Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Life's a Mountain

The ski conditions at Deer Valley this year
were absolutely perfect
Over the last weekend in February I spent one of the most wonderful five days ever communing with my best friend, Kari, her husband, Stuart, and her mom, Joyce, in the mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah. We reunited, as we have almost every year for more than two decades, for our annual ski trip.

Many years years go, when Kari's father, Lyle, was alive, we would travel from our hotel in Salt Lake to a different ski resort every day, tearing up the slopes at Solitude, Alta, The Canyons, Snowbird, Park City, Snow Basin and other nearby ski areas. Different day? A route up another valley, all within a hour's drive from our "base camp" at the Hilton in downtown Salt Lake City. Some years we ventured to a different ski destination altogether: Sun Valley, Idaho. Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Red Mountain in Canada.

But for the past few years we've confined our ski holiday to the Deer Valley ski resort up the Empire Canyon along Interstate 80 in Utah. Now that Kari's mom, Joyce, is 80 years old, we appreciate a ski resort that prohibits snowboarders, who in the past have seemed to make Joyce their unwilling target for egregious injury, and other amenities that make our once-a-year ski ritual a much more pleasant experience: limiting the number of skiers on the mountain to 7,500 on any given day, providing free overnight storage of our skis, poles and boots, and offering fabulously fresh salads, soups and grilled fare in their base lodge and several mountain outposts.
Kari, left, her mom, Joyce, center
and me in front of the lodge at
Deer Valley ski resort

This year, as usual, the four of us convened at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Salt Lake City airport. It's a nice hotel with an onsite restaurant, comfy beds and a free shuttle to and from our flights. We always settle in for one night, departing for the mountain early enough the following morning to allow us a full day of skiing at Deer Valley Resort. Then for two nights we lodge in Park City at a hotel called the Park Plaza. After three days of skiing, we descend the mountain on Sunday evening to sleep once more at the Hilton Garden Inn, where we awake early but conveniently near the airport Monday morning and our respective flights home. This routine has served us very well for the past few years, so this year we did not change a thing.

I was lucky that Southwest Airlines chose to add a nonstop flight recently from Baltimore's airport to Salt Lake City, so for the first time I arrived earlier than everyone else, at about 4:00 p.m. on Thursday. I settled into my room at the Hilton Garden Inn, then made my way downstairs to the lounge just in time to greet Joyce, who arrived from Spokane an hour after I did. Kari walked into the hotel lobby at about 7:00 p.m. after completing her flight from Dallas, and her husband, Stuart, followed about an hour later, after his flight from Washington D.C. We enjoyed a wonderful reunion over dinner in the Hilton's small restaurant and went to bed early in order to be ready for our first big ski day the following morning.
Kari, left, me in the middle, and Joyce enjoy the front of
Bald Eagle Mountain on our first day of skiing

As luck would have it, the wintry conditions that had brought record amounts of snow to the peaks above Salt Lake City over the entire ski season showed no signs of letting up during our visit. In the morning, news reports warned of tire-chain requirements, numerous accidents and snarled traffic on the route we'd be taking up the canyon. No matter. Our driver, Will, arrived promptly at 8:30 a.m. to transport us to the mountain in his impossibly clean Lincoln Navigator. That was another lesson learned from years of experience: instead of renting an SUV at the airport big enough to hold all of us and all our gear for four days, which we then had to load and unload ourselves and find parking for up in Park City, we learned that if we pooled our money to pay for a car and driver to take us to Park City Friday morning and bring us back to Salt Lake Sunday evening, all the hassle of loading, unloading, driving in inclement weather, parking and returning a rented vehicle was removed from the equation. At an expense no greater than for a five-day car rental, our ski holidays became much less stressful once we started hiring a chauffeur. Now we wouldn't do it any other way.

The news reports proved accurate. Our normally 39-minute drive up the canyon to Park City took almost two hours as our congenial driver carefully made his way along the steep, winding interstate under steady snowfall, past accidents and spun-out passenger vehicles whose drivers had perilously ignored the requirement to don tire chains at the highway patrol checkpoint. When we finally arrived at the Park Plaza hotel a little after 10:00 a.m., we stowed our luggage and awaited the free hotel shuttle to transport us to the Deer Valley base.

