A Lifelong Climber Hits The Bunny Slopes

Climbing fills me with a fervor for life that I would liken to food. All my activities, in my mind, revolve around my desire to climb, travel to new places and see places that most people don’t realize exist. Throughout my travels, folks say, “You would love ice climbing!  You should try it!” or, more frequently, “I bet you would love tele skiing. You should try it!”

But I ask, Why? I lived in reach of amazing climbing in North Carolina’s hidden Linville Gorge, West Virgina’s New River Gorge,  and Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Why muddy the waters with sports that I could only do for a couple days in comparatively cruddy conditions? (Please forgive me, as I now know that there really is amazing ice climbing in Western North Carolina. I just couldn’t stay off the sunny side of Whitesides to find it.)

But deep down inside, I’ve always wanted to learn how to ski. On a rest day a few years back at Indian Creek, I drove over to the snow-covered LaSalles.  I was greeted by Moab local, Dave Madera and a friend returning from a backcountry ski. My heart-felt sentiment?  “Someday, I want to be able to ski something like that.”

After moving to Estes Park, Colorado, in 2011, I dove straight into climbing. Training at the gym in Boulder on soggy days and heading to the cliffs when dollars and partners allowed. I would find sunny pavement to bicycle on rest days while friends skied in Rocky Mountain National Park. I wanted to learn to ski, but I was inhibited to be a complete beginner again. Would any of my climbing friends want to ski with an energetic and excited noob? I mean seriously….bindings? Tele? AT? What did all of this mean? And skins? Isn’t that one of the teams in a pick-up basketball game? Would I really leave the bunny slope within a season? Did I want to spend road-trip money on ski rentals and passes?

But then I blew tendons in my 3rd and 4th fingers on a climb I had no business using for a warm-up. It was February in Colorado. What was I going to do now?

After a couple texts to a girlfriend, she graciously loaned me her AT setup. (AT is short of alpine touring, which means you can ski up things and down them, I learned.) I headed to Loveland Ski Resort on a discount day with a level of excitement that I simply can’t remember. Finally, after more than 15 years of playing on mountains and rock faces, I was going skiing.  

I couldn’t afford a lesson. Heck, the gas to get there nearly emptied my weekly budget. After decking six feet into the bunny run, I slipped in behind a dad with his kids and, shamelessly, a couple of ski instructors. I listened intently: “Turn, turn.”  “Get out of the backseat.” I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to teachers with such earnest! Fourteen runs later, I headed up to the longest green run at Loveland. “Oh &*^%, I hope this is not a bad idea. I could ruin the whole summer if I screw this up!” Oh please, don’t let the knuckle draggers get in front of me. A tree, a Tree, A TREE!! Turn, turn, turn. Whooooa!

No falls. Okay, now to get in the lift again. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to run over your skis.” I ended the day with 22 runs total and a mystified awakening of interest.

That first day filled me with as much joy as some of my hardest sends in climbing. I made it out a few more days that first season and continued to improve. Then in fall 2012, I went back to Loveland the first week they were open. I traveled to Utah to ski. (It was too cold in the Creek―at least I told myself so.) I finally took a lesson. (Cookie at Solitude, you have no idea how you opened the door for me!) I feel comfortable on blue runs now, and I’ve done a couple blacks with great awe and excitement. They aren’t pretty runs, but I made it down in one piece and upright. I’m still mastering quick changes in skinning and ungroomed surfaces in the backcountry, as my two generous climbing buddies can attest. I have volumes to learn as a skier, but the climber in me feels more at home in those spaces.

Climbing is still my primary focus, and the fuel that makes me wake up and enjoy each day. But skiing is filling a void that I didn’t know was there. I’ve learned it’s okay to be a beginner, to be completely and naively excited. To see a side of the mountain that I would have completely missed.

I recently hit the local gear shop in Red Rocks, looking for a new waist belt for my haul bag. Distracted by the guidebooks, I was thumbing through the titles and picked up Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain.

“Sorry, we don’t have the waist belts.”

“No worries. I’ll take this book.”

“Oh!  This is a great book. Backcountry skiing is the greatest….”

“I agree.”

Special thanks to my climbing friends, Lisa T, Marc H, Scott D and Steve W for being supportive, encouraging and part of the peanut gallery as I have stumbled around in the snow.