The Last Gondola

Lynda StarWriter shares an reminiscent, humorous story about skiing in Aspen, Colorado.

(All photos taken from the Internet)

Christmas, 1985. Yep. That’s the year I found a pair of 170 centimeter, Rossignol skis steadied against the wall, next to a shoe box containing a pair of metallic, blue-colored ski boots. Racing poles (definitely NOT world-class) were dangling from the ornately decorated, six-foot-tall, palm tree situated in the corner of my condo’s living room. 

Over the summer, I’d won a lip-synching contest by mimicking Aretha Franklin’s rendition of the song, ‘Respect’. Doodle, the life-sized, paper machѐ, flamingo was the coveted prize. Poised in front of the picture window like a fashion mannikin, Doodle modeled polarized, vented goggles and a pink, cable-knit cap. If that wasn’t enough, two airline tickets to Aspen, Colorado, were dangling on a lanyard placed around Doodle’s neck.  My sister, Michelle, and I were en-route at six o’clock the next morning for a week-long stay in one of the premier ski capitols of the world.

As resort towns go, Aspen is distinctly international and wonderfully quaint.  Back then, as now, the exclusive shops, the gourmet restaurants and the renowned hotels beckon visitors at the base of the superbly sculpted, ski slopes towering over the village.  The summit stands 11,000 vertical feet (give or take), lined with 167 trails and some 32 lifts, to date. Aspen is a skier’s paradise.  Are you sold, yet?

Ski all day, dance all night at Andrѐs. On the third floor of the local hot spot, the roof retracted like an observatory, revealing an opulent, sparkling, night sky. On the dance floor, a wispy, winter’s breeze rejuvenated the stuffy, perfumed din, while dwindling the collective heat generated by the hullabaloo. I’d never before (nor since) seen glittering, myriad, stars shooting across the night sky while keeping rhythm to my favorite dance music.

Ski all day, ski all night holding a lighted torch, in line and in synch with other skiers (too cool). I’d been night skiing before, but never in tandem with sooooo many others. I got to share a triple chair with newlyweds: an 82-year-old gentleman and his 78-year-old bride. Stefan and Talli each spoke with a Swedish accent. They readily shared the highlights of their romantic history. We laughed the entire, cable-chair journey. I really like the sound of snow crunching under my skis and I really like making snow fly when I come to a sliding stop. So did Talli. I also learned from the Mrs. that chivalry is alive and well.

Ski all day, WINDOW shop all night. Fashion merchandise and gemstone baubles didn’t even make it to my wish list. I’d rather travel and purchase real estate, thus allowing chivalry to take it’s economic course (Talli's heeded advice).

At that time, I was YOUNG and an intermediate skier at best: I’d run some WHIMSICAL, timed slaloms; maybe mogul runs on the blue lines, mostly in Lake Tahoe and Sugar Bowl (northern California). I’d inadvertently catch a little air, executing helicopter turns for TOTALLY UNCONTROLLED, downhill pizazz – NOTHING remotely Olympian; EVERY move, slightly tenuous.

Toward the end (I thought it was my final hour) of our trip, Michelle and I took the gondola to the very top of Aspen Mountain. Now that I’m writing this, I remember choosing to follow the signs along the delineated ski runs, as opposed to taking (reading) a map. After all, this was an ADVENTURE! I went on my way and Michelle, on hers. We agreed to meet at the gondola dock by three-fifteen to catch the LAST shuttle down the mountain, before sunset.

“They won’t wait, they won’t come back, they won’t take a head count. All of the paths at the top of the mountain are double, black diamond," said Michelle.  Folks, I JUST figured this out – weren’t we already at the TOP? (decades too slow on the uptake).  I think what Michelle meant to convey was that IF I missed the gondola ride to the bottom of the mountain, I’d have to SKI ALL THE WAY DOWN the unmerciful terrain. “If you snooze, you lose,” she said.  Lots of ‘ifs’, wouldn’t you agree?

Well, I may have been concentrating a tad too much on my skiing effort because I missed the gondola. Keep in mind that most ski slopes are MAPPED, MARKED and METED according to skier ability as follows: 

Bunny slopes are highly trafficked by vocal ski instructors, followed by a group of giggling, Gore-Tex-clad munchkins.  It’s a fact that ski lifts are strategically placed along the bunny slopes for the sheer, comedic, entertainment value of those comfortably seated in a slow-moving, ski lift chair, heading toward the advanced ski areas on the mountain. Is there anything more grievous than mumbling obscenities while pretending to make snow angels? Is there anything more reminiscent than an aerial view of innumerable, frustrated novices?

