Friday, April 5, 2013

A new passion for the slopes

Skiing became a passion on par with running this winter. If only because it was so new, it may have even surpassed it. I feel so strongly (so many warm and fuzzies) that I'm going to just write a bit about each day I skied...scroll through and just see the pictures if you get bored. :)

I bought my own skis!
And a helmet to protect my expensive brain!

Laying out gear the night before my first ski day in about seven years was nerve wracking. The forecast said Pajarito Mountain would be in the teens, but I remembered getting really hot while skiing. So naturally, I packed enough clothes for three people to wear. I had my shiny new skis and boots, but the bindings weren't adjusted. I hoped the rental shop could fix them for me. Early the next day, Jenn, Kris, and I nervously drove the fifteen minutes up to the ski area, bought lift tickets, found out that the rental shop would not fix my bindings, rented skis instead, left our extra fifty changes of clothes in the lodge, squished our poor feet into what would be their prisons for the next several hours, and shakily headed out on our first run.

 The bunny hill looked steep from the base. That was not a good sign. My breath caught and my heart fluttered in my chest as I wondered, with a little bit of real terror, if I could get on and off the lift without falling. I passed that first obstacle.

Then, I stared with a tad more apprehension down from the top of the steepest "beginner" hill I've seen. Kris took off; Jenn and I found a flatter route down around the corner. Second obstacle: conquered. Barely.

We stayed on that hill until after lunch, when we tried another of Pajarito's green (aka easy) runs. This required skiing from the bunny hill over to a big chair lift (which I survived), then skiing across the mostly-flat tops of several blue and black diamond runs (which nearly gave me vertigo) all the way to the right side of the mountain. The views from here were incredible--we could see down to town and across to the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and into the Valles Grande Caldera on the back side.

Jenn! (Stolen from Kris)

Sadly, this "green" run was steeper than anything I had ever skied, and was not what I should be on my first time off the bunny hill in seven years. Kris and Jenn headed down with different degrees of confidence, and I figured that the only way I could get home was by following. I survived a turn or two, before I skied over a large rock (did I mention the low base of 20''?) and fell hard. There went the last shred of confidence and excitement I had. My only goal was to get back to the lodge. Alive. I sent my friends off to enjoy themselves. Several more falls and an interminable amount of time landed me at the bunny hill. I did a few more shaky runs before my quads and spirit were completely shot and broken. Not the most illustrious start to the season.

The three of us decided to try a ski area that had legitimate green runs. Of the myriad available in our great northern New Mexico, we settled on Taos, as much for name-recognition as anything. Could it live up to its reputation?

Rio Grande gorge on the way to Taos Ski Valley

Turns out, it very much did. The quaint ski village was welcoming and comfortable. The lifts were new and fast. The views  of the craggy peaks with their high tree lines were beautiful. And the green runs? Ooooh the green runs, they were so manageable! I was still slow, I still tired early, but I enjoyed myself. These were the right challenge for me.



Auna told Jenn and me about the K2 Women's Weekend, a ski event held at Pajarito one day and Taos the next. We were in wholeheartedly. It kicked off at Fuller Lodge with a silent auction to raise money for the Anita Salas Memorial Fund and talks from families of cancer victims and survivors. I won a private ski lesson with a Taos instructor for about 1/3 of the regular cost! The next day, we ate breakfast burritos at Pajarito and were broken into groups based on ski ability. Jenn and I were both in the green group. The leaders were fantastic and gave us excellent advice. I still tired early--and left early, knowing we were heading to Taos the next day--but I was improving. I at least made it safely down several Pajarito greens and even a blue run (which was easier than the greens...because why not). While mortified (we had to wear bras over our skis coats--breast cancer awareness and all?), our green group even completed the "Sloppy Slalom" without breaking bones in the almost white-out conditions.

Taos experienced the same blizzard, which meant we had amazing powder the next day. It was phenomenal.

We skied a bit with the leaders again, but then they went off to play. I stuck to greens and worked on not squatting so much (this is why my quads were giving out so early--I was doing "a month's worth of wall-sits in a day" according to one instructor). When I was tired, I sat in a mid-mountain chalet and had red chile hot chocolate for half an hour. Then I kept going until the lifts closed. It was brilliant. I was most definitely hooked.

Balaclavas are LIFESAVERS.

