It was 6:30 AM on a Saturday, and the car slowed to a halt as we came to a long line of cars snaking up the windy, narrow road hugging the mountainside. Yes, you read that correctly—unfortunately, ski season in Colorado means droves of people waking up with the sun and heading up to the slopes. I looked out of the car window and compared the bumper-to-bumper traffic to the open roads of my childhood, when a trip to the mountains meant escape from the smog of idling engines.
My brother, his girlfriend, and I were headed up to Copper Mountain to snowboard. Being of the working barely above minimum wage class, we had gotten lift passes from my parents as a Christmas gift. The passes, and the snowboard gear they’d gotten me for my birthday the year before, were in part the result of a passing comment I’d made about wanting to take up snowboarding again since I was moving back to Colorado after being away for college. Though my brother and his girlfriend were of the native Coloradan cool-kid boarder types, I was definitely riding on the wings of their confidence, trying to convince myself that picking up snowboarding after a five-year hiatus would be just like riding a bike.
I vowed during that trip that I would never go snowboarding again, no matter how many people told me it would be fun. I’d given winter adventure sports the old college try, ever since my first experience as an elementary schooler learning to ski. I fell off the ski lift. Twice. I switched to snowboarding as a teenager, mostly because I got too tall to do the pizza-slice ski maneuver and would either need to learn how to turn or break my ankles as I plummeted down the mountain. Snowboarding turned out to be much more fun, but also much harder on my body because, like with skiing, I never bothered to learn how to properly turn. I preferred careening down the mountain, slowing down when I could and crashing when it became necessary to execute a more skilled turn.
Fast-forward five years and my body loudly protested to such a reckless technique. My brother was already out of sight, carving perfect S-shapes into the mountain and stopping only to wait for me at the bottom. I, on the other hand, was making jagged gashes in the snow with my board, catching the edges every time I tried to turn and desperately hoping I was nearly to the bottom. (I wasn’t). After a particularly bad fall, I sat on the mountainside and had an epiphany. I was miserable. I’d never really enjoyed snowboarding or skiing, but everyone told me that I should enjoy it so I convinced myself that I actually was enjoying it. I would come home with sore muscles (and ribs and head and tailbone) and try to remember whether I actually had fun.
Sitting on that mountainside, skiers whizzing by, I looked out on the mountain peaks around me and realized that this was what I really enjoyed.
I loved the feeling of the wind in my hair as I went up the ski lift. I loved the fresh air at the top of the mountain and the cold, scrubbed-clean scent of the snow. I loved looking out on the islands of pine trees dotting the mountaintops. The journey down the mountain was a necessary evil, a step I had to take because once you were at the top of the mountain you had to get down somehow. But I never enjoyed it as much as sitting on the top, listening to that profound silence that seems to exist only at very high places.
So I made a decision. I would quit snowboarding forever, and the next time someone looked at me with eyelids pulled open in surprise and said, “you live in Colorado and you don’t ski?” I would reply, “yes, and I’m doing quite well, thank you.” Because there are more to mountains than their summits, and there is more to this beautiful state than adrenaline-inducing activities. I got up from the mountain, spoke encouraging words to my protesting body, went down the slope at an impossibly slow speed and unstrapped my bindings for the last time.
My resolve was tested a few weeks later when I was invited to ski, for free, at my friend’s aunt’s ski-in-ski-out timeshare in Beaver Creek. I’d never been to Beaver Creek, much less to the ski slopes. Not only is skiing quite a prohibitively expensive sport to begin with, but this particular ski resort is a Hilton-level destination and my family had mainly stuck to Super 8s. My friend’s aunt asked whether I’d like a ski pass, but I opted for a free pass to ride the ski lifts sans skis.
The slopes were covered with fresh powder when I grabbed my snowshoes and walked the four feet from the condo doors to the ski lift. My friend and her aunt had their skis on, and I had to trot awkwardly to keep up with them as we made our way forward in the lift line. The scraggly-bearded guy operating the lift was kind enough to slow the lift down for us so that I didn’t have to run up to catch the swiftly-moving chairs as they whisked skiers up the mountain.
Up we went, legs dangling, into the whitewashed sky. I closed my eyes and felt the wind in my hair, this time enjoying a strange peace that came with knowing that once I got off the ski lift I wouldn’t have to hold my breath and plunge down the mountainside, hoping and praying I’d make it down with limbs and ligaments intact. When we reached the top I once again did an awkward shuffle away from the lift, and said goodbye to my friend and her aunt as they glided cooly towards the edge of the hill. I trudged a little up the mountain towards the snowshoe park, smiling unashamedly at the confused glances from skiers and boarders wondering why I was going the wrong direction on the mountain. After spending a very quiet few hours clomping like a Clydesdale around the fresh powder on the snowshoe trails, I headed back for the lift.
As I rode the lift back down, again smiling innocently at bemused skiers headed up the mountain, it occurred to me that I was happy and that I didn’t need anyone to feel my happiness with me. As is true of most things in life, I didn’t realize that I had been living with the goal of being understood by others until I did something that I knew people wouldn’t understand and felt the better for it. Before that day, I would never have admitted to myself how much it mattered to me that people understood that I didn’t care at all to careen down the side of a mountain on a few thin pieces of wood. But it did. I spent the rest of the lift ride down wondering why it mattered so much to me that people understood and supported my life choices, why I was so concerned about fitting into an image of myself I imagined people had of me.
I still had a little time before my friend was due to meet me for lunch, but instead of riding the lift up again I picked a trail that began at the base of the lift and wound its way slowly up towards the million-dollar cabins dotting the edge of the mountain. Sometimes the trail took me right under the ski lifts, and sometimes people would call out to me and wave. I waved back and smiled, enjoying the silence all the more once I had passed the whirr of the lifts. Then I found myself in an Aspen grove, the close, white trunks reaching spindly arms to the sky. I felt small as I looked up at the skeletal trees.
The trail broke through the trees suddenly into a small clearing facing the mountains the skiers were on. Then I really felt small. As I looked up at the three mountain peaks I could see from where I stood, I felt a strange vulnerability. The towering, silent giants before me touched that universal soft-spot, that sense of mortality we bury deep in our hearts. The mountains forget us. We are needed–in fact, in some ways we are not wanted–by the land. And yet, somber a moment as it was, it did not make me lonely. I won’t say I felt a mystic connection with the land, or that nature had revealed deep secrets to me. But there was something in that view from the bottom that I think people often miss when they’re intent on reaching the top–a still, small voice that spoke to my heart of a perspective so easy to miss. And arriving at that, I am convinced, is worth a little walk in the woods.
Every now and then people ask me why I’ve lived in Colorado nearly all my life and don’t ski or snowboard at all. Though there’s a part of me that wants to rise up and defend myself, to spout opinions about the sport of the One Percent or put on my hipster glasses and tell them how I’ve moved beyond adventure sports, instead I take a deep breath and admit that it is strange. Sometimes I share stories of falling off of lifts and nearly crashing into people, and we laugh together and decide it is better that I stay away. But most often, I tell them about that day I finally did what I’d always wanted to do and just walked in stillness at the top of the mountain and then took the lift back down. And I invite them to join me, one day, to take a look at the view from the bottom.
|Amelia Ino is a twenty-something Colorado native who loves the outdoors, travel, and finding adventure in the everyday and the mundane.|