The pale illuminated numbers on the alarm clock say 5:30 a.m. I blink and squint at them again, willing the time to jump ahead more quickly. Outside the window, white flakes dance among the trees, teasing my groggy brain into wakefulness.
I stare at the ceiling, visions of powder fields dancing through my head like sugarplums to a child on Christmas. Today is the day, no ordinary day, as good or better than any holiday.
Opening day. Opening day. Opening day. Opening day.
I soon give up on sleep and begin collecting my gear, stashed in various places around the house where it waited out the summer: pants stuffed high into a corner in the bedroom closet, gloves and goggles shoved into a cubby, boots trapped behind the vacuum in the coat closet. I tromp it all out to the car, returning for my ski poles, which always seem to get overlooked early in the season. I debate becoming a snowboarder for the zillionth time — less gear, more comfortable boots — as I head to Copper Mountain.
Into the wild white
The American Eagle lift is cranking, having already deposited its load of Copper dignitaries from the first chair. The only sounds above the roar of the snow guns are the occasional whoops from excited riders as they hop aboard the lift for their first runs of the season.
The snow seems to catch the rising fever, dumping in the path of skiers catching freshies in the whirl of white. Blowing snow may be the reason Jerry Smittkamp, of Thornton, hasn’t yet met up with his ski buddies.
“They said they were in Frisco a half hour ago,” he says, hoping out loud that nothing befell them on the trek from Frisco to Copper.
Smittkamp has been skiing Copper Mountain for at least 25 years, he says, and typically squeezes in 20 to 30 days per season on the mountain. He skis for the exercise, camaraderie with friends and family and just the chance to be outside in the elements.
“My favorite thing about being here today is that I’m not working,” he says with a smile. “And the 5 inches of fresh snow.”
Copper is a fantastic mountain, Smittkamp says, and the snowmaking is a vast improvement over what it used to be, making early season a great time to hit the slopes.
Piles of pow
He skis off the lift and down the mountain as I tighten my boots, tiny flakes catching in my eyelashes before I snug my goggles to my face. Riding through the new snow, I’m like a jet pushing through clouds that flow under or part around the edges of my skis as I point them downhill. Professionalism escapes me as I let out a whoop and a stupid grin creeps across my face.
Faster, faster, faster, linking turns and feeling the burn in my out-of-shape quads. I reach the bottom of the run and skate through the maze, grateful for the short lift line so I don’t have to stand too long on my already tired legs. I load the chair next to a father and son, Brandon and Bob Lambert, from Massachusetts, and I have to ask Bob his name twice due to his thick Boston-style brogue.
Formerly an employee at an epoxy coating company on the East Coast, Brandon just started a job as a lift op at Copper. He made the trip to Colorado with his dad and a friend, who also got a job on the mountain with the park crew.
“Dylan Patterson, if you want a name,” Bob says, adding that he himself came along on the road trip to be the navigator and read the map. He says the trio arrived in Denver on Wednesday and describes the sunset over the mountains that first evening.
“The ride was unbelievable,” Brandon says.
Brandon has only been here for a few days, but he’s already fallen in love with the mountains, which are a whole lot different from Killington and Loon Mountain where he rode in the east.
“I’m going to do a lot of snowboarding,” he says of his winter plans. “I’ll have to work a lot, but you get to ski for free.”
Obviously the work/life balance is in his favor today, as the snow continues to fall and he and Bob exit the lift.
Hitting the park
I try to flag down a snowboarder at the top of the terrain park but he looks at me like I’m crazy and makes a quick exit over a rail, so I dip into the park to chat up a couple of Copper’s finest: Garrett Hutson, Tim Watrous — and Dylan Patterson.
“From Massachusetts!” I proclaim.
Hutson and Watrous are Midwest transplants — Ohio and St. Louis, respectively — and both have worked in the park for about three years, staying on for summers at Copper. Watrous came to the mountains to climb 14ers and has bagged 34 so far, but when winter comes, you’ll find him in one of Copper’s terrain parks.
“I’ve learned a lot, and I’m trying to make it a career,” he says.
The park we’re standing in was built in the past three days, Watrous says, and though it’s a little smaller than past years, they’ve managed to incorporate a lot of features.
“It varies,” Hutson says. “It’s always changing every year with the trends, and we try to be in the lead on that.”
Their work is exhausting, shoveling snow and forming features, but it isn’t finished until they’ve checked all of the booters and rails. They strap on their boards for the testing phase as I duck the rope back onto the fairway. I can’t hack it as a park rat.
I stop a few times on my way down the run, once to take a picture for my legions of adoring Facebook fans, once to have a quick chat with a Copper employee about how this is the best opening day he’s seen in a long time — neither time admitting that both stops were to rest my legs again. Powder turns consume a lot of energy, I say to myself. Myself is not impressed.
As I unclip my boots from my skis, I am the only person heading away from the mountain, away from the still-falling snow. The mountain and I say adieu — until next time.