Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Minturn Mile-- Vail, Colorado

“The Mile”, as locals call it, is not for the timid. It is a backcountry ski run, out of bounds, but not illegal, which means that as a skier you’re on your own, no lifts, no ski patrol, just a pristine snow field, then trees, pine and aspen groves, to ski among before hitting a long gully of narrow twisting terrain that rolls, a stretch that, later, Raina and Nina, my grand daughters, will call the loop de loops. The trail crosses a stream, no bridge—you take off your skis, toss them, then leap. After that leap, you catch your breath, step into your bindings and you’re off, running the infamous luge, a rough yard wide path where it is nearly impossible to control your speed. You snow plow; you look for an opportunity to slide left or right to slow down. Finally, you’re at the side of a hill and a narrow shoot that’s always, rocky, always moguled, but you see the end of the trail, see the road, know the Minturn Saloon is a mere half mile away where a bartender will serve up pitchers of margaritas, then carry platters loaded nachos to your high table.

The run begins at the top of Ptarmigan Ridge, dives 2,000 feet, then travels for three miles. To get there, you climb, ridge, ten minutes for Richard, my son, fifteen minutes or more for Raina, Nina, and me, all of us shouldering our skis. This is Raina’s second time on "The Mile," Nina’s first. She’s eleven, struggling, to carry her skis as she climbs, but if you’re skiing "The Mile," you carry your gear. Nina is strong. And she’s determined. As is Raina.

Richard is an expert skier, a backcountry skier. He’s trained to read terrain, to read snow. He knows exposure, understands the layering under our skies. He has timed our trip so that we’ll enter the back bowls before a ski patroller ropes off access, and if all goes well, we’ll arrive at the Minturn Saloon at 4:30 to meet the rest of the family for those famous margaritas and nachos.

As we reach the ridge, we see an outcropping of rock. This is our resting point, and standing here at 11,000 feet, we feel the stillness of these mountains, their majesty. The snow cover has been low this year, but in the last week snow has fallen every day. This day is no exception. We have high clouds. No view. We have a break in the snow, visibility and nearly a foot of unbroken powder, a skier’s dream. Skiing powder is like skimming along on whipped cream, but if you fall, you’re buried in snow that turns to cement. You need to dig out. You need strength you’re not sure you have.

At the top of the snow field, Richard chooses a line. I’ll go first, stopping above a small stand of pines. He’ll send the girls one at a time, then ski last to dig out anyone who falls in. The angle is low, not too steep, perfect for me, and as I point my skis down the hill, I feel them puff up on top of the snow. I let out a squeal. I’m floating. I’m flying. This is heaven. Now, the girls, spraying snow, each giddy with delight. Richard’s turns are perfection. He’s been skiing since he was a child. I’ve been skiing since I married—took skiing with my marriage vows. “You have to understand,” Richard once told a friend, “skiing is more than a sport in our family. It’s a life style.”

Life style. The way a person lives. So according to Richard, our family lives through skiing. What does that mean? All three of my sons, grew up on skis. My husband grew up on skis, still skis, although "The Mile" is no longer one of the trails he skis. At the Saloon, he will tell us once again, of his last trip down "The Mile" when he fell in that infamous brook. We’ll listen. We’ll laugh.

So skiing as lifestyle is memory. It is tradition. It is also strength—that determination I see in my grand daughters. It is respect for these mountains, for this back country where the unpredictable hovers, obstacles we don’t see, weather that shifts, a storm that blows in. It is love for a sport that thrills and challenges, a sport that binds us—three generations on "The Mile." Not bad.


  1. I love reading about three generations on "The Mile."

  2. I love having three generations on "The Mile." One more small skier to go. Can I keep going?

  3. now that's writing i can relate to and appreciate.

  4. Wow. If you're the Bill, I think you are-- many, many thanks for your comment. If you're not, thanks, too.


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