Sports

The snow falling in the mountains is now measured in feet, not inches and the temperatures are so low (-10F) that I had to move my remaining boards into the utility closet, where the furnace will keep them warm. For now, it appears, I have to cut back on my surfing sessions while still not being able to drive up the mountains to snowboard (because of the feet of snow that block the freeway). A good time to reminisce!

I took up surfing late. I mean, I didn't live in SoCal until 2009, but even then I waited years before I tried it out. Surfing, from the outside, looks boring: most of the time, surfers are just sitting in the water waiting for waves. Not exactly the most appealing thing for a hyper person like me.

One day I realized UCSD had cheap surf lessons and I decided to give it a try. Even if I didn't like it, I'd still meet new people that were trying to have fun, how bad could it be? 

Turns out the lessons were not so hot. Or they were too hot: in my ignorance, I had bought a 7mm wetsuit on sale and showed up on the rare fogless day at La Jolla Shores. To make things worse, Day One was on land. I think I may have overheated several times and had to jump in the water (much to everyone's amusement) to just cool off.

Surfing is really hard, probably the hardest sport I ever tried. Yet I stuck with it, because it is much more of an experience than anything else I've ever done. Here some of my favorite moments in the five years of surfing:

1. Boop

I had just finished the beginners' class and was a total noob. Not a kook, because the class had taught me proper etiquette and rules of engagement - which meant that I barely got a wave an hour to even try. To make up for the boredom, I had put an MP3 player in a plastic bag and listened to music through underwater headphones. 

I was just sitting there, bopping up and down at Scripp's, praying nobody would take the next wave. I hadn't paddled in maybe 15 minutes and was bored. Once in a while, I would turn around to see how far it was to shore and how embarrassing it would be to paddle back.

Read more: My Favorite Moments of Surfing

It is Presidents' Day 2016 as I write this. The sun has come out and it's going to be a warm day in San Diego. The yellow jacket is staring at me on a chair opposite this computer, while the board and gear are still firmly lodged on the living room floor. It's a mess, a glorious mess.

This adventure was amazing. I saw places I would remember forever, had more fun than I thought I could have, was less stressed out than I thought I would by the constant need to move, move, move.

There were a few takeaways. First, I am firmly back in the saddle when it comes to snowboarding. I was reticent for a long time, the lingering side effects of the shoulder separation contracted in Breckenridge still haunting me. Not on this trip: I pushed harder than I have ever before, and I was rewarded with more accuracy, more stability, and greater challenge. I snowboarded down double blacks wondering why they weren't just single blacks, and had a ski instructor in Sun Valley tell me I should stay the hell out of blue runs and use them only to get to the more challenging drops.

Second, I was positively amazed at how much my second time in Jackson Hole was better than the first time. I had very, very fond memories of the place and thought they couldn't and certainly wouldn't be bested. But I was wrong, and Jackson Hole delivered. Part of it was that I wasted less time exploring places I wouldn't like, part of it that I actually was able to get everywhere I wanted to get (including the top), and part of it that I found new places (especially in the Village) that I didn't know existed, but made my day.

Finally, and this is the biggest one, I found Big Sky. Sure, I was lucky and got a fresh dump of pow pow to work with, but aside from Swift Current, the mountain was perfect. It is enormous, second to Whistler only in North America, but it also has a variety that is hard to match. Unlike Whistler, too, it has much more consistent snow. I cannot tell you how often I've gone to Canada only to find the snow rained out, or melted already to the point where you couldn't ride down to Creekside. You don't have to be afraid of that in Montana, although it might occasionally get way too cold for comfort.

Better than Whistler, Big Sky is not crowded, ever. Presidents' Day weekend is the busiest time at any resort in the USA, and I remember with horror the lines at Ski Express in Heavenly (45 minutes! in the singles line!) Yet, aside from the popular destinations, I never had to wait in Big Sky. And since it is uncrowded, people are friendlier and don't get frustrated as easily. I wonder about the random rudeness of some, but I have an inkling it is more a function of the weekend than of the place.

