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Reflections on the Freedom of Skiing
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JimK - DCSki Columnist
one month ago

Reflections on the Freedom of Skiing
by Jim Kenney


If there is anything the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Social Justice Demonstrations of 2020 have in common it is the matter of personal freedom or lack thereof.  Compared to these national and global issues the abrupt termination of a ski season is small potatoes.  But for those who pursue skiing as a key recreational outlet in life, the shortening of one season and the dubious prognosis for another threatens yet another aspect of our collective freedom in the Year of the Lockdown.


By no means do I wish to make light of the current situation, but with this article my aim is to take the reader on a flight of fancy and pure escapism - skidom!  I am an optimistic person and believe that giving thought to what brings us joy is good for the psyche. Despite the recent woes of the world, we all have great ski memories to reflect on and give us hope for more glorious slope time ahead.


They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.  How much do I love of skiing?  Let me count the ways, including physical exhilaration, family time, friendships and camaraderie, scenic beauty, new cultures, regional cuisine, and the horizons-expanding adventure of travel.  But perhaps the most unique joy skiing gives me is a scintillating sense of exploration and liberty to push personal limits in a snowy, mountainous realm where most mortals fear to tread.  As a guy who spent 40 years behind a cubicle in Dilbert-like servitude for our Federal Bureaucracy, this is no small thing!  


To quote Martin Luther King, “from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”  Here are thoughts and photos from moments in my ski life that have given me the most powerful feelings of exhilaration and personal freedom.   I hope to inspire you to share some of your favorite ski memories in the comments section after this article.

It started when I was a kid.  Beginning in the late 1960s my Dad rented a Scotty trailer several times from military special/recreation services to take us skiing at Blue Knob, PA.  He was brand new to skiing and trailering.  Only a neophyte would take a non-winterized trailer to spend a weekend at the 3,100’ summit parking lot of Blue Knob in the dead of a 1960s winter!  We shivered all night, but I still remember those trips with awe and wonder.  We were Jean Claude Killys by day and Sir Edmund Hillarys by night.  

The Night the Soup Froze, Blue Knob 1968.  Photo by Jim Kenney

 

In March of 1976 I drove on a solo ten day trip from the Washington DC area to Colorado on my spring break at the University of Maryland.  It was my first time skiing out west and an eye-opening experience of the highest order.  I visited Winter Park, Vail, and Aspen and skied packed powder under deep blue skies at all three.  My magic carpet ride to the Rockies was a 1969 VW Beetle that I slept in several nights on the trip including  once each in the parking lots of Vail and Snowmass.

The ‘69 Beetle, circa 1976.  Photo by Jim Kenney


 

After decades of skiing in America I finally skied the Alps on a one week trip to Austria in February 2003.  I went with a friend and we were on a modest budget.  We stayed in the city of Salzburg and used a regional shuttle bus to visit five nearby, lesser known ski areas.  The skiing, scenery, cuisine, and cultural aspects of the trip were outstanding and each day was a very different adventure from skiing in the US including my first ride in a bubble chair, first close-up view of a glacier, touring castles and the boyhood home of Mozart in the city of Salzburg, etc.  Riding the bus to new ski areas every day allowed me to get a good look at the countryside of Austria, the birthplace of skiing.  My eyes were like saucers all week.  Huge ski areas, undiscovered by Americans, lay around every bend of the road.  I’ve always been focused on the closest, best skiing I could get to which generally involves the mid-Atlantic or other parts of the US, but I still very much yearn to go back to the Alps.

Zauchensee, Austria, can you spot the ugly American?  Photo by Jim Kenney


My wife Kathy and I have four children.  With Kathy’s great support each of them was introduced to mid-Atlantic skiing at an early age.  In December of 2003 we took the whole gang, ranging in age from 10-19, on their first ski trip to the Rockies.  It was a heck of a family adventure and in my inimitable knucklehead style, we did it the hard way by driving in a minivan from Northern Virginia to Colorado over the Christmas Holidays.   There were some moments of stress in the confinement of the minivan and some moments of great freedom on the slopes at Eldora, Loveland, and Winter Park.  

