Throwing Myself Down a Mountain

Vacation started today. I mean, really it started on Friday afternoon, but I would have had the weekend off anyway, so today is the first real day off work. It’s exciting. I have the whole week off, plus next weekend, PLUS the Monday after that, because it’s a holiday.

I left my work computer at home so I wouldn’t be tempted to check it, and I made sure to bring the iPad for tonight so I could scratch out a few words. I’m staying the Blue T lodge in Glacier, Washington, basically at the base of Mount Baker, a place that (for me) is the stuff of myth and legend. I’m writing at the Chair 9 bar that shares a parking lot with the little lodge.

I started snowboarding in the winter of 1988/1989, thirty-five years ago. Looking up at the walls of this place I see an assortment of boards that I recognize from way back in the day. A Burton Craig Kelly Air (of which I had two over the years), a Look Lamar, a Sims Switchblade, a later Burton Air, a Sims Shaun Palmer, a couple of Gnu’s, a Lib Tech, a K2, and a flat-tailed example of the very short-lived brand Hooger Booger. Only two boards on that wall predate my snowboarding years: a Burton Performer and a Burton Cruzer hang up there, resplendent in their stripes and fishtails, unquestionably among the king forefathers of the sport.

I really drank the Kool-Aid right from the beginning. I watched and read everything about snowboarding that I could get my hands on. I dated a guy my first year in college whose parents had a condo in Breckenridge to which he had a secret key. We had Summit passes, which included Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Arapaho Basin, and Keystone, though Keystone didn’t matter because they didn’t allow snowboarders until after I left for New Mexico seven years later. We were up there four days a week most weeks. When you’re young and really hooked on a sport, the 2 1/2 hour drive from Fort Collins is nothing.

I was once (relatively) fast and daring. I kept up with the boys, really I had to because I didn’t know any girls who rode. I’ve ridden double black diamonds at Breckenridge. I rode backcountry and took avalanche safety courses. I did slalom competitions (hated them). I rode halfpipes. There were days at Copper Mountain that I remember fondly where we packed backpacks full of water bottles and cans of Spaghetti-O’s and hiked the halfpipe all day long, stopping only long enough to consume the cold Spaghetti-O’s when we were ravenous.

Summers were no different. St. Mary’s Glacier is maybe an hour from where I grew up. It was a grueling hike to the glacier up a steep and rocky trail, maybe a couple of miles. Once there, we built jumps and hiked the glacier all day in snowboard pants and t-shirts. I remember one guy launching himself off one of the jumps and yelling “I could do shifties all day!” I think he actually did. I broke my tailbone there one day, landing in a pretzel off a jump that I had landed easily all afternoon. If I thought the hike up to the glacier was brutal, it was spectacularly painful going down that day, carrying a board and pack, never mind the ice rash up my back.

The legendary Pacific Northwest mountains, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker, Mt. Bachelor, and their Canadian cousin Whistler/Blackcomb, featured prominently in the media I consumed over the years. They were all mind blowing places absolutely dedicated to the sport, holding all sorts of snowboarding competitions. They were also places where pros jumped out of helicopters to negotiate dangerous chutes in search of the deepest and steepest stuff.

Mount Baker, though, of all the PNW ski areas, holds the most magic for me. It was home base to the legendary Craig Kelly, one of the greatest freeriders who ever lived. He died in 2003, in Canada, in an avalanche that claimed the lives of seven people. I never met him, never saw him in person, but was heartbroken all the same. He was always my favorite of the pros. Baker is also home base to lots of other brilliant riders I grew up watching, including Dan Donnelly, Mike Ranquet, and Jaime Lynn, but Kelly is the reason that I have wanted to experience this place for so long.

So I have dreamed of riding Baker for 34 years, and tomorrow my dream comes true. It feels fitting that this will be the first of the mountains I ride in my new home, even before Mt. Hood, which is closest to Portland. It’s not going to be the way I pictured it when I was young, surfing through steep glades and blasting jumps. It’s going to be a slow and easy start, with lots of patience with myself. I get to go with my new friend Nick, which will be a blast. I have all the usual worries about falling when getting off the lift that I always do (which is funny because it’s rarely been an issue, though there was one time at Arapaho Basin where the chair came in hot and the lift operator missed the catch, and it nailed me in the back and knocked me over. I promptly tried to stand back up and the next chair hit me in the back of the head. It was hilarious). But unlike bicycling with friends, I have enough confidence in my snowboarding abilities that I don’t have fears about holding anyone up or hurting myself.

And lo and behold, now it’s dumping snow outside. It’s going to be a bluebird of a day tomorrow.

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