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LeSabre Vision Quest

Two ski bums and a road trip in the winter of 1978–79.

alta utah lee cohen

Skier Marcus Caston

Story and Photo by Lee Cohen

My first winter out West began in July with me hitchhiking from North Carolina to Yellowstone, where I had lined up a job at Roosevelt Lodge. In October, me and George, a.k.a. Orson, an ultra quiet, strawberry blonde ponytailed Connecticut hippie who I buddied up with in Yellowstone, moved to Denver to work on banquet crew before heading into the Rockies to ski. 

It was the first year of the Pallavicini Lift at Arapahoe Basin: 1978–79. Orson and I bought our midweek passes for a hundred bucks and made way for Summit County in a dented 1970 Buick LeSabre my dad had left in Mom’s garage when he moved out. It had a landau top, a 350, sweet snow tires, and a posi-rear. That posi-rear came in handy more than once. We spent early winter reveling in the steeps of the Basin and learning how to ski a little powder—me on my 177cm Dynamic VR-17’s. I don’t remember what George skied on.

We slept out all winter. Living a cheap, clean life, cooking over a fire or using our Svea or Optimus single burners. Sporting ourselves breakfast in Breckenridge once in a while. It used to be a really quaint little Colorado ex-mining town.

With our hand axes we fashioned T-Stools that we notched together for seats. Our camping gear was primo for the time—subzero bags (I had an Eddie Bauer Kara Koram, Orson had a Snow Lion), and a really burly Eddie Bauer tent called the Overnighter, one of the first tents with external poles, modeled after the kind Hillary used on the first Everest ascent. We’d wake up in the mornings and get sprinkled with frost—that was as close as we’d get to a shower. Nineteen-year-old ski bums who live in the woods don’t worry about showers. Our stench stored up in crummy waffle thermals, wool army pants, and 60/40 parkas. In February, we got a job cleaning condos on Saturdays. Guests left behind grub that buoyed the food coffer.

Our homes were three campsites. I remember them well. One was in the woods off Swan Mountain Road, the back way from Dillon to just south of Frisco. It was nothing but woods back then. The other, our primary residence, was Blue River Campground, north of Silverthorne. Closed for the winter, save for the spot we dug out in front of the gate for the Buick. We hiked in a little, pitched the tent, and never heard a sound. Silverthorne was nothing but a few corrugated steel buildings back then, barely a truck stop and gas station.

Our other camp was a snow cave dug into the back wall of the lot across the street from A-Basin. It was only a couple of weeks before we got the boot. One morning I came rolling out of the snow and there’s a guy there, “How ya doin’?  I’m John, the area manager at A-Basin. We were gonna plow the lot back last night, but we heard from the Forest Service there were a couple of guys living in a snow cave back here.”

Part of our winter ski bum vision quest duty was checking out ski areas. We hit Vail and Copper, but Steamboat was our favorite until we went to Taos in late March. Over New Year’s, a roommate of mine from college flew in and we road tripped to see the Dead close out Winterland on New Year’s Eve. Afterward, we were heading to check out Alta and Snowbird. I’d heard about Utah and its powder.

We didn’t get into the show and ended up watching it at the Jim Jones Peoples Temple, the same Jim Jones who led 900-plus people to commit suicide in Guyana just six weeks before.

The Winterland venue was in the projects, and after the show we went back to the LeSabre to find the passenger window smashed. We’d been robbed—along with about a thousand other people. Seeing that I was a 19-year-old maniac, I wandered into the project looking for my stuff. They’d stolen my brother’s camera, which I’d taken out of his closet after my parents explicitly told him not to lend it to me. I ended up with two black eyes after getting in a brawl with six thugs who’d been roaming the streets assaulting people. I never found the camera, but inside the project stolen goods were strewn everywhere.

Somehow we’d been totally raided of everything that was in the car, but all our ski and camping gear was still in the trunk. So off to Snowbird we went, parking the Buick in the no-parking zone just inside Entry One. The LeSabre showed all its glory, proud of its new Visqueen window. We pitched our tent below, alongside the creek in about four feet of snow.  No one ever messed with the car. There weren’t many people around Snowbird in early January 1979.

It was bitter cold, and we’d find refuge in the Tram Center—Snowbird employees marveling at the psychos who were camping out in 15 below as they helped us dry out our gear in the conference rooms. We skied our brains out at Alta and Snowbird that week.

And then it happened. It was nuking and we were up at Alta. My buddy wasn’t a good skier, so I was exploring on my own. Some guys took me out to Gunsight for the first time. The traverse and the hike seemed like a huge adventure to me. The Alta credo of earning your turns was almost totally unique back then, and hiking for five or ten minutes in big mountains seemed like a huge deal to a kid who’d grown up skiing New York and Vermont. From that moment, I was hooked. I found the High Traverse—the High T—and started spinning laps, first dropping off near Jitterbug, making my way through frosty trees into the open meadows of the Alta dream.

My conscious self would still have to go through the motions of exploring other mountains behind the wheel of the LeSabre. But I think I knew in my soul right then that Alta was going to be a big part of my life.

Alta, UT

Acres: 2,200 | Vertical: 2,020’ | Snowfall: 551” | alta.com

What’s New: A new snowmaking spur increases the resort’s snowmaking capacity, and a remodeled angle station on the Collins Lift gives skiers a better view of lift operators (to give them the Hang 10 sign).

From the Early Winter 2016 issue.

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