to push it back.

That spring day at A-Basin, we skied in praise of Sides. As the light went flat, we decorated a tree with beads and mementos-including the psychedelic ties Sides used to wear at work, defiantly, when they told him to adhere to a dress code. Sallie said a prayer. Bill broke into Sides' inebriated ode, "God Bless A-Basin," and we all joined in. Don and Peacock skied into the Alleys and found the tallest pine overlooking the Blue River valley. Drunk, Peacock climbed to the top of that tree in ski boots, strung it with beads, and hung Sides' season pass from the top. Last time anyone looked, the pass was still there, flapping in the wind-a reminder that with the right spirit, you can pack more life into a mere 40 years than most people manage in a hundred. I think of that whenever I ski, jangling the bright-blue beads that still live in the pocket of my parka.

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