Sloan, Simon, Scotty, and I announce our arrival at the San Juan Mountain Bakery with our pants. Phhtt, phhttt, phhtt, phhttt! they hiss, as nylon laminates are wont to hiss. The noise startles the other customers and calls immediate attention to the fact that we four-and only we four-have worn skiwear to breakfast this sunny Friday morning in Ridgway, Colorado. Everyone else sports jeans or shorts, along with a puzzled expression. It is, after all, only October the fourth.
With as much nonchalance as someone alarmed at the cacophony created by his own clothes can muster, I order a cinnamon roll. A little sugar to buzz the bloodstream before setting off on a ski tour above Red Mountain Pass. Besides, the bakery makes one of the finest cinnamon rolls in the Four Corners area, a blessed assemblage of carbs and sugars that'd make Dr. Atkins twist around in his recently filled grave. The roll arrives, a confection worth contemplating. I ponder it-sweet icing glazed over mounds of pastry. I figure the roll foretells ill voodoo for our trip: thin splotches of white that don't begin to cover all the brown. Then I cram the bad omen down my gullet. Omens, I've found, always taste better than they look.
There's a reason most of us don't ski on October 4: We can't find untracked powder. The little precipitation around is usually rotten, sun-cupped Styrofoam left over from the previous spring. If new flurries somehow manage to accumulate, they do so only at altitude, where they quickly melt, mixing with the urine of blubber-swaddled marmots before draining into the water supplies of Denver and Salt Lake.
Skiing enchants us precisely because we can't do it all year long. Whereas mountain biking and rock climbing don't change that much from month to month, skiing builds to a seasonal climax. The snowpack begins from humble origins-literally from dirt. Like a cinnamon roll in the oven, the snowpack gradually rises. To the burgeoning delight of users, it gets frosted. Then it gets consumed.
The wait can be agonizing, though. No wonder skiers respond to the torture of delayed gratification like teenage boys do. They take matters into their own hands.
Some don goggles and stick their heads in the freezer. Others wear their ski boots while watching The Blizzard of Aahhh's for the 47th time. I most pity those who get their ski groove on by shopping the Labor Day gear sales. The most famous of these is the "Sniagrab" at Denver's landmark Gart Sports (now Sports Authority). "Sniagrab" is "bargains" spelled backward. Sad but true: In the snowless hell of preseason, we turn to word games for amusement.
Me, I've never stuck my head in with the ice cubes, worn ski boots before absolutely necessary, or laid out lots of cash at Labor Day. Because cold cheeks, plastic-encased feet, and conspicuous consumption aren't the point. Powder is.
Which is why Simon, Scotty, Sloan, and I assemble at 7 a.m. on the morning of October 4. The night before, a wondrously premature storm had dumped as much as 14 inches on the upper reaches of the San Juans.
It's 7:30 before we get on the road, 8:30 by the time we rustle out of the bakery. We drive through Ridgway and then Ouray. Everywhere are signs that ski season is many weeks away. Pumpkins are still growing in preparation for their Halloween genocide. The radio broadcasts speculation on the upcoming baseball playoffs, which is jarring, since relatively few skiers make turns before football playoffs. Then there's the foliage. Bright yellow leaves cling to the aspens. Fall colors in Colorado also mean fluorescent orange: the color of the banners strung above every bar, liquor store, and gas station saying, Welcome Hunters! I make a mental note to ski as far as possible from Chewy, Sloan's lithe, brown, sorta deer-like pit bull.
The scent of boot liners confuses the summer-conditioned nostrils of Chewy and Sloan's other dog, a whimpering Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lu. When we finally spill out of the car, the dogs prommptly wrestle in the middle of the highway. Gearing up, I need to put my shell and pack on twice because I forget to strap on my avalanche transceiver the first time. Otherwise, preparation goes smoothly, and we're soon skinning up a silken road.
While constantly reminding myself not to step and stomp with the skins, but rather to slide their faux-fur surfaces smoothly up-slope, I fiddle with my gear. Backpack straps need adjusting, and so does the hose to my hydration bladder. Pit-zips! I've got to open my pit-zips! I fixate on my gloves. They're lightweight versions made for sweaty pursuits during spring and fall, skiing's shoulder seasons. They're called spring gloves, of course, since almost nobody skis in October.
Once we gain 12,804-foot McMillan Peak, a 35-degree, east-facing bowl beckons. We slip in, finding knee-deep fluff with nary a stone underneath. It takes three, maybe four, turns to reconnect with the beauty, sensuality, and ecstasy of powder skiing. This is why we pine and hanker for ski season above all seasons. No other athletic endeavor delivers the dreamy joy of floating, frictionless, down fresh snow. Six hundred, eight hundred, a thousand vertical feet elapse before we can bring ourselves to stop. Take whatever satisfaction you derive from watching ski movies in your Nordicas, and multiply it by 10,000.
Even the steep, exhausting skin out of the drainage fails to dampen our spirits. Back atop the main ridge, we prepare for the ski to the car. This descent isn't as thrilling: The incline is lower and the snow has settled almost to the ground. We make luxurious, boot-top powder turns, but rocks and logs frequently interrupt them. One volcanic chunk rips a deep core shot in my left ski, and I yelp at the impact. The dogs whine, too-Chewy because he has no goddamn fur to keep him warm, Lu because she's a whiner and simply not a nice dog. The dictionary calls her a "bitch," and so do I. But she gets props as a skiing dog, with a long, bouncy stride that makes her far faster than the genial Chewy.
Invisible obstacles and a slow dog notwithstanding, our six-pack of canines and powder seekers returns to the trailhead in triumph. Other skiers are there, preparing to skin up. We head home with the smug satisfaction of nailing first tracks of both the day and the season.
I'd been wrong, that morning, about cinnamon-roll skiing. The preponderance of brown in October doesn't matter when there's any white at all to savor. On our way back through Ridgway, I contemplate buying another roll. I could photograph it to remind me to search for sweetness in crusty landscapes. But simple film wouldn't do the symbolic cinnamon roll of the San Juans justice. I should commission an artist to celebrate it, like hammers and sickles are celebrated in Stalin-era Communist propaganda banners. I envision a square-jawed proletarian holding my cinnamon roll aloft, while the bright sun of the future glints off its sugary glaze. "Breakfast Pastry for the Fatherland, Comrade!"
I should do all these things. But I know if I buy a San Juan Mountain Bakery cinnamon roll, I'll just eat it. Skiing in early October works up an appetite, in more ways than one.