JUST BACK FROM:
ITS BEEN raining all weekend, but on Sunday morning at eight, the clouds over Vail, Colorado, break. This is not unusual: Vail gets more than 300 days of sunshine a year. But this day, the bright blue skies are unexpected, given the nighttime thunder, the forecast, and the general sense of failure looming over me.
Im standing at the Eagle Bahn Gondola near Vail Square at Lionshead Village, in the center of this popular Colorado ski-resort town, waiting for my guide, Bob Fox. Hes going to take me up the mountain behind me so we can explore the seven Back Bowls, more than 3,000 acres of choose-your-own-path terrain that faces Blue Sky Basin, the enormous swath of wilderness that gives expert skiers and snowboarders the feeling of gliding through the wilderness. And Im scared to death.
Hey there! Bob says. I smile, trying to hide my fear. Bob doesnt know my secret, and Im determined to keep from him the thing that makes me feel like this trip will be a disaster: I dont ski.
Im not sure how this activity has escaped me my whole life. Ive never even put on a pair of skis. I have no excuse for this. I grew up in Colorado in the late 1970s near Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, in the foothills not more than an hour from great skiing opportunities. I had an unobstructed view of the mountains from my bedroom window. Somehow, I resisted their siren song.
I blame my sweet, overprotective father. We were always told to be careful and not to undertake dangerous activities. And after all, if cartoons are to be believed, skiing always leads to smashing into a tree or tumbling down a cliff. The most we were allowed to do was go sledding as a family. One time. That led to my father sledding off a ridge and cracking a rib. You can guess that skiing never followed.
Ive picked Vail to aid me in overcoming my fear of skiing for several reasons. One, its a great mix of the traditional and the luxurious. Two, its home to Olympic competitor and incredibly beautiful skier Lindsey Vonn, and who knows whom you might bump into on the mountain?
And three, there are tons of setups for beginners because its such a family-friendly ski-resort town. In fact, almost one in five trails is classified beginner, while more than 50 percent of the trails are marked expert or advanced.
Oh, I should mention one more thing for full disclosure: There is no snow on the mountain this day. Its fall, when Vail celebrates Oktoberfest. People are here to hike, bike, hunt, drink beer, and eat brats. Thats right. Im such an incredible baby, Ive come to Vail to see the mountains prepowder, to plot my possible attempt to perhaps try to strap on those death planks and hurl myself down a mountain in a screaming fit of panic. I want to see the lion sleeping before I hunt it on the safari.
Bob is convinced that means I need to see the Blue Sky Basin, the popular advanced trails. The question were asked the most during the season is, How do I get to Blue Sky? Bob says. Thats just ahead of the one people ask when I ask if theyre lost. They say, No but where am I? Bob is not only more man than I am, hes funnier.
Everything is fine while were heading up the mountain. Then, I make the mistake of opening my mouth.
What are those? I ask.
Its a new line of snow-making machines, Bob explains.
Looks like the guns in the forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi, I say.
Bob stares straight ahead. I suspect he is beginning to realize Im a fraud. Bob is an outdoorsman who fishes in Alaska, a workman who wears beat-up leather work gloves, an athlete who actually skis at ski resorts. He has rough hands and a steely gaze. I hide my iPhone.
As we get to the top of the mountain, Bob is talking all sorts of ski lingo -- the powder hounds, high-speed quads versus the triple chairs, bump runs and groomed runs, and half-pipes and snowcats.
Me, Im standing at the top of one of the Back Bowl runs, looking out over the vast expanse of beauty, a line of aspens, pines, and spruces.
Then, I look down. Bob says its not as steep when covered in snow. My legs actually feel wobbly. I picture my father and me, tumbling down the mountain together.
Of course, I say nonchalantly. And, um, you say there are folks who just come here to eat and drink at the lodge? I mean, thats cool, too, right?