I woke up in the dark at 5:30.
Well, “woke up” is a gentle and dignified way of explaining that the alarm on my phone dragged me desperate from sleep. Thank god for the propane heater as the phone continues to deliver good news: 11 degrees this morning, unseasonably cold, a February deep-freeze before Thanksgiving Day.
This — 22 November 2014 — is the first day of my professional life as a member of the National Ski Patrol. So, of course, I’m late. I hate to be late, driving through the dark, worried. I shouldn’t have been worried. Clocked in on time, and with plenty of time to wait for the lift to finally turn.
We’re first on the snow, but not first by any real measure. The snow-makers have been out for nights and days before. The lift crew has already run their top-shack spotters up the slopes on the back of snowmachines — slopes groomed in the dark by the men and women in cats with tillers and combs.
I love the strangeness of that sentence.
Many of the slopes are still showing autumn stubble, but the cold has held for days and the guns have been blowing hard. Five full runs from summit to base: A true opening, not the shady “five trails open (with one route to the bottom)!” dodge that many eastern hills tout. This one included, no doubt — but not this year.
These views and moments are part of the pay: Riding up in the gloaming. Hiss and roar of snowmaking underway, but a kindly white noise that almost passes for silence sometimes. Cable squeaking in the sheaves. The sun under-lights the over-cast.
Since last night, I have had that funny feeling in my belly about skiing. When it’s been months, there’s always that slight doubt: Do I still remember how to do this?
The snow is exceptional. Buttery and smooth, even under the guns. Eleven degrees has its advantages — chief among them keeping the magic crystals hard, and letting them bloom to their fullest. The fan guns and the new jet lances have it all over the old Ratniks and tri-pod mounted screamers I worked one winter in New Hampshire. Those made heavy, cement-like snow — even under constant supervision and adjustment. These new methods nearly vaporize the water, letting the crews make snow at warmer temperatures, using less air (and thus less energy) and less water.
Each of us takes responsibility for a trail. We’ll ski them, noting any dangers, checking them for ski-ability, looking for hazards that a skier might not see until too late. Pending our reports, trails will open at 9 am today.
I remember how to do this, skiing. The great snow helps. I snap a few tight arcs, carve some GS turns, skid to a stop above lift 7 to snap that quick picture.
It’s all so beautiful and it all goes by so fast. All my early morning photos will blur together and another season will go by. I feel I can count them going now. It’s a strange shift of perspective: Not long ago I couldn’t wait until the next year; now, if I peer squint-eyed into the future, I feel I can see the last year.
On “my” trail, the man-made snow rivals a natural snowfall. Under the fan guns, while I wouldn’t call it powder, it’s very nice. Heavy but cold it, feels bottomless without being quite three dimensional. It’s fast and tractable — and delightful.
This lovely repast — a sandwich, cookies, pita chips, and a chocolate milk — was my lunch for $17.03. With my employee discount. I remember how to ski, but I’d forgotten about ski resorts. I’m paid $9.50 an hour (the extra $0.50 is because I’m an EMT!). I feel like I accidentally worked two hours for free.
The day goes by steadily. After noon, I begin to feel the newness of the season in my legs — the weightless moments between turns come more reluctantly and I’m thankful we’re not in deep powder today.
It’s a quiet day, with about 2,500 guests on the hill. We get one call: a young skier and a young snowboarder collide.
No one is seriously hurt, beyond their feelings.