Nope. I’ll ALWAYS remember pointing my skis tips to the center, making the shape of a pizza slice; a wobblin' this way, ssslllliiidddding that way, arms and ski poles F-L-A-I-L-I-N-G, every which way -- KERPLUNK.  I tried everything to prevent falling because it took so long to STAND again (with some semblance of dignity), to dust myself off and to continue moving forward. You can hear and see hearty laughter (embarrassed relief) from those on the ground who remain uninjured and FACE UP, as well as from those skiers passing stealthily overhead (usually an empathetic audience). 

Blue lines (intermediate slopes) are a little more cautionary and wonderfully scenic. The skiing routes offer a highway interchange, of sorts, where many paths converge and quickly diverge, all the way down to the base of the mountain. Blue lines offer more elevation, thus more obstacles:  bumpy, mounds of snow (MOGULS); tall, pine trees;deep, snow-powder gullies; icy half-pipes; stationary hurdles; gonzo, air-bound snowboarders (showoffs); other skiers and occasionally, scattered equipment along the pathway. I now check my ego into one locker and my scant maturity into another before I begin skiing, because each interferes with juvenile FUN and FROLICK.

Black diamond trails, marked by single, double, even triple jewels, belie the VERTICAL CHALLENGE awaiting -- meaning you'd better know how to ski forward, backward, sideways and blindfolded.  For years, I’ve been mesmerized by Warren Miller films about EXTREME skiing. For your viewing pleasure, I've downloaded one of Mr. Warren's recent productions (3 minutes or so). Make some hot chocolate and revel in the sheer, natural beauty surrounding the unflinching prowess of champion athletes. 

Tisk, tisk. Don’t ask me how I missed the gondola, but the next thing I knew, I was quivering on a cat walk, two-feet wide, perpendicular to a 2,000-foot, 70-degree, vertical drop.  I quietly panicked, so I took off my skis and sat, perched on the narrow ledge like a bundled-up canary in a coal mine (coincidentally, my attire was bright yellow).

While contemplating my options (as if I had any), several skiers flew past me, landing on the path below (dotted with mighty moguls), without so much as a whimper.  I couldn’t move. I sat and hyperventilated for about twenty minutes when a member of the Ski Patrol swooshed and stopped on the slope above me.

            “Are you okay,” he asked, his breath creating mist with every word.

            “What am I going to do?” I whined. “Did you show up to give me last rites? Can’t you carry me, or something?” I moaned.

            “Well….no to both” he said, UNHEROICALLY. “You can walk down, but I don’t recommend it. Your best bet is to put your skis on and take those moguls like you mean business,” he said. “You got this far, didn’t you?” he smiled, tipping his goggles. Then he just LEFT ME…all alone…and it was getting (sniffle) dark.

Taking a deep breath, I stood sideways, locking my boots into the bindings and….itsy, bitsy shove…off I went, straight down: Traverse, bump, bump, bump….fall, slide.  Where’s my other ski pole? Traverse, traverse, bump...bump…tumble. Traverse, traverse, doing pretty good…WHOMP…fall.  Traverse, traverse, outta control...bumpity, bump, bump….splat.

Though fatigued from falling so much, I repetitively crawled uphill in search of my equipment because I’d sink two to three feet into the powder when standing. It seemed I always stopped sliding just this side of the beaten path and on the other side of a tree-lined cliff (a cousin to the fiscal species). On the bright, un-groomed side, snow powder is fluffy stuff in which to fall.

So it went until I could see the chalet at the bottom of the Little Nell ski run. I was halfway there, tell-tale by the familiar blue lines. In the distance, I could see and hear a group of people chanting from the patio, “No guts, no glory! No guts, no glory!”  Yessirree, great acoustics in the mountain basins.

Traverse, traverse…oomph…bumpity…tumble some more.

Traverse…omigosh…wobble, bump….spill.

Assuredly, I'd been skiing the home stretch for DAYS. Didn't anyone care? When I finally reached the post, there was Michelle, surrounded by après skiers, all raising a toast to my unwitting feat.

“What took you so long? We’ve been waiting for over an hour. I knew this was the only way down when I didn’t see you on the gondola,” Michelle said, handing me a glass of water. “I think you need a new parka,” she said, looking me up, then down.

Gondola? Gondola? SHE took the gondola without me? Whoa. Sitting on the patio of the chalet, I kept staring at the cold face of Aspen Mountain, upon which I was FORCED to navigate. Oddly, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment and a dire need for SOME hot, buttered rum.

Lately, there’s nothing hot in the SoCal weather; it’s been raining and YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS! Where there’s rain in the winter, there’s snow! Wax those skis and grab the tire chains. This holiday season beckons anything peppermint and skiing journeys a little closer to home with my son, Juan! Snow Valley is one of my easy, breezy faves, located about two hours northeast from the Temecula Valley. If you've never been, here’s a link to get you started in the 2013 ski season: http://www.snow-valley.com.

Whoosh and swoosh to all!

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