Because we were so late getting there, by the time we had rented our ski equipment (another lesson learned -- renting skis, boots and poles at the ski resort is far easier than lugging our own on airplanes from points across the country), we had less than an hour to wait before half-day lift tickets went on sale. We opted to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the base lodge before venturing to the lift line.

It didn't take very many runs to get our ski legs under us, even as light snow fell and the temperature hovered around 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Joyce, at 80, proved she was still adept at her beloved hobby, having originally fallen in love with the sport as a young newlywed beside her late husband, Lyle. You can watch a short video of Joyce skiing in the above video clip.

Kari, whose fluid grace on a pair of skis is a thing of beauty to behold, thanks to parents who both spent time as ski instructors in their home state of Washington, was as elegant as ever as she effortlessly glided down the face of Bald Eagle Mountain, her mother and Stuart and I following along behind.

It wasn't long, however, before the 8,400 foot elevation got the better of us, and we decided to call it a day. An exciting evening awaited, after all, featuring another reunion with additional family members. Before we went in, however, Kari shot this video of me skiing.

Once back at the Park Plaza Hotel, we checked into our rooms -- or tried to. The hotel was overbooked and management found themselves in a bit of a pickle. Indeed, I thought back to waiting to check my bag at the Baltimore airport for the flight to Utah, the line at the ticket counter filled with young men all checking their skis for the same flight as mine. My plane had been absolutely full, and as we crossed the country en route to Salt Lake City, conversation filled the cabin with statistics on just how much more snow had fallen on Utah's peaks than ever before, and just how perfect the ski conditions were going to be on this late February weekend. It seemed that everybody on the planet was convening in Utah to ski!

So the hotel manager made us an offer. Kari and Stuart could have the room they originally booked, but if Joyce and I were willing to share lodging, we could have a two-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, living room, balcony and fireplace at less than half the price of the tiny studio rooms we'd each reserved separately. Joyce and I looked at each other and smiled... the manager had just made himself a deal!
Judy and Mike are an inspiration

We lugged our stuff to our rooms, unpacked for our stay and dressed for dinner. Soon there was a knock at the door. Kari's cousin Mike and his wife Judy had arrived! Married 17 years, Mike and Judy had always enjoyed an athletic life between them and with their grown children, skiing all winter and embarking on frequent cross country road trips in summer on "his and her" motorcycles. That all changed in 2015 when, in the middle of a Spokane-to-Minneapolis motorcycle trip, Judy suddenly found herself unable to control her bike. Reporting later that she could see the upcoming turn in the highway ahead but was powerless to make her body move the handlebars to steer or apply the brakes, Judy went sailing through the guardrail and over an embankment, injuring her spine in such a way that she has been paralyzed from the waist down ever since.
With a guide controlling her downhill
speed, Judy traverses the slope
on a para-ski sled

Not one to take any setback "sitting down", Judy and Mike have spent the better part of two years regaining as much of their prior life as possible. Judy, a former nurse, worked tirelessly to recover her strength and agility and to control excruciating phantom pains and other side effects of paralyzation. Mike, a master builder like everyone in his father's family, reconfigured their Minnesota home to accommodate Judy's wheelchair and other equipment, even constructing an elevator shaft on one side of their house so that Judy could get to her beloved hobby room on the upper level and continue to engage in the knitting, crocheting and other crafts she so adores.

Last year on our annual ski trip, Kari met Paralympic gold medalist Stephani Victor on the mountain. As they chatted about Judy's accident, Stephani encouraged Kari to put Mike and Judy in touch with the National Ability Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1985 to enable participants with any level of mobility to engage in sports they once loved. 
Skis attached to Judy's
poles allow her to
steer the sled by
herself while she
leans side to side 

Kari did talk to Mike and Judy about the National Ability Center and its Alpine para-skiing program. Mike and Judy vowed to join us on our very next ski trip. Judy signed up for lessons, and the couple rolled into Utah from Minnesota a few days before we did. Unfortunately, the snowy weather interfered with Judy's ability to take her para-skiing lessons at Snowbird resort for two days in a row, so by the time we met them in our room on Friday evening, Judy had just had her first lesson -- at the nearby Park City Ski resort instead. 

