Never Work A Day In Your Life

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There’s a saying that goes something like, “If you do what you love then you’ll never work a day in your life”. I like it. However, I’d be willing to bet if you took a survey of the average person they’d probably not fall into the “never worked a day in their life” category. I myself actually like my job for the most part, but if things were a little different I don’t think it’d surprise anyone if I didn’t show up every day just for the fun of it.

This makes sense when you consider why billions and billions of dollars are spent every year on vacations where people can be pampered, coddled, catered to and served so they can feel as far away from work as possible. There are resorts here in Colorado with valets who will dry and warm your boots after a day of skiing, then have them waiting slopeside the next morning so you don’t have to lug around your equipment. You can ride a heated gondola equipped with WiFi so you can check in on Facebook and tweet out to the world where you are! You can expect a valet to help you step off that gondola safely once you reach the top of the mountain and hand you your skis. Refreshed, you can then head out to ski a prepared piste that has taken hundreds of man hours to groom to perfection so you can be as comfortable as possible and never have to work too much and enjoy your time away from the grind of daily life. At one resort, there are even chefs waiting at the base area with warm chocolate chip cookies and a cup of mulled spice cider to welcome you back to the warm bosom of luxury, comfort and relaxation.

My preferred way of detoxing from work in the winter season is ever so slightly different. The process for me is turning up early at some trailhead on a cold morning, hopefully pulling on non-frozen ski boots after having accidentally left them in the back of my truck. At the same time, I’m usually hopping around on one foot trying not to step in the snow with my bare socks. After that, I slap the skins on my skis, debate for the umpteenth time whether I’m dressed too warmly, take the last sip of lukewarm coffee from my thermos then head off to climb uphill for the next 1-3 hours…then stop five minutes later to shed a layer because I’m too hot.

Once I’m where I want to be, I’ll begin stripping the skins off and hope the wind doesn’t blow them away or wrap them around my head like flypaper. Once that’s sorted out, I’ll take a drink from my half frozen water bottle, maybe I’ll frustratingly gnaw on a frozen Clif Bar for a  minute or two, snap a photo then proceed to ski back down to my truck. Sometimes if the conditions warrant, I’ll put my skins back on and repeat the process.

Someone once asked me why, in a state like Colorado, with hundreds of high speed chair lifts at my disposal within an hour drive of my house would I chose to suffer (their words) for only one or two runs. I’m constantly reminded that those chair lifts can transport me dozens of times a day to the top of a mountain and I could probably ski ten times the amount of vertical I’d get in the backcountry without really having to work at all!

The short and long answer is, “I love it”.

I took a day off from work this week and headed out with a friend to climb up a peak adjacent to the mega-resort of Breckenridge. Even on a Tuesday, the highway up from Frisco was clogged, the free lots were in complete choas, the shuttle busses were packed to the gills and people around town were too busy relaxing away from their everyday lives to pay attention to crosswalks or acknowledge another human being. Ah yes, the whole town was set abuzz as a new stress free day of standing in lift queues awaited. So hilarious.

The little trailhead where we parked was directly across the valley from Breckenridge Resort, maybe five or six miles away as the crow flies, but seemed a million miles away from the hubbub of town. There were four, maybe five cars there and most everyone already there said hello to us when we pulled up. Of course there is the compulsory five minutes of playing with everyone’s dog when they too come over to welcome us. And as each of those people set off for their own adventures, they would flash a genuine smile and exclaim, “have a fun day!”, then be on their way.

This day was my good friend Carin’s first in the backcountry. Without a bit of trepidation, she jumped out of my truck with an ear-to-ear smile and immediately started packing her gear. Her general stoke is always fun, but that day it was downright contagious! Of course being a beautiful bluebird Colorado day with no wind and having a fresh layer snow, we already had the recipe for an amazing day.

Among other things, Carin teaches spin classes at her home in Vail (altitude 8,500 feet) and I would definitely consider her generally “uber fit”. I’m not exaggerating here. She also races mountain bikes and is a stout whitewater kayaker on top of that. But climbing up the side of a mountain with skis strapped to her feet and a pack on her back soon began calling her out a little, as it does everyone.

This is usually the part of the programme where most people cease loving it and it starts becoming a job. Not Carin. You could see her mind cranking away trying to figure it all out (steep climbing with skis on isn’t exactly a unicorn picnic). She would ocassionally comment on how her quads were getting thrashed but would always follow up the comment with how it would definitely make her stronger for other things. Not once did her enthusiasm crack!