Next year? I still have a dream trip to make with the Mountain Collective, and I mentioned it here in a previous post. The trip is Lake Louise, Kicking Horse, Revelstoke, to Whistler. All those resorts are lines up on Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway (except for Whistler, which is on a spur through Pendleton). The problem is logistics, having to fly into Calgary and dropping off the car in Vancouver, or vice-versa.

I may do that trip later in the season, if I feel like it. It would be great to have 5 of the Mountain Collective resorts under my belt in one year, although I had 4 last year - not a giant difference.

But next year? I am planning on getting the MAX pass and staying a full week. One full week in Big Sky, and if I have the time and money, one more week at one of their other destinations. Maybe Steamboat in Colorado, although I will be a native by then. Maybe Mount Bachelor in Oregon. I've heard great things.

One thing I failed to mention in my write-up of the snowboarding day in Big Sky is that it was "unseasonably warm." It was mid-February, when temperatures should have ranged from 15 to 38 (low high). Instead, it was 38 to 50. Locals told me it felt like May.

I had checked the weather before going up the mountain and made the right (if scary) call: only the Tesla base layer and a cotton sweater on top. That my usual uniform for spring skiing, and it was way too much for the day. I wish I had brought the convertible jacket (the one where you can separate the shell from the inner lining and wear it as a full protection jacket, a shell only, or a light jacket with not shell).

The warmth and sunshine and lack of wind certainly helped make the day as perfect as it was. They also conspired to make the night a tragedy for the snow. All the softness of the day would turn into crusty ice at night. I thought maybe I could get by on Moonlight Basin, maybe I could get to the tram and do some of the crazy stuff on the top of the mountain.

But I didn't. I was tired, since I hadn't slept well, and I had a long drive back to Boise ahead of me. There was snow on the forecast for the afternoon, and I didn't want to get trapped in it. And I was tired, with a crescendo of snowboarding that had culminated in a day spent nonstop on the slopes.

Finally, I would have to pay a full day, $106, while knowing I wasn't going to stay much past noon. I would also have to pay for parking, since I would have lost another hour getting to the shuttle and driving down.

For consolation, I told myself it didn't really matter: I would be back. Big Ski is easily reached from Bozeman (it's about 50 miles from the airport) and the snow is much more reliable, still, than at other resorts. It's the kind of place where you feel comfortable buying a time share, because it doesn't really matter that your week is assigned: no matter what week it is, you can make it work.

I also learned about the existence of a "secret" resort just South of Big Sky. It is called the Yellowstone Club, is members only (where members means you have to buy real estate), and boasts 2200 skiable acres. It is weirdly adjacent to Big Sky in a way reminiscent of Alpine's proximity to Squaw. If you want to buy into the private resort idea, you should know that the cheapest condo there is about $2M at the time of writing. "But no lift lines" sounds a lot more appealing in Heavenly or Mammoth than in Big Sky.

I jumped in the car with the clouds from the West looking dark and uninviting. I had planned on leaving after the stores opened, so I could buy one more Big Sky souvenir. But I didn't make it: it was 8:30 when I went downstairs and handed the key to the front desk. Dumped everything into the car, not caring about planning anything, not needing to make sure the snowboard gear was in reach and that I wouldn't leave the boots in the car, or else I wouldn't be able to get into them in the morning. No more snowboarding for a while. Sad Face!

I drove off knowing the drive was going to be 6.5h on a good day. Six and a half hours don't sound too bad until they are your parting shot going away from a week of perfect fun.

The gas stations in Big Sky, at the bottom of Lone Mountain Road, are both relatively cheap. If you are leaving town, buy gas there, since anything en route is much, much more expensive. When I drove past, it was $1.85 in Big Sky and $2.65 in West Yellowstone. That may be because West Yellowstone seems to be the snowmobile capital of the world: I saw at least seven bands (gaggles? murders? choppers? packs?) of snowmobiles on tour just driving through.

There was no snow. I drove down without the slightest issue and by the time I had reached Ashton in the Snake River valley, I knew the drive was not going to be a problem. From there on, I drove to Idaho Falls and onto the freeway. Stopped for a Starbucks on the way. After that, a long long boring boring drive and stop at the McDonald's in Burley. I might be forgiven for not knowing much about Burley: the only thing I remember was the people driving off the drive-through, reclined in their car seats because of obesity.