The Kenney Family at Eldora, CO.  Photo by Jim Kenney


The two really big ski nuts in the family are myself and my son Vince.  Over the years he and I have had some epic ski times together particularly when he got older and I was able to enlist him as a driving partner.  One of the first and most memorable of our father and son cross country ski roadtrips took place in 2009 over Easter Week of Vince’s senior year in high school.  We drove from Virginia to Colorado and skied two gloriously sunny days at Loveland and Arapahoe Basin.  Then it snowed 2-3 feet over our last three ski days at Copper Mountain.  Interstate 70 was closed for a period, but the free Summit Stage bus kept running and we utilized it from our motel in Frisco to partake in amazing powder skiing in light crowds.  This was a skier’s coming-out party for Vince in the deepest fresh snow of his life up until then.


Vince/Pali Chair/A-Basin/April 2009.  Photo by Jim Kenney


Many of us have the itch of an inner ski bum that we’ve never quite satisfied.   I retired from my US Government job in January 2015 and immediately undertook a nine week ski trip.  Free at last!  I skied ten different ski areas in five states (CO, UT, CA, NV, WY) and put over 8400 miles on my Subaru Outback.  After being a weekend ski warrior for nearly 50 years this was the trip of a lifetime.  It wasn’t the snowiest winter in North America, but it was MY winter.  I lost about 20 pounds, got in really good ski shape, and had a marvelous time.  I bummed around the country by myself for the first half of the trip meeting friends here, there and everywhere.  It was almost too much freedom.  I had to take a couple days off each week to recover and avoid physical burnout.  Then for the month of March my wife joined me at a nice condo in Summit County, Colorado.  The skiing continued, but at a slower pace and we enjoyed a second-honeymoon in a beautiful mountain environment.  Later, when I returned to part time work as a Defense Contractor for a few years it only made the memory even sweeter of my nine weeks as a ski bum.


Free to Roam the Back Bowls of Vail, February 2015.  Photo by Jim Kenney

 

Up until now I have talked mostly about great ski vacations or recurring activities from my youth, but the essense of skiing sometimes boils down to a single thrilling moment, run, or achievement.  One fine day in the winter of 2017 my son Vince, now a PSIA L-3 instructor, led me, DCSki member JohnL, and another friend named Brian down a super steep and beautiful chute at Snowbird, Utah.  Vince called it North Chute.  

It was a spring day and the snow was soft and nicely edgeable.  North Chute slants off at an angle near the upper section of Snowbird’s aerial tramline.  It’s bordered by cliffs and is so precipitous that the four of us kicked loose sluff as we took turns going down it one-at-a-time in single file.  Everyone in the group skied it well and safely.  Talk about exhilarating!  It was one of those runs that evoked mandatory high-fives from all participants upon completion.


North chute is in the center, pinched between trees on left and cliffs on right.  Photo by Jim Kenney

Brian Attacking North Chute (one of my favorite ski photos I’ve ever taken of anybody, anywhere).  Photo by Jim Kenney

Three Amigos below North Chute.  Photo by Jim Kenney

 

If that moment at Snowbird was about being caught up in the excitement of a really steep run, then at Mt. Bachelor, Oregon in late December 2012 the liberating power of skiing came to me in a vision of absolutely mesmerizing beauty.  Mt. Bachelor is a dormant volcano with the near perfect shape of a cone.  In the right snow conditions you can ski in any direction, 360 degress, from the summit lift.  During my visit the entire layout was open and we made several runs down the lightly trafficked backside of the mountain.  It felt like we had a private mountain to ourselves.  Dodging snow-hoodoos (trees covered with a thick blanket of snow and frost) for a couple thousand vertical feet, the views here were no less than otherworldly.


The Otherworldly Backside of Mt. Bachelor.  Photo by Jim Kenney

 

In January of 2013 I was on a trip with my family that would include visits to five great ski resorts in the Tahoe region of California.  But it was at little Homewood Mountain Resort where a short bit of exploration led us to one of the best and most secluded views of Lake Tahoe that any visiting ski tourist could ever hope to stumble upon.  It required about 10 to 15 minutes of poling on a long cat track including some herringbone climbing to Quail Face, a side-country zone on the southern fringe of the ski area.  When we finally stood in complete isolation atop a wide slope called Main Cirque the deep blue lake seemed so big and so close that we could have reached out and dabbed it with our ski poles.


