I first tried skiing at the age of 14 in Alberta, Canada, and skied four times that winter. My first day was in early February 1977 (I think it was February 4), with rental skis outfitted with the old Spademan bindings that connected a plate under the middle of the boot to clamps on the sides of the foot (no toe or heel binding). I vividly remember that first moment at Canyon Ski Resort, near Red Deer, Alberta. At the instructor’s beckoning, I sidestepped about thirty feet up the bottom of a gentle run named Sundeck with these unruly planks on my feet, and then turned to face down the hill. I lifted my poles and pointed my skis straight down instead of wedging them. I didn’t stop where the others in the class stopped, but kept going as far as I could, maybe 60 or 70 feet, down at most only ten feet of vertical—reveling in the sensation of sliding on my feet (something I always enjoyed in my mother’s kitchen right after she waxed the floor). I was hooked, and I’ve loved skiing ever since, not just for the physical sensations of temporary weightlessness (on steeper slopes), the rhythm of turning, and the rewards of making first tracks, but for the beautiful scenery, the camaraderie, and the opportunity to travel and explore. For many years I always tried to ski at least one new ski area every winter.
And of course I also embraced the challenge and risks, becoming an expert skier within about five years. Chutes, cornices, deep powder, crud, cement, slough, moguls, corduroy—you name it, and I was all over it. I once hucked off a 35-foot cornice at Kirkwood ski area. And I’ve been in two small avalanches, one I was able to ski out of (a 400-hundred footer in-bounds at Mt. Hood Meadows), and another in a whiteout that took me down a short slope in-bounds at Big Mountain ski area (now Whitefish Mountain Resort), but ended quickly and I was able to dig myself out—thank goodness it was such a short slope. I became certified as a patroller in the Canadian ski patrol system (CPR anyone? and what fun to practice chairlift evacuations). I also became a cross-country patroller (took up XC skiing too), and trained as a Level II downhill instructor. While I haven’t skied nearly as much since starting a family, I still enjoy the sport as much as I can, and particularly enjoyed introducing skiing to my kids.
On a flight from Calgary to Vancouver, I once sat next to Hans Gmoser, the inventor of helicopter skiing, and chatted for ten minutes. I knew it was him because I had just read about him in Ski Canada Magazine before boarding the flight, and besides, he was signing his name to a stack of Canadian Mountain Holidays powder skiing Christmas cards. I also met Mike Wiegele, another famous helicopter skiing operator (whose logo would be perfect for my initials too), and have met a few ski racers on the U.S. ski team over the years, mostly while summer skiing at Timberline in Oregon, or at ski shows. I used to always watch the Warren Miller ski films every autumn, too—I agree with Warren Miller who said “My favourite ski area is whatever ski area I’m skiing right now.” I’ve skied in every month of the year except September (that’s on my bucket list), and I once went snow skiing and waterskiing on the same day (at Timberline and on the Columbia River, in July or August, I think in 1985). I’d love to try skiing in Vermont, Utah, more of Colorado and British Columbia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, anywhere new to me in Europe, and Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii (yes, they have skiing there). And shucks, while I’m at it, how about the indoor ski slopes in Dubai? See a more complete list below.
Speaking of travel, I love pouring over trail maps. There’s something inspiring about looking at all the ski runs, all the lifts, and learning my way around places that I’ve never even been to. I’ve saved trail maps from most of the ski areas I’ve visited, and even kept a journal of all the places I skied for at least at least a dozen years (it’s in a box somewhere)—marking the runs I skied on the maps and describing the day. I guess that was the writer in me, but such record-keeping was motivated by my love of skiing. Even today, when I go to ski shows, I love collecting new trail maps to see what’s new, what’s changed, and to visit each resort at least vicariously.