As you drive on, you reach the Snake River Canyon and things get more scenic. Central Idaho is volcanic and the canyons are steep and scenic. There is an area called Massacre Rocks that sounded historic, but turned out to be just a cautionary tale for emigrants.

Eventually, I got to the airport in Boise.

To the West, the airport, to the right the Holiday Inn. I was happy about that, because I really didn't want to deal with any kind of traffic in the morning.

Location for the Holiday Inn is perfect, and the rooms are really nice. In fact, this was probably the nicest room I've stayed at during the entire trip. The only downside: I got a Hotwire room. Some hotels have the nasty habit of giving guests the crappiest rooms just because you ordered it with a discount.

Las Vegas knows how it's done: if you show up for the first time, they more often than not upgrade you for free. If you go to Cesar's Palace and get upgraded to a mini-suite, while at the Circus Circus you get stuck in a danky room next to the elevators, you are simply going to give Circus Circus a crappy review and never show up there again.

Such was my fate at the Holiday Inn Boise Airport. The hotel was barely half full, judging by the number of empty parking spots in the morning, yet I had been assigned a room so obviously Hotwired, it even had its own sign.

You know how when you get to a hotel floor, they have signs that tell you "Rooms 301-332, left?" Well, this hotel had the same. Plus a sign that read, "Marco's crappy room, around the corner." OK, it said, "334, right arrow." But it really meant the same.

It was the room, you guessed it, whose long wall was the wall to the elevators on the other side. All night long, I would hear the chyme of the elevator whenever someone stopped at my floor (3) People would talk in normal voices, and they felt as loud as if they were standing right next to me.

I've had two experiences worse than this in a hotel. Once, I lost my apartment keys in Portland and the building manager refused to give me spares that night, so I had to stay at a Motel 6, right next to elevator and ice maker. It was whoosh, crunch crunch all night. Then I was at the fancy Mammoth Ski Resort Lodge and they gave me a suite at the corner at street level. Snow removal equipment was working all night.

Still, nothing that makes me recommend the Holiday Inn Boise Airport. At the very least, if you booked on Hotwire, make sure they change your room, no matter what they first give you. Simply say something like, I will not like that room, please give me a different one, and only then march upstairs and check what they gave you.

In the morning, I was on my merry way. The airport formalities were easy. Drop off the rental car, walk to Alaska check-in, walk through security, wait. There was no delay this time around and we got into San Diego on perfect time to witness a gorgeous, warm and sunny morning. I will miss San Diego's winters, for sure!

Lyft (and Uber and all the other cab apps) finally got a place to do pick-ups at the airport. It is in the parking lot, just beyond the regular cabs. The app even has instructions when you request a Lyft.

So concludes a wonderful week of snowboarding adventure.

2016 02 12 11.40.20The shuttles come only once an hour and I wanted to be on the mountain early. To make sure I wouldn't miss it, I was out and about around 8, for a departure at 8:35. I thought I was going to freeze my heini off, but it was actually temperate.

The bus arrived and I boarded with a small bunch of people. The driver then left at the appointed time and we started winding our way up Lone Mountain Road, the main road towards the lifts.

After an eternal wait, the mountain came into view. It is just the singleton you see in the pictures, a looming presence that commands attention. From there on, the views would simply be divine. Snowboarding? Did I really come here to snowboard?

We got unloaded at the top parking lot, with a view of the Village (Mountain Village). It looks very meh, with condo fortresses dominating the view. Here, almost immediately, I ran into the only snag of the stay: rude skiers. This portly guy was huffing up the very wide stairs with his skis slung over his shoulders. I was in hurry so I passed him to the right and he yelled at me for being so pushy.

