You couldn’t ask for a better first day of the season at Mt. Baker.
As we wound our way east on Route 542 this past Sunday, we had one eye on the rain and one on the thermometer. We’d had our share of early season wet conditions, it’s a considerable crap shoot to drive the long and winding hour not knowing whether or not we’ll find it soggy at the ski area, and it’s a real bummer to have to make the choice between skiing in the rain or giving up on skiing and driving all the way home disappointed.
To our delight, as we started to gain elevation a few miles past the tiny hamlet of Glacier, the rain turned to beautful, fat flakes of snow. Yippee!!!
Joining us on this trip was our 19-year old Japanese Homestay student, Shuichi, who hadn’t skied since his one and only time, when he was 5 years old in Japan. We got Shuichi set up with the beginner package — lift ticket, gear rental, and lesson for $48 — but we weren’t really sure how the day would go, since the beginner lift ticket is for Chair 2 only and we like to ski all over the mountain.
Shuichi’s lesson didn’t start until 11:30, so I agreed to stay with him until then and teach him a few things. We started with the wedge — toes and knees pointing inward, back straight, hands out in front, poles pointing backward — from the rental shop down to the bottom of the rope tow, and Shuichi, while looking incredibly uncertain and uncomfortable, was actually able to make turns without me even mentioning how to do so. And while the rope tow is challenging to get on and off of, Shuichi did pretty well. I encouraged him to allow himself to get used to a little speed on the practice hill, letting his skis go parallel, facing downhill, and then apply the wedge to slow down and turn. He fell a couple of times and was able to notice that the snow was soft, and this was good as doing so can often relieve some of the fear of injury.
At 11:30, I left Shuichi in the capable hands of his instructor, took off to join the Mrs. and the son at the top of Chair 3, and we got in a nice hour and half in on Chairs 4, 5, and 7. The only tricky part of the morning was the fog.
At the top of Chair 5 the visibility was incredibly bad, like 50 feet bad, making it hard to see other skiers and boarders and hard to read the contours of the slopes. It was the first time I’ve felt fear on Chair 5 since the first few times I skied it, and it was a thrill and felt like a great accomplishment to get down to the lift unscathed. (You can see some of the fog behind Julian in the photo above, but this was about halfway down.)
At lunchtime, we met up with Shuichi, who looked utterly exhausted. He reported that he’d gotten too hot and he was practically non-verbal until after he consumed a significant amount of water. But when I asked him how the lesson went, I found, much to my surprise, that his instructor hadn’t taught him any more than I had shown him in the morning, and Shuichi still had not made it onto the chairlift.
I had a very mixed reaction to this. On one hand, it seemed the lesson was a waste of money, on the other I felt rather proud that I’d been able to teach Shuichi the same thing that people paid money for. I’d benefited from lessons a few years ago from a friend of mine, and so it felt really good to pay it forward.
And so, after lunch, I was determined to help Shuichi get on Chair 2, which included going down the steepest hill he’d go on all day just to get to the lift. The Mrs. and the son once again took off, and as Shuichi and I made our way to the top of that steep hill I watched him closely to see if he seemed ready. Happily, he did look much more comfortable than before the lesson and, upon looking at the hill he had to go down, he agreed to go for it.
I took the lead and told Shuichi to follow me as I made wide s-turns until we were halfway down. Stopping briefly, I explained that we needed to pick up a lot more speed from that point onward, since the snow levels were still low and there was about a 30-degree grade from the bottom of the hill up to the chair. And though Shuichi wasn’t ready to point his tips straight down in order to get the speed he needed and had to sidestep it up to the lift, he’d made it down the hill and I could tell that he was pleased.
As he pushed through his fear of heights by riding the chairlift and made it down the green beginner runs a few times, I could tell that he was on his way and enjoying himself. After our third lap, with an hour left to ski, Shuichi reported that he was tired and done for the day, assuring me that he did not mind at all if I took off to join up with the Mrs. and the son.
That last hour was a blast! I met up with the family and we tore it up, cramming as much in as we could before the lifts shut down.
It’s an amazing feeling, gliding down the mountain with the Mrs. and the son, weaving in and out of each other’s paths, collectively feeling the joy of play that so often seems in terribly short supply in the day-to-day grind we get caught in.
The drowsy ride home was quiet, as we privately scanned through the day, and in my mind I was already planning my next trip to the mountain.