Sunday, January 11, 2015

Going Skiing

Our niece and her husband spent an outdoor weekend at Chinna Hot Springs in Alaska. They live nearby in North Pole, which is close to Fairbanks. We’ve visited our family in AK a lot, but only in the summer. I’m not sure how well I would do in the frozen north during the long, dark winter.

We like to go to Chinna for the hot water, not the cold snow. Among other activities they did some cross country skiing. Alaska does have a very nice ski resort, but it is down south, below Anchorage. It is near the town of Girdwood, called Alyeska Resort. We’ve been there, but, again, only in the summer.

The pictures of bundled up skiers and their long skis and poles reminded me of our adventures on a snow packed mountain side. When I first moved to Colorado, I didn’t go skiing. However, I did a lot of motorcycle riding. We rode our bikes up to Vail and Aspen, but never in the winter.

After Linda and I were married and started raising our family, we decided there was no point living in Colorado if you didn’t ski. Back then I worked in downtown Denver at an electronics school a couple of blocks off Broadway and near a place called the Sports Castle. I think it might have been part of Gart Brothers sporting goods stores, although I don’t recall for certain if that was their name. In any case, it was famous for its ski bargains. Gart Brothers went out of business in the 90s and was replaced by Sports Authority.

The distinctive Sports Castle at 10th & Broadway was never a stranger to bargains. The building served as a car dealership in the 1920s, and the inside ramps allowed easy access for automobiles instead of skiers. It was a five floor (or maybe more) building on Broadway. You didn’t take an elevator to get up or down in the building, but you rode on golf carts that navigated the ramps between floors. On the top floor were tennis courts where you could play high above the city traffic.

On Labor Day the Sports Castle would hold a giant ski sale they called "Sniagrab," which is “bargains” spelled backwards. I guess “sni” was close enough to “ski” to make the connection. People from all over Denver and Colorado and, I suppose, the surrounding states would come to load up on ski equipment in preparation for the season.

2015 is their 55th or 60th anniversary of the on-going event. I understand that there was also a "Sniagrab" in the pacific northwest, Seattle and elsewhere. Apparently that one no longer exists.

So, getting back to the family story, I visited the Castle after work and outfitted the family with ski gear, some rented and some purchased. At that time my youngest boy was only around 4 and the older brother was 10 or 11. Good ages to start skiing.

Our first Skifahren adventure was at a little ski slope above Estes in Rocky Mountain National Park. Back then it was called “Hidden Valley” and was located on a sharp bend in the road climbing up Trail Ridge. The lodge was at 9,400 feet and the vertical was 2,000 feet to the top. The lift didn’t go all the way up. To get to the 11,400 foot summit, you would take a bus up the twisting mountain road. At that point in my skiing career, I kept to the lower slopes and never took the bus. My oldest, always one for adventure, went all the way to the top the first day.

One event I vividly recall was while I was changing clothes in the locker room. I overheard a guy about my age. (And I mean my age now … or maybe he was just fifty. People seemed older to me back then.) He was explaining to his friend who was skiing for the first time. He got out a flask and poured two small plastic glasses of wine. He told his companion that that was a tradition he and his wife had started many years before; to toast the first day of skiing. Since it was a men’s locker room, I don’t know if his wife was with him, but I thought Linda and I should start such a tradition; but we never did.

Linda had skied a bit as a kid in Colorado, but I had never skied as a young lad. Montana had skiing when I was growing up, but no big name resorts and the local hills were rather primitively equipped. In any case, I had not skied before that day. So, being the sensible guy that I am (and no cracks from the peanut gallery), I signed up for beginners lessons, the bunny slope, learning to snow plow.

The lessons went pretty well until the instructor told the class to ski down to a small stand of trees and wait there. I was about the last one to go and, as I approached the crowd at the trees, neatly lined up in a row, I forgot how to stop and ran into the first one in line who crashed down the bunch like a set of dominoes. I’m not always clumsy, but when I am I drink the same beer the most interesting man in the world drinks. Anyway, everyone laughed and no-one threatened me for dumping them into the snow bank, so I guess it was all fun.

Somehow I finished the lesson that morning, and — by afternoon — I was skiing hand-in-hand with my darling. Well, at least we were side by side. She was, is, and shall probably always be a better athlete than me, so I had to learn to parallel ski on my own to catch up with her.

Things went pretty well that first day after the snow plow and domino trick, although I did have a bit of a mishap one time getting off the chair lift and loosing my balance and skiing down the small hill backwards. Don’t worry, no injuries that a little time in a hospital bed in traction won’t cure.

So I ended the day, a bit wobbly, but anxious for another trip. Later the ski area changed its name to "Ski Estes Park," but it was never very successful and eventually closed. That happened to a lot of the small resorts in CO.

In the beginning, we enjoyed the nearby ski resorts mostly, Hidden Valley and one above Boulder called “Eldora Mountain.” Eldora was a bit more challenging than the trip up to Estes, however it was often very windy and icy. But there was more area for skiing and a nicer lodge and it was even closer to home, only about a 30 minute drive. You could also take a bus from Boulder. I think some of the nephews from Alaska took that bus with our son for some skiing once while visiting us.

