The Loss of Solitude

These events happened a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been debating whether or not to post them – they don’t cast me in a great light – but I think me in 30 years will appreciate the reminder.

If you’re a prospective employer reading this, your takeaway should be that I value honesty, candor and a growth mindset over the appearance of perfection (I get to dictate my readers’ takeaways, right?)

OK, on to our story.

It was a Friday morning, the last day before my Ikon pass stoped working over MLK weekend. The weather report the night before called for 5-7 inches of light, cold powder up in the canyons, perfect for snowboarding. I woke up early and hopped on the bus to Solitude, intending to finally get a powder day there. Boy did Solitude deliver!

It was a day for the songs! Deep powder on a soft base, endless refills from the still-falling snow, and barely anyone in the park. It seemed like as soon as one area would start to get tracked ski patrol would open up the next lift and we’d have a whole new set of slopes to play with. I spent the morning working my way gradually up the hill, going faster and faster, tackling faces I wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole the day before. “Cheater snow” they call it, the kind of day that makes you feel invincible.

I did have one gnarly crash in the morning. Riding fast down an unfamiliar face I let my nose drop and it caught, and I flipped right over the front of my board. I managed 2 or 3 cartwheels before landing sprawled in the snow. It was pretty frightening and I for sure sat there for a minute or two before hauling myself up, but thanks to the deep fluff I was completely unharmed. I rode down and hopped right back on the lift, sense of invincibility undiminished.

Fast-forward to about 11:30 AM. The Summit Express chair is now open, and it’s just as perfect as everything else that day. Off the main blue line down from the top there is a gate into an avalanche-controlled area containing a double-black run called the Cathedral Cirque. You traverse from the top of the chair around a gentle bowl to the gate, then traverse around a ridge to get to the Cirque itself, dropping in right under the lift. The gate’s open, I hit the traverse, drop the face, it’s legendary. I must do it again.

This time I mess up the initial traverse so I follow a track under the rope just below the gate. My momentum carries me pretty far before I have the chance to look around and realize the gate is closed. Crap! It must have just happened – it couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes since I skied it, and I had seen people on the face when I was on the chair no more than 5 minutes before I ducked the rope.

Now I had a decision to make. Unstrap and backtrack to the gate, which is potentially dangerous (especially if the snow here is unstable) and definitely tedious? Or trust the route I was just on? Which is safer?

I went for it…

And there was a ski patrol guy just out of sight around the ridge.

The patroller was not happy to see me, and not at all interested in listening to my explanation. He confiscated my Ikon pass and when I asked whether it was for the whole season all he said was “maybe”.

Dang.

I skied down to the lodge feeling pretty sorry for myself – getting my Ikon pass burned is a season-ending mistake. And it was an honest mistake! I wasn’t blatantly flouting the rules, a closed av-control zone was the last place I wanted to be. I know that avalanches are serious business, and as a rule I don’t mess around with the back-country or closed off areas. In 20-odd years of snowboarding I never once set foot out of bounds, and the one time I do by accident I get nailed. The punishment didn’t fit the crime!

Boo hoo woe is me.

But as I ate lunch (boy was I hungry) and mulled it over with the help of a kind group chat, I started to see the other side. I was in a closed av-zone, by intention or not, and that’s an extremely bad place to be. Cold and alone suffocating on snow would be a truly terrible way to go out. Moreover, if I had triggered an avalanche I could have hurt not just myself but skiers on the run below me, or ski patrol trying to dig me out of precarious snow. Conditions change fast on the mountain, especially in a storm, and it is absolutely my responsibility to be aware of what’s been marked as unsafe.

Getting burned for the whole season still felt disproportionate, but I at least understood why the ski patroller was so pissed.

So I started making calls. First to the director of the ski patrol (I got his voice mail), apologizing profusely and asking what a confiscated pass actually meant. Then to the ticket office, the manager of the resort, even the Ikon help line, anyone who might be able to tell me whether my season was over. No one who I could get ahold of was able to tell me anything useful.

I also got to call my parents and tell them that there might be some disruption to their visit the following week.

I kept calling over the long weekend. I never got ahold of the Solitude ski patrol, but I eventually determined that while I was hot-listed (banned) at Solitude for an indeterminate amount of time probably not less than 2 weeks, the pass would still work at the other mountains in the region. Not ideal – Solitude is the only park with unlimited days on the Ikon pass and my remaining charges at Brighton and Snowbird weren’t quite enough to carry me through – but not season-ending. That plus cutting off the best powder day of my life at the waist and causing a bunch of emotional distress felt like a reasonable punishment for my bone-headed move.

I’ve certainly learned my lesson. In the weeks since I’ve tried to exercise much more caution about where I go and what I hit, and I now always eyeball the av-gates from afar before committing to a traverse. I had gotten cocky, and this check came at just the right moment to cool me down a bit. I’m just glad I didn’t get myself (or someone else) hurt.

Addendum:

Two weeks later one thing stands out as curious about the whole incident: I responded much more strongly to getting caught by ski patrol than I did to getting pulled over by the cops in Vietnam. Riding a motorcycle with neither license nor training is probably about comparable in danger and stupidity to skiing in a closed av-zone, so why did I feel real bad about one while I brushed off the other as “just part of the adventure”? A few theories stand out:

  • Quality of the enforcers: I see ski patrol as an incorruptible force of good interested only in my safety, while the Vietnamese cops were clearly more focused on taking bribes than on keeping the road safe.
  • Frequency of the crime: everyone in Vietnam drives like a madman and half the drivers are unlicensed, whereas very few people duck the rope into a closed av-zone at an American ski resort.
  • Impact of the consequence: in Vietnam I had many ways to get around and even getting deported wouldn’t end my trip, whereas a burned Ikon pass would either end my season or put me out several thousand dollars.
  • As an imperialist pig I believe myself above the laws of a puny third-world nation.
  • In Vietnam I got away with it, whereas in Utah I did not.

It’s probably some combination of all of those. I haven’t quite figured out what to do about it yet, but it’s interesting to think about.

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