To Pass Or Not To Pass

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Less is more. I’ve always been a big fan of “less” but lately I’ve been hearing that phrase more and more from the people closest to me.

This ski season has been described by all the powers-that-be in the forecasting, data research and ski industry, as solidly average and officially been anointed a success. We’ve had average snow as defined by weather researchers, the piste has been covered for the most part, hordes consistently flocked to the resorts and our economy here in Colorado has been mostly smiles. As a guy who works in math as my primary means of income, the term I would use to describe this season would be “expected results”.

Going into this season I had high hopes for yet another above average season, just like the two prior to this one, but I’m greedy like that. Endless powder days, fresh lines aplenty and a season pushed well into June (and even July!). And indeed, others in my greater circle of acquaintances shared that anticipation and talked of all those big days in the backcountry ahead and how every weekend we’d be out early and home late. But once the season kicked off, those things changed.

As normal, I spent the first month or so skiing inbounds, getting the legs tuned just waiting for the backcountry to set up. That stoke and talk of all the backcountry powder lines ahead built to a crescendo and when it was finally time to pull the trigger and pack up the beacons, probes and shovels…the people I thought were in (based on all their big talk), were all of sudden suckling the teats of excuses and were perpetually unavailable for backcountry adventures (but up for resort days). It’s always hard in the backcountry so while it was marginally disappointing at first, it was somewhat expected and certainly not the end of the world.

I have to admit that my patience, will and desire to ski inbounds has been reduced to a flicker. With resorts merging, pimping and gobbling each other up at a frantic pace to see who can be the biggest, sexiest and most expensive, I honestly don’t feel they care much about me or anyone else as a skier anymore. Ski resorts are businesses and understandably are all about rankings in ski magazines and bottom lines on income statements. It’s to the point where I’ve really had to start to thinking about how much I want to spend my money to purchase a pass and commit to them for another season. Isn’t the point of spending your money that you get something in return?

Looking back, this failure to launch by the people who I quasi-counted on was a good thing. It forced me to reach out to a different set of friends, some I hadn’t known as well (until this season that is), and ask if I could tag along on some of their outings. In doing so, I also inadvertently reconnected with old friends who I hadn’t seen in a while and discovered just how much our ideals and thoughts on life had merged. Perhaps this was actually meant to happen?

The more time I spent with these people, the more I started hearing just how the mayhem, expense and aggravation of skiing at resorts had soured them, how they now found themselves earning their turns every weekend and how they’d really reconnected with the soul of skiing. The one thing I also started hearing more and more was that the option of NOT buying a pass to a resort for the next season was being discussed. Two friends in particular have already committed to eschewing a pass next year and will be sticking solely to the backcountry…no pass for the first time in 25 years.

My good friend Jason was here last weekend from Montana on the way back up to his guiding gig in Alaska. I always have a good time talking with him about life because we share the same views on simplicity. He does have a little street cred in that area since he quit his job as a PhD researcher at a high profile university a few years ago to pursue a simpler life as a guide and artist.

Anyhow, we spent a day climbing and skiing in the backcountry in some of the places introduced to me this winter. As always, we found our way into long, protracted conversations about simple living, appreciating life at a slower pace (as we slowly huffed and puffed our way up the skin track) and how conversations like the one we were having were by far the best part of backcountry skiing. Yes, the powder turns in the backcountry are simply fantastic and the feeling of satisfaction of climbing to get those turns is unequalled, but having the time and quiet format to connect with friends on a deeper level, maybe even suffering a little together in a spectacularly beautiful setting, well, that’s the real reward.

On our ski down, Jason and I stopped at an old mining cabin to get out of the wind, take some photos, chat and have a bite to eat. After that we skied a bit more, took some more photos, sat in the snow and chatted for a while, climbed a bit more, skied some more and we even got a little lost and wound up with a mini adventure bushwhacking to get back to the drainage leading to my truck.

In the end we only skied about 2,000 vertical feet in four hours, earned some thoroughly thrashed quads, worked up a massive appetite, didn’t see another person the entire time and I think I can speak for Jason and say we had one of the best days ever on skis. Best of all, a day in the backcountry will cost me a little gas money and about $15 for an IPA and a burger at the local brewery. Cost of a single day lift ticket at Vail, parking, an Epic Burger and a beer, $200. I’ll let you do the math on this one.

The spring-season-pass-sale-silliness has begun here in Colorado and for the first time in a long, long time, I find myself debating whether to buy one at all. If I don’t purchase a pass for next season, I probably won’t be skiing over 700,000 lift served vertical feet which seems to be a benchmark good year for a committed season pass holder. Instead, it’ll probably be more around 100,000 self-propelled vertical feet like this season.

I’ve had such an amazing year in the backcountry this season and I owe that solely to everyone who shared those cold early morning climbs, heart and lung pounding ascents and those long, meaningful conversations. I honestly can’t say that about my brief time spent at resorts.

Climb high. Ski hard. Live simply.

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