Monday, April 18, 2011

Chairlift Chronicles

Hey, so believe it or not, I actually am still writing, yeah i know crazy right? Took me a while to get my thoughts on paper on this one, but I just finished it and might go fishing to some local mags, just thought I'd give you guys the insider access before I'm uber famous and stuff. Haha. Interesting topic, I hadn't seen it explored anywhere else so I thought I'd give it a shot. As always feedback is appreciated. Try to enjoy will ya?

**The Chairlift Chronicles**

It's almost too routine.

Tales of knee-deep powder, untracked tree runs and the cliff drop "you had to be there for" swirl around the water cooler every Monday morning. High fives are passed around like the common cold and exaggerated hand motions fly as each beaming weekend warrior takes a crack at why his or her ski weekend was more epic than the last.

Yet despite the great detail and lengths these parables often extend to, most storytellers leave out half of the action. Sure the downhill adventures tend to be the most exciting, but just as the moderately-adjusted ancient proverb contends: with every downhill comes, oh yeah, that uphill. For many resort-frequenters this means the chairlift, a part of the weekend that no one wants to talk about. And for good reason. For many mountain-goers the lift is the bane of their alpine existence. Lift lines, wind holds, those lifty scanning guns that always seem to jam up just as you're finally about to load, it seems "annoying" is the most PG description for those uphill people-movers. The worst part? With the advent of teleportation seemingly at a standstill, it looks like the "annoying" lift rides aren't going anywhere soon.

Now I've been on the he-man-chairlift-hater bandwagon since I first clicked into my Kermit the Frog-adorned Rossignols at age 3. Of course there was also the time I was violently mowed down by a triple at 5, the time I snapped my favorite poles unloading when I was 8, and that time I sat through a 45-minute mechanical hold at mid-mountain with 50mph gusts at age 12. I would say those all but cemented my negative sentiments towards the lift.

But a move from the Ice Coast early this year triggered a cosmic shift in my chair-riding outlook. With an internship calling and no concrete plan, I picked up my skis, heeded Horace Greeley's westward call, and landed in Park City, alone and overwhelmed. In relatively foreign territory, I saw skiing as my solace, heading to the hill as much as possible. Only trouble with that was, for the first time in my life and much to my mother's chagrin, I was skiing alone. The limited knowledge I've gained over the years has taught me that most experiences are much better shared, and I learned that skiing was no exception.

Here I was, skiing the legendary Wasatch Range- an adventurer's playground that most can only drool over from behind their keyboards- and I felt like something was missing. There were no high-fives, no woops and hollers, no one to turn to after the most amazing run of my life and say, "Woah. That was awesome." I was craving that human contact and without it found myself in the strangest purgatory imaginable: stranded in powder paradise.

With my condition bordering on desperation, the chairlift seemed like the only option I had to reach for a connection. I began to ask questions to fellow lift riders, starting with the innocuous: “How’s your day going?”, “Enjoying the snow?” and gradually progressing to “What do you do?” “Where are you from?”. And though the questions rarely probed deeper than the surface, some of my preconceived walls slowly began to crumble. Soon I started turning down the headphones I’d relied on to enjoy my day and actually took a good listen to the answers I was getting. My comfort level grew with these answers and eventually my lift rides seemed less a burden and more an opportunity: an opportunity to fill that void that had threatened to ruin my Wasatch winter.

But the ultimate realization came during a blinding snowstorm. The kind of snowstorm that accumulates on your helmet on the way down and erases your tracks off the face of the mountain before you have a chance to turn around. Some skiers call it an “open bar”-type day with champagne powder on tap and free refills all over the mountain. Following one such run I loaded onto the nearest double with an unassuming old timer. After a short but animated conversation on the changing storm track sweeping down through Utah, we came upon our destination. My chair companion hustled through a choreographed performance of lift rituals to prepare for our unloading; adjusting the gloves, removing the pole straps, wiping his goggles and taking a big breath of mountain air. Prepared for action the mustachioed chair conductor turned to me and in one final act stated, “Have a nice life.”

