First published in issue 16.3 of The Ski Journal.
I promise you the ski patrol at my home mountain is better than yours. It’s a realization I came to thanks to Mary Jane’s ski patrol tryout.
My home mountain is home to double-fall-line, ungroomed bump runs that flirt with irregularity on their best days, and complete demoralization on their worst. Growing up on this hill, we knew by rote the order of the backside bump runs from Trestle to Needle’s Eye. We recounted with reverence the Iron Horse bump runs, a particularly sadistic fall-line set of steep terrain that begins with the added obstacle of using lodgepole pines as slalom gates. Across the way, Outhouse is our Hollywood, somewhere there’s nowhere to hide.
Tackling the bump runs at Mary Jane is the domain of young knees and burgeoning egos. It was a coming-of-age challenge that we leveled against one another as the Colorado teenager’s equivalent of the elk rut or peacocks strutting their tail feathers.
But mention the ski patrol challenge and there is a hush. Young brows become furrowed and lips are pursed. Five runs, no stops, no falls—all while being watched. Judged. Nowadays even my boys know the order, or at least my recollection of the order.
Outhouse, Drunken Frenchman (aka Frenchy’s), Derailer, Golden Spike and Sterling Way.
They are all long and notoriously bumpy. Pitch and fall lines change often. Trees punctuate parts of the runs like prehistoric monsters, aesthetic gems to the recreational masochist.
Many of my friends on patrol, when asked about the tryout, sort of drop their heads and nod in bemused disbelief. It’s common to hear some of the best skiers on the hill mention the unmentionable: “I failed the first time I took it. I failed it the second time too. That year, only four people passed.”
I’m not a tiger dad. There are no preconceived expectations for my boys in their ascension to young adulthood. But in a world that allows retakes of nearly every school exam and a kinder, gentler upbringing designed to nurture our youth, I find it comforting to know there is no way to cheat the Mary Jane patrol challenge.
And it is just such an occasion that finds me and Brady, my Towe-Fro younger son, at the top gate of Outhouse. When I was a young skier, the entrance gate read, “Your skis must be longer than you to ski this run.” But today Brady hits the ground running. Not only does he explode from the gate, but he also zigs skier’s right, into the gladed woods we always call “Do or Die Trees.” My old knees are accompanied by the shit-eating grin worn by a proud father chasing his kin down the haunts of his own youthful memories. After 150 yards, Outhouse rolls over into its first steep section. Not the steepest at Mary Jane, but the lines are often irregular, formed by skiers who have no inclination as to how to hold a noodle line. Clearing that section unscathed is a test of endurance, route finding and a little bit of luck.
Digging deep, I harness the knees and lungs of a 21-year-old. My quads are screaming but I have skied this line countless times. I have one more chance…
And then it becomes clear that even a clean run will not be enough to best my son on this day. He has beaten me. Soundly. Without stopping. Sitting at the calm, groomed convergence with the Mary Jane trail, Brady meets me with the smile reserved for those few days when an unthinkable dream has been realized.
The old slow double chairs at Mary Jane offer not only the chance to rest your sore quads, but they also afford that rarest opportunity—time to slow down and enjoy the company of a real-life human. None of it is lost on me. I know the fabric of my own life is woven from these same memories.
The summit lift station breaks me from my daydream as the liftie bumps sweet balm on his speaker. One good thing about music—when it hits, you feel no pain.
I know that on this day we won’t stop for four more uninterrupted runs. Brady is ready to charge, but I won’t go easily.
“C’mon,” I say. “See if you can beat me down Frenchy.”