Skiing: No frills, like Papa
February 25, 2009
It’s not what you do, it’s who you do it with, and snow sports are all about playing in the sunshine with good friends. It’s something I learned from my grandfather, Jules “Papa” Wiebel, who started skiing in the early days of the sport in the United States.
As part of a New York-based ski club called “The Weird Wolves” in the 1930s, a ski day for him meant dressing in leather boots and heavy woolens and carrying massive wooden skis and wide-basket poles onto the subway from his home in the German neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.
With his young wife Dorothy and friends they’d all hop a train or load a car going upstate and earn their turns at little rope tow areas such as G-Bar S in Western Massachusetts or by climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It was all about fresh air and friendships, Papa said; there was no such thing as resort chic.
My grandfather carried in his wallet a ticket for the very first ski train from New York to Stowe, Vt., and was quick to talk about those early days. He skied until he died in his 80s.
And Papa was on my mind on Sunday as I joined a group of friends for a no-frills day of skiing and tailgating at Arapahoe Basin in Summit County.
I first skied A-Basin as a teenager, and the last time I’d been there was on a sunny Fourth of July in 1995. But rounding that Loveland Pass turn, I was again awed by the inspiring view of jagged Continental Divide peaks that surround the little ski area.
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A-Basin has a laid back, old school feel something like the C lot at Mary Jane most weekends. The area is little more than a parking lot, an A-frame lodge and slow, old-school lifts, but “The Beach” is where the parking lot meets the slope and a great place to be on a sunny day like last Sunday. Our group reserved a spot and set up a grill and picnic site where we’d eat and meet throughout the day.
And the skiing was great. Montezuma Bowl is their new 400 acres of south-facing terrain. The coverage was spotty with lots of rocks poking through and any untouched snow was real crud, but the terrain is deliciously steep. I loved dropping off the cornice at the top of the bowl and making hop turns to stay in control before just pointing them straight and flying down the runout at the bottom.
A highlight of the day was when our friend Dave, AKA Daredevil Dave, launched himself off the cornice using the speed built up over about 100 yards of catwalk.
“The mountain just kind of kept going away,” he said later of a leap that stuck one ski in the snow about 30 feet down the drop and landed him about 40 feet further after a spectacular slide. We helped him pick up the pieces and were grateful we didn’t have to call in patrol.
On the edge of the bowl we found trees loaded with heavy snow we all pretended was powder and hooted, then made some turns in the extreme steeps and rocky glades under the Pavalchini lift. The area is named after the Pallavicini Couloir on Austria’s highest peak, the Grossglockner (12,457 feet), and is peppered with rocky, near-vertical steeps that I had to just ski fast without thinking too much and scaring myself out of it.
Despite the crusty conditions and the purgatory traffic on I-70 on the way home, the trip reminded me of what I love about living in the mountains, and it was like Papa was along for the ride that day. He would have loved it.
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