Winters Beyond a Ski Pass

What’s a Body to Do in the Cold?

I grew up with hard-core, bone-deep, cold, wet winters. A formative memory is from my father’s grad school years: University of Iowa, my sisters and I were in grade school. His classes started earlier than ours, leaving us to navigate our mile-long walk alone. Styling full-on snowsuits and puffy moon boots, we were still always cold.

One wicked morning, we battled deep snow and bitter winds. Huddling in the Myrtle Creek culvert, never wanting to move again. Hands numb, face frozen, I closed my eyes and checked out. I was 8 years old.

I have no idea what prompted us on.

That last 1/4 mile could’ve been an Everest parody, three miniature Michelin girls, post-holing step by step to the top. When we accepted our perfect attendance awards at the end of the school year, the principal laughed into the mic, sharing our “love” of school—coming, even, on a snow day!

Childhood years in southern Cali and Arizona predestined me to feel most alive, brown-skinned and barefoot. “Endless summer” is a life-long dream, especially come September, as cooling days grow darker and shorter.

Historically, heading into the clench of Rocky Mountain winters, a ski pass has sustained my sanity. I haven’t had one every winter, though. People seem stunned the winters I don’t. “What’s the point of living in Colorado without a ski pass?!” they wonder.

When you don’t have that choice and still view yourself as mountain girl, you make it work. And anything we do while braving sleet, snow and sub-zero temperatures has a bit more of an edge to it than sunny-day pastimes.

Years ago, it occurred to me I could run in the winter, too. It’s proven to be sublime; as easy as slipping out the door. Honestly—that’s what it feels like—as though you got a hall pass somehow, and can just sneak off. Kick cabin fever to the curb, get high and feel amazing for the whole day.

It’s in the instant that ungodly blue skies sear your retinas. It’s the craw of a raven shattering the very air. It’s the flash freeze of nose hair as you find your first breaths and the rhythmic crunch of Yak-trax with each footfall. It’s your muscles warming and the wonder of stripping layer after layer in January, your sun-starved skin reveling in fresh air. It’s outrunning the doldrums and feeling freedom.

I don’t feel so free when friends make ski plans I can’t join. It feels crappy, frankly. Not for me, no thank you. Who else can play with me today?

Cross-country skiing is super social and one of my favorite ways to spend a winter day. It’s almost smugly self-indulgent and ridiculously simple.

We can roll out of bed as we wish, lounging through the morning over fresh coffee and whatever (divine) breakfast we’re inclined to work off…and when we feel like it, we head out. Fifteen peaceful minutes sailing up a gorgeous county road puts us on the trail.

Stepping out of the car and straight into skis, I like it. The first stretches and deep breaths often wind up giggles of excitement: Fresh air! Exercise!

Incredible views! We rarely get to take in low-elevation scenery, at slow speeds, way up close like this: dense feathers of silver sage drifting against the pearlescent apricot of scrub oaks in drifts of white and blue snow—combinations, hues and textures impossible to find in the summer. It always makes me wish I were some kind of artist, to be able to capture or recreate it all somehow: the delicacy and detail. How can you not marvel over the perfection of ice crystals shining from the umbels of a chamisa seed; the interplay of sun and shade through creamy aspen stands? There is so much to see and sense. I forget the awesomeness of this.

Cross-country skiing with friends holds the intimacy of a midweek lunch date. As we sweat up hills and cool off on the downs, we can ski closely, covering all the bases of our lives. Winter isolation loosens its grip. Deep re-connections unfold, the threads of our families and circles interweaving again, despite the slowing and closing down typical to winter.

And winter picnics—an art unto themselves.

To find a sunny hole somewhere is bliss; breaking open the backpack, heaven. What’s your beverage of choice? A thirst-crushing micro? A hot, foamy dirty chai? Add a wedge of good cheese, some apple slices; throw in a hunk of homemade smoked sausage… and a sunbaked nap for dessert.

“Relaxed.” My in-road to winter has been finding ways to do that. And I don’t mean chunking out on the sofa reading novels all day.

In a previous issue of Roaring Fork Lifestyle Magazine, I wrote about the ‘flow state.’ In a contradiction of sorts, physical outlets like skiing, running, climbing, playing—necessary, healthy, high-energy activities—can bring rise to the flow state, where we’re so lost in the accomplished practice of something, we’re in a state of ease and often, joy.

My argument against winter for years has been “I don’t like how my body feels. It’s so freaking cold, my body’s always so tense. I don’t like the pucker factor!”

Originally, skiing was my sole fix to mainline the Rocky Mountain high, breaking the stagnant, shackles of house-bound winters. But what about when I couldn’t ski?

Friends.

It took friends, and more gear, and a willingness to explore old things in new ways and new things the old school way.

But all this took me a lifetime to hone in on.

I watched my 6-year old daughter bike to school through snow and ice for the first time ever this winter. I was so freaking proud of her, happy for her. It has been my goal to launch this little mountain girl into all four seasons, carried on the gas of her own gusto.

That morning, she filled her tank with her favorite breakfast. Drank warm tea. She layered up, right down to her new, violet balaclava. No cold drafts sneaking through anywhere. She was so stinking cute, like the Stay Puff marshmallow guy, her helmeted head bobbling on her tiny body, just tooling along on her miniature bike.

I warned her, laughing, so as not to scare her, “You will wipe out!” And I set her up for success. “Just don’t make any sudden moves: break slowly, turn slowly and you just might make it. But be ready for it, and if you do, hop right back on!” We cycled so slowly I actually toppled and I definitely froze…but it was worth it. No wrecks. No tears.

I was surprised to discover she was one of only eight kids that biked to school that day. Her cheeks were rosy and her smile was fantastic.

I do happen to have a ski pass, the first in seven years. She’s been skiing for three, though, so I can’t wait to surf some greens and blues with her.