We toiled away until we reached the high point of our ski tour. When she looked around to see the view, she was literally almost brought to tears. Yes, I’d made the plan for the day, had chosen the location and had driven us to the trailhead, but she earned 100% of that view with the big effort she put in. It makes such a massive difference in the meaning of that stuff when you’re fully invested.

Skiing the backcountry is straight up harder than skiing a nice prepared piste inside a resort. As we were preparing to start back down, Carin voiced her concerns about being able to find the flow and balance on her board with the added weight of her backpack as well as the variables of the terrain. I of course eased her nerves by telling her not to worry because everyone falls. Oh, I also reminded her to keep a keen eye for buried stumps, logs, rocks and that she might also want to avoid tree wells…you know, the stuff that will help put a person at ease so they can relax.

As she started down I could see in her body language she was anxious about making that first backcountry turn. But true to her spirit (and of course my awesome words of encouragement), she reigned in the fear, fully committed to the turn and ripped a spectacularly beautiful arc in the deep snow. When she looked back up, the huge smile on her face told me she was undeniably hooked. Of course the whooping screams of delight as she was about mid turn sort of clued me in well before that!

We skied our way down through an amazingly beautiful glade to an old mine where we’d agreed to stop and regroup. She was literally still sliding toward me when she asked if we should do another lap. I actually had to laugh out loud before I quickly agreed! Once again, without mention or concern of the hard work ahead, she quickly set to prepping for another climb up.

When you can spend a day with the people closest to you doing the thing you love, you’ll truly never work a day in your life and can also consider yourself the luckiest person on the planet. I have to say I’ve been pretty lucky to have been happily suffering with those people in my life over the last few weeks…and you know who you are.

Climb high. Ski hard. Ride long. Live simply.

Check In or Check Out?

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During the past two winter seasons here in Colorado we were situated solidly in the storm track and seemingly every weekend got exponentially better and better for those of us who love skiing powder. It was so consistent and so good that instead of “spring skiing” in May we were still skiing legit powder of the knee deep variety until almost Memorial Day. Well, so far this year our seasonal snowfall has been classified as “average” according to the National Weather Service and other such agencies who track all kinds of fun weather related statistics. After being spoiled for two seasons, average now seems anything but.

It took me all of about about two days of standing in those long lift queues, endlesly waiting to ski the hardpacked piste, surrounded by people more concerned with “checking in” on Facebook, updating their status or checking on their Epic Mix apps than actually skiing, before I started thinking of better ways to spend my time.

From that point, I started spending most of my weekends climbing well before daylight to the high point of my favourite little resort, whereupon I could watch the sun come up then ski back down on empty trails and actually enjoy making turns without fear of other people crashing into me. After that, maybe I’d do a couple of lift assisted runs then head home around mid-morning. Every once in a while I’d get a wild hair and decide it was time to ride lifts all day again…and that fantasy would generally last about two hours.

As slow to come along as it was, the backcountry here in Colorado finally shaped up to a reasonable level. Instead of fighting those crowds (and traffic), I started spending most of my weekends with one or two friends touring quiet valleys and skiing the glades off the surrounding ridges. As usual, besides the lack of crowds and general anxiety, the backcountry has lots of benefits our society sort of forces us to ignore.

My wife has a job which requires, or at least “expects” her to sort of be in communication range about 95% of the day, including late into the evenings sometimes. I guess you could say she finds herself “checking in” quite a bit. While her job does have the benefit of being a rather fairly compensated position, the balance of pay and “time” sometimes gets a little tilted to the negative side and the stresses of it start filtering out the important experiences of life.

The funny thing about employment is we work our entire lives to accumulate money and material things and theoretically, the more we work, the more we have…and I use the word have loosely because those things actually own us! What our app-oriented, faster-is-better society fails to capitalize on is that we were all born with a wealth of currency in the form of time. We are conditioned to work ourselves to death, literally sometimes, frantically climbing the waterfall of accumulating money and material things. And although we know it all too well, we will NEVER be able to keep pace with the materials things we “need” because marketing firms will spare no expense to insure we are always insecure with what we currently have. The sad thing is we will let the balance in our “time account” go bankrupt while we try.

Last weekend Donna and I went out for a backcountry ski day to a place a friend recently turned me onto. She skis very well, but is still rather new to the backcountry and isn’t yet overly comfortable with skiing the oftentimes variable conditions. However, she’s learning quickly and getting more comfortable every time out. That said, we chose this place because it has a relatively mellow tour into a beautiful valley and features some low angle glade skiing as to keep things on the low-anxiety side of things. There is nothing really all that easy about backcountry skiing to begin with, so finding places that are skill appropriate for the people in your group is always the first key to having a good day. It’s also key to maintaining a firm level of marital bliss…just sayin’.

