Up against the wall
As I stood there and looked at that hard-packed, icy traverse, the excitement and anticipation I felt earlier were all but gone, replaced with a feeling unfamiliar to a veteran skier. Nerves were firing. The feeling hadn’t quite made it to my stomach, but my legs had tensed with uneasiness. To the left, the steep rocky drop off of the East Wall, to the right, an equally steep fall past a ski area boundary sign. That’s a long way down, I thought, looking beyond the out of bounds sign into the valley of the back side of the wall. At that point in the ridge the East Wall looked even worse.
All I saw were jagged rocks.
As a ski instructor, I’ve been asked on a few occasions, “When was the last time you were nervous on skis?” Until now, I couldn’t remember. Now I can say without hesitation: Last Saturday on the ridgeline of the East Wall of Arapahoe Basin.
The climb to the ridge wasn’t so bad. Pleased that I’ve adjusted enough to living at 9,000 feet, I wasn’t sucking air on the initial climb. Although walking on bare rocks in ski boots isn’t a feeling I will get used to any time soon.
Earlier, when I looked at the East Wall from the chairlift, the snow staircase carved into the side of the slope, conjured up images in my mind that I’d seen of Everest. Photos showing single-file lines of climbers hiking up the initial stages from base camp. There, carved into the East Wall was a similar jag.
Maybe subconsciously, that’s where the nerves started tingling ever so slightly, I didn’t notice. I looked higher on the East Wall at the North Pole line, and the First and Second Notch. I could make out tiny little figures standing along the ridge
As I approached the top of the chair, I saw the North Pole hiking gate was open, and a few skiers were clicking out of their bindings, throwing ski over their shoulders and starting to hike.
At that moment I was overwhelmed with excitement. As a kid I heard about the terrain at A-Basin. For years now I’d heard of the East Wall. When I moved here in December, it was at the top of my list. For the better half of a season, I looked at it. Every time I skied A-Basin, I scouted and imagined the day there would be enough snow.
Saturday was finally that day. I popped out of my bindings at the “Expert Terrain” sign, and started to hike.
The initial hike was no different or steeper than a number of short backcountry excursions I’d been on. But standing on top of that ridgeline was something else entirely. The traverse looked icy, and the margin for error small.
Maybe it was because I hadn’t been skiing in a few weeks. Maybe it was because I hadn’t done that many warm-up runs. But mostly it was because it looked gnarly.
What is it that draws some of us to that challenge? Whether it’s skiing, kayaking, biking. It’s there. A desire to test limits.
Maybe Hunter S. Thompson described it best, in his book “Hell’s Angels,” “The edge… there is no honest way to explain it, because only people who really know where it is have gone over. The others, the living, are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle and then pulled back or slowed down. But the edge is still out there…”
Standing on the ridge line, I wondered what side of that line I was standing on. I think it was the confidence from past experience that kept that uneasy feeling from making it to my stomach.
I clicked in and went for it. It was not as icy as it looked. Still, falling was not an option. After crossing the sketchy ridge traverse, the feeling in my legs remained. I took a look at the 2nd Notch, it was as steep and narrow a chute as I’d seen in a while. Not 100 percent sure of the conditions I balked at the run. It looked scratchy and potentially icy. A fall in there would have consequences. Big mountain skiing isn’t a place to gamble. I traversed the ridge to the nearly as steep but wider North Pole, where I joined Ryan Prentice, strategic marketing director for Boulder-based Folsom custom skis, and his girlfriend, Leslie Stone. It was her first time on the East Wall too.
The North Pole’s wider slope brought back my confidence. I dropped ahead of them to stop mid-slope and shoot some photos. The exhilaration had returned. Mid-slope I unclicked one ski, immediately realizing I was going to have to put it back on in the middle of a hard packed roughly 36 degree slope. The feeling in my legs returned. I shot my photos and clicked back in without incident.
The snow was hard packed but soft enough to kick off some spray as I carved my turns. I charged to the bottom, thrilled by another check mark on my bucket list.
Still, looking back up at the 1st and 2nd Notches, I realized I had two more boxes to check off. But it wouldn’t be that day.
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