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The Warm Up Artist

My father taught me to get less out of every ski day.

Crystal Mountain Washington

By Eric Hansen | Photograph Jason Hummel

In my early teens I was tortured, the last of my upper middle class Seattle friends to graduate from ratty snowbibs to stretch pants. Mom and Dad forced us to shuttle drudgingly up to Crystal Mountain in their purple minivan instead of letting us ride the ski bus with the other kids. Instead of burgers and fries, we ate homemade bologna sandwiches for lunch, which forced us to sit in the brown-bagger corner of the cafeteria. My boots came from the Seattle-area preseason supersale called Sniagrab, or “bargains” spelled backward. I could go on. The slights and betrayals dealt to me as a tween skier were legion. And neither parent—least of all Dad—seemed to sympathize with my suffering.

On the mountain, even if he’d brought a friend and me up for half day, Dad had to “take a little warm-up,” windmilling theatrically by the lifts like an Austrian ski coach. Only then would he agree to ride to the summit. And there—in the shadow of Mount Rainier, with a romping good resort splayed out below us—he would arc slow, looping turns, as if he were actually old and not just in his 40s.

But before I could worry that my friend was going to ditch us and catch the ski bus home, Dad would suggest we “try a little…” and name a properly steep run, such as Iceberg Gulch.

A former ski instructor, Dad was the best skier that I, or any of my friends, knew. He would hockey stop at the crest of the Gulch, point out what he thought looked like a nice soft patch, and then rip a few turns in the trough before riding high on the bank and milking the light, off-camber section, whooping. Midway down, he’d comment on the fun little gravity-defying airplane turn he’d made or ask if we’d hit that “whoop-de-doo,” which we hadn’t, because we were mostly just hanging on, even though we fancied ourselves some version of the extreme skier Scot Schmidt. Dad, meanwhile, would wonder aloud how he just couldn’t seem to remember to keep his hands out in front, or his downhill knee tucked, or some other complaint about form that was, until years later, beyond me.

Exhilarated, my friend and I would macho up and say we wanted to drop off the top of Powder Bowl, a diving-board-like cornice. We’d hang our tips over the edge, hack at it with our poles in the Schmidtian manner, and then leap in perfect 1980s ski-film unison—before pockmarking the slope and starfishing. “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying,” was all Dad would say, before spurring us on to tuck the lower half of Green Valley or slip into the steep trees at Bear Pits. He remains one of my favorite people to ski with.

I have no memory of how many runs we usually took; whether we caught first chair or last. Dad didn’t quantify skiing that way. He always stopped for lunch, never hurried a powder day, and happily forfeited our lift tickets when it rained, which was common on the ocean side of the Cascades. We felt no need to impress. In the purest way, Dad—a self-taught skier, the son of a waitress and bricklayer—simply loved to slide around on mountains. And now that I, like him, have skied many days, and know many more are coming, I find his easygoing verve inspiring, maybe even ingrained. At least one ski day with Dad will stay with me forever.

It was a Sunday, early winter, and Dad suggested we hit the ridgeline for a leisurely inspection of all our options, from snakey lines through rock bands and tree patches to “big cruisers” across open faces.

“Do you hear that?” Dad asked when we were about 15 minutes along.

It was the sound of a flute. High. Bouncing. Spritely. The flautist himself, we soon saw, sat atop the most dramatic peak in the cirque, 7,000-foot Silver King. We stood there for whole minutes, transfixed.

When you’re a kid, you ascribe mystical powers to your parents that you quickly discard as a teenager. But even now when I’m skiing, I can’t help but feel that the flautist appeared because of Dad.

Crystal Mountain, WA

Acres: 2,600 | Vertical: 3,100’ | Snowfall: 486” | crystalmountainresort.com 

What’s New: Extensive limbing between the Niagara’s area and Memorial Forest opens new tree skiing terrain, while the addition of two, new Super Polecat Snow Guns means earlier opening (weather permitting) in the Discovery Meadow area.

From the Early Winter 2016 issue.

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