I sit inside a cozy ski-in ski-out condo perched in the midst of Montana’s Big Sky Resort, looking out at tiny figures racing down groomed runs. Yet, each time I contemplate cramming my feet into pinchy boots and hobbling out into the single digit temperatures to join them, I feel a phantom ache in my knees.
After several years of awkward and increasingly painful attempts at the sport, this is probably the death knell for me and skiing. I guess I’ll have to find some other way to get outside on winter weekends…
Fortunately, I’m in the perfect place to try some alternatives.
It takes a little cajoling for me to leave the warm condo, where I’m far too content to cuddle up with a book. But at last I pile on a gajillion layers and head out into the night, to hike up the nearest ski run with a sled tucked under my arm. Our destination is the top of the Explorer lift, and we climb and climb.
“Guys, I still don’t see it,” I pant, hunched over my numb toes. For the third time, I’m told the lift’s just over the next rise. Finally, Nash and Colin admit we passed it up. So we plant our butts on the sleds and sail downhill.
The sleds barrel along with a mind of their own, with a tendency to turn backwards and drift toward the trees, but we discover that by gripping each others’ handles and strategically dragging our boots we can steer a 3-sled-wide raft.
A few minutes later, a golden pool of light blooms downslope. A lift! To be specific, the Challenger lift! This is meaningless to me, but the boys exclaim that, in all their years of sledding here, no one’s ever hiked up this far. We monkey around on the motionless chairs and climb to the operator’s loft, where a slightly ajar door beckons.
We move on before we can get ourselves in trouble, but as we’re penguin-sliding on our bellies during a flatter stretch, a Sno-cat’s beam sweeps across our path. We sprint off the groomed run and flounder hip-deep through tree wells to hide. A thrill flutters in the hollow of my throat.
The Sno-cat turns away and we go undetected.
Sled-raft takes us the rest of the way home at a breakneck pace. Snow plumes up in front of us and lashes our faces. I choke on it and turn my head aside in a panic, trusting Nash’s voice, muffled through his Bowie-print neoprene face mask, to guide us. We skid to a halt at the turn-off to the condo and shed ice off our clothes all the way to the hot tub.
New Year’s Eve passes in a blur of conversation and dancing leading up to the midnight fireworks show, a bombastic fifteen minutes in negative degrees. Then it’s off to the igloo that the guys carved out earlier that day, where the tradition is to don furs and pretend it’s a mead hall. The ice-dome is big enough to accommodate more than the dozen people already inside, but Nash and I take our leave before we’ll even be missed.
The following day, I strap snowshoes on my feet and stomp off into the trees on a test run. The extra surface area means we can go places that would otherwise require exhausting post-holing, but that doesn’t mean forging new trails is easy. On a steep hill, we gouge a scar in the powder and I learn I can sweat even in these low temps. Now, this seems like an activity that’s more my pace than downhill skiing!