One problem with skiing is that you have to drive into the mountains on the worse time of the year to be driving in the mountains what with the ice and snow and blizzards and snow plows. Eldora was at the top of a long hill that was very challenging. One time, as we left when the skiing closed at 4:00 PM, I was headed down that hill in heavy traffic going about 5 mph when I realized I could not stop. I didn’t worry about going over the side, but I didn’t want to hit the car in front. I got just enough traction finally to prevent a slow motion collision, but it was nerve wracking.

As the boys grew older, skiing with mom and dad became a welcome event. In fact, going skiing was about the only thing that the boys would commit to doing with us seeing as how were were adults and not hip. But skiing with mom and dad was OK, as long as they paid for everything.

Skiing is expensive. There’s the equipment and the cost of the lift tickets, the resort and meals. We would take hot chocolate and coffee and sandwiches and snacks and try to not frequent the expensive lunch counters, but it was still a stiff price for a day of skiing. As I alluded to earlier, most day resorts closed at around 4 PM, although Nederland had night skiing with torches and everything.

We soon found ourselves traveling deeper into the Colorado Rockies as we started skiing at Copper Mountain, Loveland, and Winter Park. When we could, we stayed overnight in a lodge so the day wasn’t spent entirely with white knuckles trying to keep the car out of a snowbank on the way up and then a few hours later on the way down. Copper was nice and we went to Vail a few times (but never Aspen). Vail was very crowded back then before Beaver Creek opened, and Aspen was almost clear to Utah … and very pricy.

I think Winter Park was our favorite. It is actually a Denver City Park, if you can imagine that. There is a ski train out of Denver that goes through a tunnel and we always wanted to take that … but never did.

One time my sister and her boys came down and we spent a couple of days at Winter Park staying in the “Locomotive Inn” or the “Steam Engine Inn” or something to do with trains. It was a wonderful hotel and I remember the swimming pool was half inside and half outside. There were clear plastic sheets hanging from the ceiling at the transition from indoor to outdoor, and I’d always dive under the plastic and come up outside. Our boys and Barbie’s boys had a great time throwing snowballs in the hot tub and just enjoying the alpine experience.

I still consider that weekend with my sister and my wife and the kids one of the greatest times of my life. I’ve been to a lot of places in the US and worldwide, but none seem to compare to our own back yard and fun with the family.

Linda’s dad had a friend at his work that had a nice ski cabin in Breckenridge. We’d rent that and spend the weekend in the mountains. Linda’s parents didn’t ski, but we did. Breckenridge is one of those resorts where you can ski down to the bottom and be in town. So we’d ski down the hill, and then go visit with Bob and Bea, and then catch the next lift back up.

The first night we were there, I got into my swim suit and went out on the back deck for the hot tub. It had a big insulation cover and I was walking in the snow in my bare feet and I about froze before I could get into the tub. Once you are in that 100° plus water, the snow and the ice and the cold don’t bother you. You can rub the snow on your bare chest and just laugh at old man winter. Linda stood in the doorway, on the wrong side of the sliding glass, and refused to come out. She’s rather sensitive to the cold and, on that night, she was a big chicken.

We finally talked her into joining us and she had a great time, but then she was afraid to get out and take the short walk across the deck to the fireplace warmed inner sanctum. So she stayed in the tub until she was wrinkled like a prune and she was the last one out.

I had learned my lesson, so the next night I went out in my clothes and coat and removed the cover from the hot tub. I then changed into my suit and ran out and jumped into the tub. It was freezing!! Apparently the heater had failed and the water was only lukewarm. Not a hot tube but a warm tub. Not cool … in fact, rather cold.

I was out of that tub and back into the house in a flash, all shivers and burrrrs. So there was no hot tubbing on the second night, but the skiing was good.

One year I took the whole family up to the Copper Mountain Resort because I had a library conference there. I was the chairman of the Longmont Public Library Board, and I attended a conference at Copper on libraries and boards and what not. Linda and the kids spent two days skiing while I attended the conference.

On Sunday, after the end of the meetings, we headed for home, but it turned out the hill to the Eisenhower Tunnel was closed to traffic due to road conditions. This rarely happens, but it did this time. The Interstate was closed.

We headed back to Copper, re-rented our rooms (although this time I would have to pay for them since the city had paid for the weekend conference), called work on Monday to tell them I was trapped in the mountains, and spent two more days. I rented some skis and we had a nice family time. Finally we had to head for home and work and school, but it was fun playing hookie.

Since the kids have grown up and Linda and I have grown old, we don’t go skiing any more. Brittle bones and Medicare, you know. The boys still ski a lot and Mark often gets an annual pass. Linda and I still skate. In fact, with a budding hockey star for a grandson, we end up at the ice rink almost every week. It’s cold, and you still fall down, but at least we don’t have to navigate those frozen mountain roads.

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