Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lift time

Small Potatoes by Betty Bell


Betty Bell

Once upon a time, skiers rode up the mountain one at a time. It was relaxing. No jockeying for compatible partners, no off-the-wall hopes of scoring with a seatmate who'd spark ignition. Back then, on the ride up the mountain, you might as well practice your meditation. There you'd be, rising like smoke, and maybe overnight it started to snow and now all the boughs were morphing into pillows hushing every sound except the muffled clink-clunk of your chair when it passed over tower wheels. Such an experience might set you pondering: Had a higher power confused you with someone else? Were you who she had in mind for this secular ascension? And you'd have to think sure, you're exactly where you're supposed to be.

My first ascension wasn't like that. I'd finally collected all the gear I'd need to begin to become a ski bunny: twice-over second-hand skis with metal edges—I'd been savvy enough to insist on that—Army surplus poles, an Army surplus parka and a pair of Army surplus goggles wide enough to fit a panda. And at Picard's, the chic-est shop in the valley, I'd found on-sale boots and pants for $20 each.

I took my free employee season ski pass to Dollar and plunked onto its one-chair lift, a lift that rose non-stop all the way to the top. For a Nebraska flatlander it was a Himalayan experience and the only good part of the day. I had to sidewinder down, traverse until my speed was dizzying before I hurled myself uphill into snow always soft in pre-grooming days. The sun was about to set when I flopped my legs over in my last prone kick turn.

Fast forward now—I'm past the bunny stage, an expert in my own eyes, and ready for Ruud Mountain, where employees were banished during high-season times. Ruud was steep and Ruud was rutty, rutty because skiers and ski equipment had not yet evolved into their symbiotic relationship for making moguls. But the biggest challenge on Ruud was its lift. One time, halfway up, something went amiss and the chair and the body upon it swooped up in a dazzling 180-degree arc that caused the body to eject. The body was unharmed in the landing, but the flip made basket cases of us all—fear needed no rare mutation to leap from one to another. We were always wary when we neared one of those wood towers, balanced at the front edge of the chair, ready to bail at any hint of Big Arc. The lift never went crazy again, but we never quit worrying about it.

I owe an early roommate, Gracie Cassinelli, for my mother lode of lift time. An Italian guy, Dick Salvadore, was supervisor of the lift operations, and it mattered not that he didn't speak Bill Saffire English because he had no peer in splicing the heavy lift cables so they rolled over tower wheels with never a hint of Big Arc. Dick especially liked Gracie, who, at just over 5 feet was shorter than he. Better yet, she always greeted him with "Arrivederci" and good stuff like that. And one morning, a week before opening and Baldy glistened with untracked powder, Dick slipped Gracie a key to the lifts. We were stunned.

Dick and his crew worked on the River Run lift that week, and Gracie and I would get there about 9 and Dick would load us on the lift and send us on our way. We turned the next two sections on and off ourselves, and at first it was scary to flick open the gate and quickly jump on, but soon enough we were good at it, and cocky, too.

We skied every day until we wobbled, skied up in the sun on College and Ridge and Christmas before taking Canyon and River Run home. The weather stayed perfect, and even if our tracks weren't the stuff of Warren Miller flicks, we etched a lot of tracks, most of them punctuated with mortar-sized craters.

It was all-the-way-heaven, right? Not quite. We'd sworn a sacred oath of silence about the key, sworn not to say zip about that dream-life week. And we kept our word, stayed mum for the almost two decades it took before Dick went to his reward. What a bummer that when we were free at last to use our bragging rights, it was far too late to make anybody sick with envy.

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