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The Secret Season

Fall Line
By Jay Cowan
posted: 12/11/2002

Early-season skiing has always been one of my favorite indulgences, when I can be back up in the mountains, sliding over the snow and feeling the cold wind on my face. On a cool day in 1995, I was't sure how to dress because the weather had been weird. Yet it never crossed my mind to wear a skeleton costume. Or a pig's snout. Or even a turquoise-and-gold one-piece powder suit. But that's how my friends were dressed when I met them at Snowmass for the first day of the season. It isn't that this is how my friends dress for opening day. It's that this is how they dress for opening day when it's Halloween.

Ski season in Aspen usually begins on Thanksgiving, so skiing on Halloween was historic, the first October opening ever. And we were here—along with a few hundred other fanatics. The snow was amazingly good. It had that in common with almost every opening day I can remember: beautiful packed powder without a turn on it. Not a mark. Not a blemish. Not a mogul. The air smells like wet aspen leaves with storms on the way. There's a communal spark in the air as locals wait to end a six-month drought and get back on skis.

Though I can't count on Halloween openings, Aspen has made its Thanksgiving target date nearly every season for years. And from then until Dec. 20 is consistently one of the best times of the ski season for me. That last blustery, invigorating month of autumn is what I regard as my secret ski season. It's the only time of the year when locals truly have the slopes to themselves.

The truth is, this isn't a time when people go on a ski vacation. Everyone gets a long weekend for Thanksgiving, and then people hoard their vacation days until Christmas. And nearly all the schools in the world, even in holiday-prone countries like Germany and France, are in session. In fact, most locals are too busy or too lazy or are out of town on much-needed shoulder-season vacations to head to the lifts. So the slopes in Aspen are deserted, and the skeleton crew of employees are friendly and chipper because the season has barely begun.

But a big question always lingers: What about snow? That unknown, oddly enough, is a part of the thrill—and really doesn't matter. Early-season skiing is like all skiing used to be: at the whim of Mother Nature. Sure, resorts have their snowmaking guns blasting, which helps. But you sit down on a chairlift with different expectations in December than you do in February: Like a starving man, you savor any crumb like it's a feast. And the whole mountain becomes a giant terrain park as you dodge and weave around rocks, bare spots and other features that haven't been buried yet. There's even a perverse delight in proving why real skiers own "rock skis.

Most important, you face a season full of endless possibilities. This is the year you're going to ski like Killy. And in December, it all seems possible, if not, in fact, probable.

Even normally reserved and ultra-cool Aspenites have a funny look in their eyes this time of year and wear a kind of giddy, goofy smile. It's ski season again, the snow is new and fresh, full of a wild energy. The slopes are nearly deserted, occupied by just a few neighbors and friends. And that first turn is like a long first kiss. There is only optimism ahead.

Jay Cowan has lived in Aspen for 35 years. More often than not, he can be found on the slopes in early December.

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