So we set out well before daylight to hopefully get ahead of the I-70 weekend traffic. After 20+ years of living in Colorado, it’s still shocking to me that no matter what time you leave, it’s never a relaxing drive into the mountains around here. Anyhow, we initiated the alpine start and arrived to the trailhead right around daybreak, where much to our delight we found we were the only car there. One car in the parking lot where we were, yet, literally three miles away there were thousands upon thousands of people piling into the expensive pay lots at a major resort…and of course “checking in” on Facebook to make sure everyone knows it.

As I mentioned, the ski tour up this valley is rather mellow. It follows an old mining trail through a dense pine forest before eventually breaking out at tree line into an incredibly beautiful and majestic bowl rimmed with jagged peaks above 13,000 feet. On this day the cloud deck was low and it was snowing lightly so the highest of the peaks were hidden, but there was still no denying the magic of being in a place like that and having it all to ourselves.

About the time we reached tree line, Donna stopped for what I assumed was a little oxygen break given we had been traveling at a little above 11,000 feet for a while. That was partially true, but what made me more happy was I discovered she had stopped to listen to the absolute quiet, something I myself cherish when I’m climbing alone at a resort or skiing the backcountry. You could even hear the light snow as it drifted down onto our nylon packs. We just stood there for a bit and let the energy of the place seep into our soul…and stresses of our everyday lives drain out.

We’ve been out skiing a few times together this year, mostly inbounds, but this was the first time I’ve actually seen her relax and actually take the time to enjoy the experience instead of starting the day anxious about fighting the crowds, the traffic and the general lunacy of what we’ve come to accept as acceptable. I think she clearly saw why I choose to ski in these places despite the hard work it takes to get to them.

Backcountry skiing is hard, especially if you don’t do it often. Regardless, I could see a distinct energy about life in her I don’t see all that often during the work week. She seemed less stressed and was willing (with encouragement) to fight her way up some steeper sections of the skin track to reach a flat spot on the adjacent ridge where we’d start our ski down. It definitely got her out of her comfort zone a little but the positives of being there and experiencing kept nudging her appreciation of life upward as the weight of everyday life lifted. Skiing at a resort seems to congregate and intensify people’s everyday stresses, where skiing in the backcountry seems to give you enough room to dissipate that stuff and see a little more clearly.

Once we reached the high point of our tour, it didn’t take much more than a cursory glance around that cirque to realize just how special it was to be in a place so beautiful and not have another person within miles. Instead of spending our currency of time being surrounded by hordes of oftentimes rude people on a crowded piste, we had invested our time in getting to a place that allowed us to relax and earnestly experience our surroundings and fill our souls…exactly what skiing is supposed to be about. Most importantly, we got to share that investment of time together and make another deposit into our “joint experience account”.When everything is said and done, all we’ll ever have in our lives are our experiences. It’s why I choose my time investments and who I invest them with very carefully these days.

It wasn’t exactly the powder day we hoped for, but we had a wonderful ski down despite the challenging variable conditions. Progress and growth of any kind is oftentimes a process of two steps forward and one step back. Skiing in the backcountry will definitely teach a person patience, humility and how to take broader strokes to the way you see things. You have to work through the tough times, trust the process and keep trudging down that road of self discovery. In the movie 180 Degrees South, Yvon Chouinard spoke of doing anything that involves discovering something spiritual about yourself by saying, “if you shortcut or compromise the process in any way, you’ll be an asshole when you start and you’ll still be an asshole when you finish”.

I saw some more big progress in Donna’s backcountry skiing and I know for sure she built another good layer of confidence in herself to tackle things that aren’t always very straightforward. I think that revelation came after the exhausting part of trying to get up after a fall or two in baseless snow…but it did come. Next time we go out I know she’ll grow yet again…we all do. I can’t help but think every day out there will help her compartmentalize those stressful days in her work life and keep them from filtering the amazing experiences we’ve had and will continue to have.

We didn’t “check in” that day like the thousands of people were doing just a few miles away, but we did manage to “check out” for a little while, which we tend to find a lot more appealing. It’s also nice to enjoy our long time home here in Colorado the way it should be enjoyed. It’s especially enjoyable to share those experiences with the ones you love.

Climb high. Ski hard. Ride long. Live simply.