I scheduled my private ski lesson, and drove the beautiful two hours out to Taos alone. While a bit lonely, it was also incredibly peaceful--both the drive through the desert and up the mountain, and navigating the slopes without speaking to anyone. I spent the morning warming up, and quit to eat and read in the lodge with enough rest time to be fresh for my lesson. 

Literally no place I'd rather be.

It's my run.

Leslie is a professor emeritus of English literature who retired to be a ski bum, and she completely rocks. She was interesting to talk to on the lifts, perceptive when it came to my core skiing issues, and creative in her suggestions and solutions. I can't stress enough how valuable that private lesson was and I highly recommend taking one. I had more red chile hot chocolate at the crepes place by the Whistlestop Cafe, because I love it.

The long and late drive home is when I missed my buddies the most.

It was getting easier, this setting out of clothes and gear.  Packing the car. Driving across the river gorge and up the mountain. Finding a locker. Stuffing each foot into its unyielding boot. Clomping out to the snow. Dropping skis to the earth. Awkwardly trying to snap boot to binding. Feeling secure and ready. Sliding over to the chair lift. Catching breath a bit--still wondering if you're about to fall. Sitting down successfully. Being whisked up the hill. Absorbing the cool, crisp, fresh air and bright, clean, wild views.

This was the life, man. We were in Taos again, for a beautiful spring skiing day with a base of 60'' and high of 60F. I felt another twinge in my chest--would I fall at the top? The chair approached the "unload here" sign, I touched skis to snow, and glided down safely. We paused to confirm our next route, and away we went. A bit clumsily and a tad nervously, we freely crisscrossed the glistening hill. So thrilled to be near the green trees, under the blue sky, and flying through the white snow. Zip, zip, zip.

Now, sometimes, I feel totally in control and completely graceful. I eat up greens and manage the blues. Even when my quads start screaming, I'm happy.

We stopped for lunch at the Phoenix grill and devoured mediocre yet absolutely perfect green chile cheeseburgers, and returned to the slopes with a vengeance.

So high right now at the Phoenix Grill.
My peaceful demeanor was shaken and my heart dropped when Jenn and I accidentally arrived at a fork in the road: a blue with moguls, or a black diamond through the trees.  There was no choice, really. We took the bumps. Very slowly. Without much (any?) grace. But we completed them IN ONE PIECE.

Jenn and Kris' mountain-guide friend later taught us some tricks to manage bumps, so we actually chose to do two mogul runs for practice. We may not really like them, but we can handle them if necessary!

 Jenn, Kris, and I ended our fantastic ski season together (along with our friend, Bill) with one last trip to our dear Taos Ski Valley. In the morning, we couldn't believe how much we had all improved, as we flew down blues with skis more parallel than ever before! I actually kept up--a far cry from our first trip to Pajarito this season. I did two bumps runs, and even made a string of three moguls look pretty darn good. (Don't worry--I fell on the next try.)

Kris--not the slowest in the group.

Bill--enjoying the mountains.

Jessica and Jenn--reveling in our new-found skills.

After green chile cheeseburgers and Christmas chile fries, the sun turned snow into heavy, slippery slush. I fell back on my squatting, wall-sitting ways in a desperate attempt to maintain control. A pause for hot chocolate and crepes was necessary. I became much slower and made my friends wait for much longer at the bottom of each run, but I stuck it out until the lifts closed.
I'm only here for the food.

Yay! The lodge!

During any ski day, the final run is a bittersweet relief, but more so this trip. Removing the shoes of torture was a beautiful release. We got mochas one last time at our favorite mountain chocolate shop. Balancing skis, poles, duffel bags, and espresso, we lugged ourselves onto the shuttle, yelled "WHOOOA" when it neared the car (the system works), and tiredly repacked the trunk. The drive home in the starlight, through the wide-open desert vistas of New Mexico, mountains at each horizon, was calming. We looked for cow-crossing signs with UFO stickers, remarked how yet again we forgot swimsuits for the hot springs, and listened to my admittedly hit-and-miss playlist. Driving through the jarringly-bright lights of EspaƱola always feels a bit offensive after the long trip through the middle of beautiful desert nothing, but I always inwardly sigh in relief soon after when we hit The Hill--it means we're almost home.

A hot bubble bath is a terrific treat, and then a soft bed is the best reward for all the hard, exhilarating work you put in having a blast up in nature. Sleep soundly, skiers, and dream of just how amazing next season is going to be!

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