Vince/Homewood/Quail Face/January 2013.  Photo by Jim Kenney


In April 2019 I enjoyed another great ski run with my son Vince.  It was 1:45 PM on a beautiful spring afternoon when we took the High Lift t-bar and saw a bunch of hikers climbing above all lifts to the 12,162’ peak of Crested Butte, Colorado.  We spontaneously decided to join them.  It involved perhaps a 300’ vertical climb that was easy for Vince, but I took it slowly.  It was worth the effort. The 360-degree views from the summit were stupendous in a year when the Rockies were loaded with snow.  After hanging out on the summit for a few minutes we dropped a pleasant snowfield off the northwest face and followed a somewhat sketchier traverse (Banana High Entrance) passing a bunch of classic chutes on the front/south face of the mountain such as Peel, Banana, and Funnel.  We chose Funnel Chute on that run from the summit.  It chokes down to a narrow pinch called Deep Throat and there’s a huge rock cliff bordering the entire right side of the chute.  Wow, it was a super picturesque run consisting of nearly 3000 continuous vertical feet of double black diamond terrain.


Funnel Chute at Crested Butte, CO.  Photo by Jim Kenney.


I could go on and on about adventures at Alpine Meadows, CA, Aspen Highlands, CO, Blackcomb Glacier, BC, Mad River Glen, VT, Le Massif, QC, Saddleback, ME, Zell am See, Austria, etc., etc.  But it’s time to wrap up this walk down memory lane and discuss the future.  Next winter could be a little weird.  I expect we’ll all be wearing mandatory masks or gaiters.  Hugs and kisses may be replaced with ski pole clicks or thumbs-up from six feet apart?  But I still contend that being outdoors at a ski area on a low-crowd weekday while dressed for winter and taking some basic precautions has got to be one of the best and most fun ways to socially distance.  And watchout; when we finally get a surefire vaccine and return to normal you are going to see some all-time-great apres ski parties!


I’d like to give a final three cheers for the freedom of skiing and steal the French motto:  Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.  Nothing in this crazy world amounts to a hill of beans if we don’t take care of each other and find a way to enable all of us to experience true freedom including recreational activities like skiing.   The best part of human endeavor is sharing our joys and successes with each other in the pursuit of happiness.


Good Friends/Good Snow/Good Times/Timberline, WV.  Photo by Jim Kenney

Now, tell us how you have been freed by skiing!

marzNC - DCSki Supporter
one month ago

Jim: you really should think about doing some sort of book.  It would be awesome!

Denis - DCSki Supporter
one month ago

Thanks Jim.  Great story and a great time to tell it.  I’m assessing my past and wondering about the future.  I’ve dodged another bullet, recovering fast, yet it is clear that the big adventures will remain memories.  Looking forward to continuing but it will be more mellow.  Realizing that the mountains, and the great outdoor places mean as much as skiing.  So my tale is about a day when no skiing was done.

I went to a conference in Albuquerque in ~ 1985.  It was mid October and therefore no prospect for skiing, but I did schedule an extra day for a side trip to Taos, for a look see.  Well on Thursday an early season snowstorm hit northern, NM.  At Taos, with 2 feet of new dry powder, I saw a few dozen locals with skis climbing and skiing down, even a snowcat doing lift maintenance work and taking a lucky few, no doubt friends, on a free ride up.  A door to the base building was open.  It was the rental shop staffed by one guy, getting things in order for the coming season.  A short conversation ensued and he firmly but courteously declined to rent or loan me any gear.  Why should he; here’s a middle aged guy, a slightly heavy easterner who had never skied powder snow at 8000 feet - a heart attack, just waiting to happen on his watch.  No thank you.

Disappointed, I began the 2+ hour drive back to Albuquerque.  A few miles south of town, a dirt road with a small sign, ‘Rio Grande Gorge, 6 mi.  I took the road.  After a few miles on the flat desert it turned abruptly down, about 1000 vertical feet to a surprisingly big river, the one that eventually defines the Texas Mexico border.  I parked, walked around a bit, then started up the canyon wall for a bit better view.  After an hour or so I topped out on the high desert.  The sun had warmed to a beautiful day, snow melting in a few remaining patches.  Small desert Piñon pines with a soft wind whispering.  It was huge, flat, silent.  The edge of the gorge couldn’t be seen, just the high desert in all directions and distant mountains.  The primordial silence was broken by the cry of a lone hawk, soaring above.  I laid down on my back on the warm sand to take it in.  It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

one month ago

Jim, Perhaps your best writing ever!  The reader can easily feel your love for the sport and family.  You are a lucky young man!

Take care and stay safe!

The Colonel aka MorganB

JimK - DCSki Columnist
one month ago

Beautiful memory by Denis, such details from something that occured 35 years ago.  I need my camera to help me remember many of my memories:-)

one month ago

Awesome Jim!

thank you, the 1st picture is a dream, camping at a ski area and you to do it so long ago

I hope I can do a road trip out west  this winter 

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