She loved it! Judy described a fascinating process in which the instructors bundled her into a sled and outfitted her arms with ski-tipped poles for steering. With a guide controlling speed from behind and connected to the sled via long straps, Judy was in charge of steering back and forth as they traversed the ski runs, while Mike criss-crossed the slope on his own skis not far behind them.  

Exhausted but quite satisfied with her significant accomplishment, Judy regaled us with the details as we sipped wine and enjoyed each other's company. Soon it was time to walk (and roll) across the street for dinner at the Grubsteak restaurant, another tradition we have enjoyed for many years. After choosing from an extensive salad bar, a prized selection of dry-aged meats and a variety of tasty sides, we spent the balance of our first evening on the mountain eating heartily, catching up with one another and listening to memorable tunes being belted out by the restaurant's longtime musician from his balcony high above the diners.
We gathered for dinner in Park City each night.
From left: Kari, Stuart, Joyce, me, Judy and Mike

On Saturday, Judy stayed at the hotel to rest and recuperate from her grand adventure, so Mike joined Kari and Stuart and Joyce and me for a day of skiing at Deer Valley. It was cold and snowy again, but ski conditions were so perfect we hardly noticed. Warmly ensconced in neck-gators, goggles and long underwear beneath our ski apparel, we enjoyed run after satisfying run, quitting only after we'd completed 18 runs for the day.

Sunday was an exact repeat, except this time the sun shown brilliantly! Unfortunately, it was also bitterly cold, only two degrees Fahrenheit as we reached the top of Bald Mountain that morning, an elevation of 9,400 feet. We'd gotten an early start, boarding the chair lift with the first skiers of the day, as we endeavored to pack as many runs as we could into our final day on the slopes.

By 10:30 a.m. we were tired, hungry and, despite ten aggressive runs down the mountain, were chilled to the bone. Joyce had (wisely) chosen to remain in the lodge that day, where she sat reading a good book while awaiting our return. By 11:00 a.m we joined Joyce in the lodge, chowed down on a hearty lunch, and then took to the slopes again for our final effort.

Stuart returned to the hotel for a teleconference after lunch, so Kari and Mike and I made our way over to the Flagstaff Mountain area of Deer Valley, which stands 9,100 feet above sea level. The temperature had reached 11 degrees. We weren't certain how much energy we had left. But after a few post-lunch runs, the three of us suddenly felt a collective resurgence of energy. We tore up the mountain for the remainder of the day, flying down one run after another, competing a healthy 22 runs before Kari and I were forced to return to the lodge at 2:00 p.m in order to turn in our rental equipment and get to the hotel in time to meet our driver for the trip back to Salt Lake City by 3:00. We were having so much fun we didn't want to leave!
Mike and Kari are cousins who grew
up skiing in Spokane, Washington

Kari snapped this image of
me as we rode the lift on
our last day skiing. Her
fingers were so cold she
couldn't snap another 
There was an air of celebration during our final evening at the Hilton Garden Inn near the Salt Lake City airport. Cousin Mike had texted Kari that he had accomplished 33 runs for the day -- another eleven runs after Kari and I bid him goodbye at the top of the mountain. We were stoked. The weekend saw near perfect ski conditions, no one had been injured, even slightly, and we had proved to ourselves that there was still a significant spark of athleticism in each of us, even as we approach (and for me and Stuart, exceed) our 60s. But most of all, our hearts were filled with pride for Joyce, who showed, at eighty years old, that age is truly only a number -- she skied with the grace and finesse of someone a fraction of her age. And for Judy, whose indomitable spirit and enthusiastic attitude left us in awe of her unflinching determination to live her life on her own terms despite the hand dealt to her by fate. I was truly inspired.

So now, as I cast around at the daffodils already blooming in my Maryland garden, at the hyacinths and tulips poking their unwitting heads through the soil on this unseasonably warm winter's day, I am humbled by the unwavering vitality of my "adopted" family, and I repeat: this had to be one of my favorite ski trips ever.

"Skiing: the art of catching cold and going broke while rapidly heading nowhere at great personal risk." ~Author Unknown

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