It was a strange sensation to slide my feet into warm ski boots. It’s not just that they weren’t frozen stiff—they were actually sun-warmed from the early spring afternoon drive. They slid on satisfyingly smoothly as I perched on the Subaru tailgate, a stream of skiers trudging down to their cars around me. Sunkissed and exhausted, their day was over now that the lift had stopped running. I quickly smoothed my skins onto my skis, unsure how the afternoon would pan out. I usually hold to the “early bird gets the worm” mantra, but letting go of it was feeling pretty good so far.
As the days are getting longer, it seems a shame that the lifts still close a couple hours before the sun actually sets. That is, unless you can find some enjoyment in a weekday afternoon uphill grind. After a day of sitting in front of a computer screen, a little exertion might actually be the perfect prescription. And a 360-degree view above treeline is just enough to clear the murk you didn’t realize was bogging you down. To pull your head out of the inbox numbers, the little red notices of “likes” and comments, the urgencies that aren’t really that urgent now that you think about them.
Turning up a green run leading to the top of Lift 2, I passed a half dozen ski patrollers on their final sweep down the mountain. Nodding a hello and trying not to trip over their dog, I realized how hard I was gasping, even though it felt like I was slowly plodding. Usually the one to sneak in morning laps before work and unsure exactly what it would be like to be up here at sunset, I felt a gentle pressure to be up and down before it got really dark. And also a little bit of kid-fresh-out-of-school excitement, which doesn’t usually blossom on those groggy early mornings.
The ski patrollers were the last humans I saw, and the sun dipped beyond the ridge just as I huffed and puffed into the final stretch to the warming hut at the top of the runs. No, I wouldn’t be rewarded with fresh tracks in untouched powder. Not even the first carves into perfect corduroy. The breeze was several degrees chillier than it had been when I’d stepped into my bindings at the base, and I knew it was about to get colder fast, as I zipped up a puffy jacket and ripped off my skins.
Looking over the empty runs, where all day swarms of people had been zipping up and down, I felt like I was getting away with something. With my official uphill pass strapped to my bicep, I was perfectly legal. But taking off down the hill brought back a long-forgotten feeling. I was a 7-year-old begging not to go home from the swimming pool just yet. The last one out of the water when all the other kids were packing up. Pretending not to hear my mom’s calls from the deck. Just one more minute in this glorious water!
I’d had happy hour mountain bike rides like this, too. Instead of rushing off from work to hit the trail as soon as possible, I’d just pack a headlamp and relax about descending in the twilight when the hikers and most of the other bikers had packed up and left. That time of night, coolness starts creep into the gullies along the mountainside and you can ride in and out of sun-warmed patches, the shiny eyes of birds and small animals flashing along the trail as they settle in for the evening, non-sight sensations quickly heightening.
Without anyone around to watch, skiing also takes on a fresh and different joy. With no hint of pressure to impress anyone, and without worrying about someone faster coming down from behind or being courteous to pass slower people in front, skiing once again becomes child’s play. With the entire mountain to myself, I carved exaggerated, wide turns, stopping whenever I felt like it just to watch the blue dusk settle on the ridge lines and give my quads a rest.
Swooshing back and forth, completely free with nobody watching, felt like drawing beautiful, loose crayon doodles on a white wall. Except that when I finally found myself at the bottom, clicking out and carrying my skis back to the Subaru, nobody was waiting to put me in a time out.