As I strapped on my board at the top of the Panoramic Express lift on Mary Jane, the backside of Winter Park, a ski patroller on a snowmobile ripped passed, stopping thirty or forty feet beyond me and over my left shoulder.
The snowmobile and ski patroller are not a rare site, the machines making navigating the predominately ungroomed Mary Jane Resort more efficient. However, there was something about the patroller that made me pay attention, watch longer than I normally would.
As he hopped off the sled, he grabbed a sign, previously secured on the side via some bungee cords. I noticed it was an “OPEN” sign and was intently curious. Wherever he was headed, he would be opening some fresh terrain perhaps untouched all season. I unstrapped my board and hedged closer so see what was happening.
As I was approaching the patroller, I noticed he was heading directly for a pathway that I previously hadn’t noticed, a cat trail leading to what was labeled “Vazquez Cirque”, with the double-black diamond notations along with the letters “E X” inside of the diamonds themselves- denoting extreme terrain with “cliffs, very steep slopes, as well as rocks and other hazards”. Sounds intense…
The patroller launched into a safety speech to a gathering group of what I’m assuming were “EXPERTS ONLY”- also denoted by the sign.
This is my fifth winter season on a snowboard, riding two seasons on the east coast- PA, VT, NY and three seasons on the west coast- with Utah, Colorado and California (Tahoe, Big Bear) being my trips of choice. I’ve progressed steadily, discovering steep tree runs in VT and fueling my desire to push it as much as possible, riding with better and better riders and trying to keep up.
However, THIS might be over my head….
I internally debated “The Cirque” as the patroller finished his safety speech about directional skiing. I had no idea what that meant at the time but I looked around the group and no one else seemed confused, I just nodded my head and smiled- only mildly nervous at that point.
The patroller ended his speech with “Ok guys, you can start hiking up- when you get to the bottom, DON’T walk, we will be towing people in on the snowmobiles.” Wait— WHAT?!
The people ahead of me began the hike. I got in line and started hiking. Growing more nervous with every step, doubt, questions and fear creeping in.
Am I over my head?
Where are we going?
Towed in on snowmobiles, what does that look like?
Cliffs?! Rocks?! Other hazards?! What else is there?!
Am I good enough for this?
Stifling my thoughts, I decided to fake it- act as if I belonged, this is right where I should be. I’m an “EXPERT”. My adrenaline began pumping as I strapped in at the top of the short hike and began following the others down a mellow cat track leading off the back of the mountain. After a short ride the trail bottomed out at a rendevouz point where the other skiers and riders gathered awaiting the arrival of the snowmobile. Snowmobiles? How were they going to do this?
I made nervous chit chat with the group while patiently awaiting my fate- still without the faintest idea where we would be heading and HOW exactly we would be getting there… I was about the eighth person back in line as the snowmobile came into view in the distance, steadily humming in our direction around the outcropped ridge line and opposite side of the cat track. My stomach flipped over. Am I over my head?
The sled ripped to a halt in front of us and spun a quick one-eighty. The patroller hopped off and began the second of three safety talks. “Directional skiing only, we want to see turns… If you straight line it you WILL lose your pass!,” he said, unrolling a rope from his back hitch.
Ok, were being towed on a rope, that answers one question but what the hell is directional skiing?! I looked around the group for the second time, nobody else seemed confused. I acted just as self-assured as the others, the signs of panic building inside my head and body.
He began passing the unrolled rope down the line and we all grabbed a hold, probably 10 of us total, I was second to last, comfortably at the back of the pack, on a journey to god knows where, being towed by a snowmobile with nine other “experts only”. We began the five minute tow around the ridge to the face we would be “directionally skiing”- What the hell? as we traversed, my back was to the face, the ridge, “The Cirque”, I didn’t get a look as what we would be riding, but I knew enough to know to be jittery. This would without a doubt be the biggest thing I’ve ridden in my five years of boarding- my adrenaline was pumping, survival instincts kicking hard.
The sled dropped us at the top of a cliff where there was was yet another ski patroller standing by for safety talk number three. He laid out the exact run we would be taking, essentially issuing us our flexibility within the chute- “Don’t go right of the fall line, it’s very rocky, don’t go left of the ridge up top because the coverage is not as good. We’re going to be going once at a time, full runs down the chute to the patroller on the bottom.”
Twenty feet below where I stood listening to the safety speech, the cliff dropped off and the run itself disappeared, nothing was visible. Before I knew what happened we were making the run. The first skier bombed off the cliff and disappeared from view. My heart leapt to my throat, adrenaline full-on spiking and my nerves electrified by the sight of the skier- once fifteen feet to my right, now gone off of the cliff.
One after another, I watched with fear and excitement as my riding companions launched off the cornice and were gone. I crept slowly towards the edge and my turn, gradually being able to see more of what the others were jumping into. It certainly was steep.
What was nerve racking to me was everyone watching your run, but as more and more people made the leap there were less and less people to watch my turn, easing my nerves only slightly.
The guy in front of me dropped, fourth from last and a middle-aged skier. I was next. I watched as he made clean lines on the top chute before things went sideways.
He went too far right, into the rocks and all of a sudden, his feet were over his head, his right ski flying through the air as he tumbled down the slope in the fresh snow among the rocks to the right.
At that point, it was me the ski patroller and the last two members of the group at the top, waiting for the middle-aged skier to gather his equipment and head down the rest of the run.
There was a lot of radio calling back and forth between the two patrollers while we waited, neither of them having a great view to see what was happening with the down skier.
Meanwhile, while we waited, me on the precipice, poised to jump off the cliff. It took and agonizingly long time for him to get it together. To the point that the patroller next to me was yelling down at him- “You gotta get out of the way dude! Put your ski on and go down!!”. That wasn’t making me feel more comfortable. Panic, anxiety, fear, excitement. This was happening, soon.
As we waited, me grateful that there were only three people left on top to watch me take my hopefully less embarrassing run than the middle-aged skier ahead of me, I heard a steady hum off to my right. I turned to look and my assurance that only three people would see my run quickly disappeared. The snowmobile was returning with another 20 or so people in the second group of “experts only”.
In the meantime the middle-aged skier had gathered himself and was heading down, right in time for me to take the run in front of the now large and potentially very embarrassing group of 23 skiers and boarders. My stomach flipped, my adrenaline spiked again. The people! The judgement! Holy shit, what am I doing?!
“Alright go get ‘em man,” came the voice of the ski patroller.
Holy shit. Fuck. What the hell am I doing?!
I went in as slow as I could on my heels off to the right, my heart pounding in my chest. As I dropped the lip and entered the bowl I picked up speed fast, barreling towards the rocks on the ridge. It was now or never, time to drop. I jumped my back leg up and spun to my toes, planting hard and pointed my Ride Slackcountry 162 downhill. With my heart in my throat, my body flooded with adrenaline, I dug my toe edge hard in the fresh snow and floated right to the top picking up speed rapidly on the steep slope.
I enjoyed every single turn I was lucky enough to make on that perfect, perfect snow. I had managed to put together five or six good turns together on one of the steepest faces I’ve ever ridden- it was a feeling of complete and utter joy.
As quickly as I could, I was on the first lift available to go take another lap, instantly addicted to the adrenaline and perfect conditions. I can’t get enough. I love snowboarding.