Boom. There it was. The “Ah-hah” moment. The epiphany. As our skis hit the snow and the alpine sage evaporated into a wintry abyss, I realized just how right he was. I’d probably never see him again. Heck with roughly a couple thousand mountain-goers there on that day alone, I’d say odds were stacked pretty heavily against that scenario. “Have a nice life,” while awfully final and even a bit terminal, actually rang incredibly true. For 1000 vertical feet our life paths flawlessly intertwined and then, just as seamlessly, slid apart. I doubt he even noticed how profound and poetic those four little words could be, but they refused to loosen their grip on me.

What the words helped me realize was that the chairlift is skiing and snowboarding’s equivalent of speed dating. Ten minutes, that’s all you get. Ten minutes to make an impression. Ten minutes to hear someone out. Ten minutes to connect, and then, in an instant the moment’s passed.

But even ten minutes can be an eye-opening experience. The lift ride provides an extremely unique situation, a rare bubble of honesty in an oft-insincere society. There’s no real gain in misleading a complete stranger, and with most chairlift rides involving at least one stranger, most figure ‘what’s the point?’ The product is a very real, very open conversation that can yield some amazing moments with some fascinating people.

I rode up with three men in their mid to late-60s one afternoon and quickly turned to the usual chit-chat. Somewhere along the way we established that the group was part of a band of old friends and I began to see that the men had been close for some time. Inquiring about how long the men had known each other, I was impressed to learn that they had been steadfast buddies for almost 50 years. “But,” interjected one of the men, “This is the first time we’ve all been together since the last time we skied here… and that was 40 years ago.” 40 YEARS. I had just sat in on a moment in time four decades in the making. Jobs, moves, weddings, children, had all come and gone and after 40 years the group of schoolboy chums found themselves back together, stuck on a lift, with yours truly. Surreal.

Beyond some of these uncanny moments, I’ve also bumped into some great people. A season of lift rides has yielded me company from all different walks of life but all bound by a common thread: snow. In fact some of the best friends I’ve made on my western adventure have come from my chairlift escapades. And while that may appear kind of depressing from the outside looking in, I consider myself fortunate. I’ve been surrounded by people my entire life, but that doesn’t mean I’ve had a chance to meet them all. The lift provided me a venue to initiate a conversation naturally with people I may normally have no association with. Imagine doing that on a city street. Not likely.

And the stories are endless. The professor that picked up skiing late after falling in love with the snow and the mountains. Along his path to winter enlightenment he had chased wild game across the world and studied the Kodiak brown bear in its natural Alaskan habitat equipped with just enough provisions and a digital camera. A man that I would likely only read about plopped right down next to me. At the base a relative stranger sitting to my left, at the peak a friend with a family dinner invitation.

The 30-something snowboarder I bumped into on my first Utah powder day. Spent over half of his life in the mountains, but couldn’t stop smiling like it was his first time: in love with life and pursuing his happiness on a daily basis. A guy with the type of energy that’s as inspiring as it is contagious. What started as a search for the next powder stash evolved into a mountain adventuring duo and a bond forged over 1500 vertical feet that will last long after the snow melts.

These were people I had given up on meeting. Every day I’m out in the mountains I’m thankful I turned off my headphones a took that leap of faith. “How’s your day going?” How simple and elementary it seems, yet how often do we forget to do it? The chairlift forces us to interact, to reach out to someone and something new. As much as I hate to admit it, the chairlift saved my winter. The stories I heard and the people I met reminded me of the unbelievable energy that makes the mountains such a spiritual place.

And to think, it just took those four words from a whiskered wiseman in a snowstorm to set me right. He may never read this, but if he does I’d like to dedicate my unforgettable western adventure to that mustachioed maestro: Thank you friend. Until next season…have a nice life.

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