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When you’re new to a place, as I am to Colorado, you become a student of small talk. Once you get past the where-are-you-froms and the weather, the trajectory of the conversation reveals something about the character of the place. Here, it inevitably veers toward the mountains.
“So, where are you planning to ski this year?” new acquaintances will ask, eager to learn if they’ve found another adventure buddy.
“I don’t really ski,” I’ll respond.
And there it is. The admission that freezes would-be friendships faster than night runs ice over at Keystone. My could-have-been-the-beginning-of-a-beautiful-somethings nod sympathetically, but I see the judgment in their eyes. You’re not one of us.
But I am!
Born in the shadow of Oregon’s Mt. Hood, I’ve been playing in the mountains pretty much since I was a zygote. I’ve spent 34 years padding my mountain resumé with camping, climbing, and hiking trips to the Cascades, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Shawangunks—and internationally in Spain, Greece, and Ireland. I’ve even conquered one Colorado fourteener (Mt. Sneffels).
Along the way, I’ve filled my memory bank with more postcard-worthy moments than a national park gift store. But only spring through fall. Winter was my off-season, mostly because I never quite perfected the art of skiing. In gray, rainy Oregon, where hibernating could conceivably be considered the official winter sport, my absence was easily excused. Not so in the land of sunshine and plentiful snowfall. Here, I’m left weighing my options: Figure out how to get down the mountain, or spend the winter alone.
Con one: History doesn’t instill confidence. Last time I skied in Colorado, for my job as an outdoors writer, I was sent to Lake Dillon, where my snow-kiting instructor strapped me to a kite and watched me scream/ski/eat shit (in that order) across the lake. It wasn’t awesome.
Con two: We’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,500 to cover a Four Pack to Copper Mountain, lessons, season rentals from Christy Sports, and garb courtesy of Sniagrab, plus gas, food, and a bar bill big enough to cover my wounded pride—and backside (cons three and four). Plus, if past experience is any guide, my friends will leave me to learn all on my own after their obligatory two runs spent “teaching” me. Then I’ll spend another hour dodging six-year-olds (who can already out-ski me) on the greens before booking it to the lodge for an enormous hot toddy.
The list of pros is considerably shorter, chief among them that I’d feel like I actually earned that toddy. More important, I’d get to experience the mountains of my new home in winter, providing me a whole new perspective on the natural beauty Colorado has to offer. Value: unquantifiable.
But perhaps the pendulum-swinging pro lies in what my other nine months of adventuring have taught me: that exploring the outdoors cements lifelong friendships with the kind of glue only fresh air, adrenaline, and (mis)adventure can provide. That’s something everyone—especially 30-something transplants—needs. And that’s why this winter I’ll be swallowing my pride, part of my paycheck, and an ungodly amount of ibuprofen and joining the hordes on the pilgrimage up I-70 (add that to the con list, too).
Because missing out on skiing means giving up on the very soul of this hard-won place, where obstacles like, say, continent-dividing granite peaks have never been viewed as impediments to progress, but rather as character-shaping challenges. To turn away from such tests means abandoning the very definition of “Coloradan.” That’s the judgment I see in my acquaintances’ eyes. And, when I choose to lean in and look hard enough, it’s what I see reflected in the mirror as well.