Skiing has the clichéd hazard of breaking a leg, but such injuries have been relatively rare in the sport in the last 30 to 40 years compared with previously, thanks to advances in binding safety. But skiing has given me an occasional minor injury. I got frostbite on my fingers one of those four times I went skiing that first season, and the tips of my fingers turned black and fell off—and that was while I was taking a typing class in high school. Fortunately, I suffered no long-term problems, and can type pretty fast. On another one of those first four ski days, I had just gotten off a T-bar and was standing to the right of it (well out of the way, I thought) putting my poles back on when someone after me let go of their T-bar carelessly. They dropped their T-bar as they went to the left and it swung to the right, aiming for the back of my head. Someone yelled at me to watch out, and I turned around just in time to have it whack me just above the eye and knock me down (but I don’t think it knocked me out). I received three or maybe five stitches, as I recall, and still have the scar above my right eye. Years later, at Kirkwood, I cartwheeled in untracked snow after jumping off a cornice, and wrenched my shoulder badly. About a week later I went bowling, and the first attempt to bowl wrenched my shoulder all over again and I instantly had to quit bowling that day. It was a gutter ball, in case you were wondering. Those were the worst of my ski injuries, and I’m glad to have gotten two of them over with in that first season. I’ve had a bruise or two, and a few sunburns from spring and summer skiing, but have generally been injury-free.
Well, almost. A year or two after my first season I remember skiing at Fortress Mountain, south of Banff. On the first run of the day, down the mogul field on a run called Watch Me, right under the chairlift, my ski came off and whacked me just below the knee as I spun around. Boy did it hurt, at least at the moment, but I kept skiing for the rest of the morning. At lunch time, I discovered a large, bulbous extra kneecap—a swollen contusion that was more scary-looking than painful. I skied the rest of the day, although a little gingerly. That was a Sunday, and I remember having a basketball game at school the following Thursday, in which I scored 28 points—my best game ever. And then, on Saturday morning, when I got out of bed, I collapsed. My leg really hurt and I couldn’t support my own weight. I was on crutches for two weeks. I still don’t understand what the issue would have been, especially given the week of feeling essentially fine, and then that highly productive basketball game.
At any rate, no matter what, I loved skiing. I remember one time skiing at Sunshine Village in Banff, Alberta, when I stopped at a rise on the Wawa Bowl run. I looked up across the valley at Delerium Dive between The Eagles and Lookout Mountain. It was literally breathtaking—the light on those steep mountain faces under a gloriously blue sky. I stayed there and just looked for at least five minutes. If I was already in love, I fell in love all over again, and that was just for the scenery. I’ve had similar moments of sheer awe at the scenery at Zermatt, Switzerland, and Lake Louise, Alberta, and other places. Having lived for many years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where it’s utterly flat, the chance to see any kind of hill or mountain is never something I’ve taken for granted.
Years later I had the chance to go snow-cat skiing in the High Wallowas of northeastern Oregon, above Wallowa Lake—probably the most obscure place I’ve skied. Back then a sightseeing gondola took you up, then you boarded the snow cat to explore the top of Mount Howard. Some years, when there was enough snow all the way to the bottom, there was apparently 3,700 vertical feet—which almost never happened. But the skiing was great up top. This was a low-budget operation (which was why I could afford cat-skiing in college). On the first ride up, I asked the cat driver where I should ski, and he said, “I don’t know—I don’t ski.” Fortunately, he explained that the perimeters were clearly marked and we couldn’t get lost. I think the runs were something like a thousand vertical feet, and most of it was unskied powder. A friend and I, Barry Donesky, had an enjoyable day making turns in whisper-light eastern-Oregon snow.
And I’ll always remember my first day of mountain skiing, at Lake Louise, long before. The drive there was a bit depressing because the weather report listed deeply chilly temperatures—something like –30 degrees (and whether in Fahrenheit or Celsius, that’s cold). And when we got there, other skiers were minimal because of how cold it was. We got on the first chairlift (the old Olympic lift, since replaced), all bundled up for a possibly miserable day. But in a few minutes the lift popped us through the day’s low, foreboding clouds into the stunning blue skies of a temperature inversion. Above the sea of clouds it was at least 20 degrees warmer—and there was six or so inches of new snow that we had almost all to ourselves. I was still a relative beginner, but what a fun day that was for my first time in the mountains. And if you want to see beautiful scenery, the view from the Lake Louise ski area across the valley to the lake itself is one of the most stunning views in all of skiing—made even more amazing by that layer of clouds at the bottom of the valley on my very first ski visit. No wonder I was hooked.