Hard and harder

Yesterday, I skiied my first “Extreme Terrain” – the Cirque Headwall at Aspen/Snowmass. It was kind of like being given Pasasana, or binding in Supta Kurmasana for the first time. It was something I really never expected to happen.

In all honesty, I didn’t find the run to be any more difficult or scary than your typical black diamond run. What made it “extreme” was it’s its inaccessibility as well as its unpredicatablity.

First, it was accessible only through a series of decreasingly technologically advanced lifts. First, you had to take your normal, high-speed quad lift to get halfway up the mountain. A high-speed quad comes equipped with a restraining bar and a foot rest for your (heavy) skis and boots. Then from there, you had to ski down a short run to access a lift that is really not much more than a two-person chair suspended from a cable, with no restraining bar an no footrest.


Then, you had to hike up hundred or so feet, your heart pounding in the thinly oxygenated air in order to gain access to what is known as a “Poma” lift – a ridiculous contraption consisting of a series of long vertical rods suspended from a cable running up the mountain, each rod terminating with a dinner-plate-sized thingamagic. When it’s your turn to go, you grab the rod hurtling towards you and place it between your legs so that the dinner-plate thingy cradles your rear end, kind of like a seat, but not really a seat at all. And this is all as the rod is moving around a pulley to abruptly change its direction so that it can start to ascend the mountain. It then drags you up the mountain, your skis gliding along the snow below you in a rut worn (fairly) smooth by previous riders. When you’ve reached your destination (and for some, that is only halfway up), you have to quickly pull the bar out from between your legs and ski away, being careful not to let it hit you in the head as it whips wildly back, no longer held still by your body’s weight. It’s a huge pain in the ass, literally, and a huge effort that you can really feel in your thighs, just to keep your skis moving smoothly below you as you’re pulled up the mountain, lest you catch an edge and end up having a full-on ski-and-pole “yard sale”, so to speak. Loads of people fall off of these things all the time. They don’t get hurt, generally speakng, but it is seriously annoying and quite embarassing. But I guess all of that serves a purpose: it is a major disincentive to those would-be adventurers (foolheartedly) considering exploring some of themountain’s more dicey terrain.


As you can see from the photo at left, another major disincentive is the signage that stands guard at the entrance to the run. It reminds you in no uncertain terms that no one has been there marking where the rocks jut up in the middle of your path or roping off the abrupt drop-offs. I, for one, had my own yard sale there in a giant pile of quicksand-like powder. Only a second before, I had been skiing on packed powder, which requires assertive, edged turns. So, when the terrain abruptly changed, but I was still digging my edge in to make a turn, I face-planted and lost both skis. One was nearly completely buried in the powder. But the face-plant itself is nothing compared to the agony of digging out the skis and, even worse, the torture of having to put the skis back on in snow that won’t support the weight of your finger, let alone your entire body. After a few futile attempts, the husband helped me dig a hole over which to sling my skis – a wonder of physics, really – and in another moment, they were on, and we were off. Yet another reason novices should not be out there: you have to know what to do when your ski falls off and nearly gets buried in powder.

Yard sale included, it took about 40 minutes of skiing to make our way down the Cirque Headway, during which time we encountered steep bowl-shaped drops that were covered with moguls, long, flat powder expanses, natural half-pipes that ran between expanses of glades and crusty, chunky powder with rocks and pinecones strewn around. As I said, it wasn’t challenging from a technical standpoint. But it was challenging from a mental standpoint.

A good place to use the yoga. To breathe. To be mindful and in the moment. To make choices that reflected the truth of my abilities (like the choice not to head down the bumps to my left, when the smooth path to my right seemed so much more appropriate to my skill level as well as my fatigue level) as well as a desire to do no harm (not only to myself but to those I was skiing with; helping a spouse dig her skis out from six feet of soft powder is no party).

Anyway, this has gotten way longer than I intended, when what I really wanted to write about was how today, we skiied an entirely different mountain that, even after my Extreme Terrain moment, completely defied my definition of myself as a “good skiier”, nay, an “advanced skiier”. Anyone who has seen “This is Spinal Tap” will understand what I mean when I say, Aspen Ajax goes to 11. And frankly, I prefer a mountain that keeps it at 10.

Aspen Ajax, or simply “Aspen Mountain” (as opposed to Aspen Snowmass or Aspen Highlands) has no easy runs. It’s runs are marked “More Difficult” and “Most Difficult” and “Experts Only”. And of the “More Difficult” runs, they range from “hard” to “harder”. Simply put, there is no easy way down. None whatsoever. And that was cool by me, since my mind has identified my self as being a kick-ass, fearless, adventuresome ski diva. And hell, I wanted to like Ajax. It’s the Fifth Avenue of skiing. It’s the Barneys of skiing. The Princeton of skiing (I would say Harvard, in deference to my cousin, Debby of Finding Om, who actually WENT to Harvard, except that I feel that Princeton more captures the snootiness that is Aspen Ajax.

But here’s the thing. Ajax humbled me.

Ajax grabbed me by the bloated ego and shook me by my puffed up sense of self.

Once on that mountain, it became clear that the “More Difficult” runs on Ajax were what other mountains deemed “MOST Difficult”. And the “MOST Difficult” runs on Ajax were at the level of “Don’t Even Think About Trying This” anywhere else.

I mean, look at those freaky bumps (to the left). This is an “Intermediate Run”?!

At Ajax it is.

So, suddenly, today, my mind had to wrap itself around my being, at least for the day, a fairly average skiier, cautiously avoiding the giant, YC-sized bumps, meandering around the softer, sunnier sides of runs so that I wouldn’t have to careen down steep runs over less-forgiving packed powder. I became the skiier who took the easy way down.

And that’s fine, right? It’s the way it is. And that’s what you go with, right? It’s like when you wake up stiff and you go to practice, and you don’t force yourself into poses because that’s not who you are that day. Satya, truth, you know?

But today, I was like FUCK Satya.

Today, I Ajax humbled me to the point that it stopped being fun. Imagine that?

But really, do I need to be humbled when I’m just having fun? Yeah, Satya, Ahimsa, whatever. Know your true skill level, don’t do harm to your body. Fine. But can’t I do that on a mountain that lets me see myself as the skiing goddess rockstar diva that I want to see myself as?

And just so I’m not alone in my delusions, I give you this video, taken by my eight-year old. Think skiing goddess rockstar diva thoughts, please!

YC

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One Response to Hard and harder

  1. Arturo says:

    hi lauren
    interesting story. the firm i work for designs ski in ski out hotels in the mountains, and have done a few in the vail valley. so i appreciate your description of your skiing experiences.
    cheers,
    arturo

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