When I got to the top of the stairs, there was a ski locker. A family of three had decided to put on their gear right there, blocking the passage. I stood, waiting for them to scram or at least move a little. I asked politely if they could let me pass. Just as I did that, Portly Guy comes from behind, pushes me to the side, knocks over the kid that was putting on his ski boots, and finally rams his ski with a wide swing into my standing snowboard. Better the board than my head, I guess. Best of all: Portly Guy's hurry ended not 20 yards later, when he stopped on the plaza and stood around for an eternity, waiting for goodness knows what.

It wasn't an isolated incident. The entire day I would see some skiers do rude things. The kind of rude that implies you don't matter. It wasn't targeted at me, at all: I saw a guy slam the door of the restaurant into a child's face, or a lady cut in line at the restaurant, only to have a long phone conversation while the people behind her were fuming to order.

What was most surprising about that behavior was that the people of Big Sky - resort staff, minders, drivers, line cooks, waiters, and even the random person that just happened to be on the lift with you - they were all unfailingly loveable. It was as if this resort attracted both the worst and the best of mankind.

My first wish was to get onto the lift that would eventually land me to the tram to the top. Sadly, as I stood in line, I heard the avalanche charges go off. I know that sound too well, from Whistler. It means you can't snowboard until they clear all danger.

My sinking feeling wasn't helped by the fact this lift was both incredibly flat and incredibly slow. Yes, we were going towards Lone Mountain. No, the name, Swift Current didn't describe the thing. In fact, it mocked it. Not since the days of the Galaxy lift in Tahoe did I experience such a disappointment.

At the top, I turned to the first thing that said black diamond and ran with it. It turned out to be a run called Stump Farm. The snow was great, with at least 3-4 inches of powder freshly dumped. The farm was just a moguled up hillside I managed in something like three minutes. After that, flatness. It was as if I had used up the stored vertical all in one face and I was not going to get any more fun after that.

Next time around, I turned right. Swift current ends above a slow triple chair that was, though, moving. When I got there, though, they were not loading. I had to go down the mountain, back to the loading area of Swift Current.

This time, luckily, I had more fun. I saw a group of people enter the woods at something called White Magic, which turned out to be a thinned out gully and more fun than I deserved in my current mood. I zipped down and had a blast trying to dodge the trees and not get thrown off track by bumps! Instant mood booster!

The prospect of another slow ride up didn't appeal, so I turned to the other lift that loads in the Mountain Village area: Ramcharger. The name implies force and speed, but I had already been disappointed by Swift Current. Boy, was I wrong!

First of all, there was no line and there wouldn't be all day. The longest I had to wait was 30 seconds, and even then only because some group in front of me was waiting for a straggler. Ramcharger was also pretty fast and never stopped (unlike Swift Current).

I saw a run in the glades advertised, Wounded Knee. There was nobody on it as far as the eye could see and the snow looked delectable. I could see the moguls under the powder, it looked like a challenge. I was up for a challenge.

Boy, was that fun! I dashed down, not stopping once, even on first try. I was just turning and twisting, using the forward momentum of the second half of the swing to lift off and turn with easy, while I used the impact of the first half to slow me down and give me a chance to look ahead. I zipped faster than I imagined I could, surrounded by trees and impacted by a giant field of (relatively shallow) moguls.

At the bottom, I simply got back onto the lift and repeated the same idea a half dozen times, first tracking all the way. Wounded Knee was a large field and there was so much to discover in it!

Then a lady said she had done the lift line and had had fun, so I tried that. Then I saw there were more glades to the right of Wounded Knee (Ambush Glades) and I started romping through those.

What do you know, then I figured there was a whole other high speed quad on the other side of the same mountain, Thunder Wolf. I went down that way to find a beautiful, steep, powdery white face, Mad Wolf. Took that one, and realized there is a gully on the snow field at the end.

And there it happened: this skier saw me coming and pushed himself in my way. I assume he simply wanted to get down the gully before the snowboarder would block his way, and I can't really blame him. The gully was moguled up, made for skiers.

Getting the gully on first try was rewarding. But the face of the skier when I passed him, gliding effortlessly on the same moguls he thought I couldn't take, priceless.

There were more options on that side, and I took them all, again. The lift attendant got a big smile whenever I came down his way and high-fived me every single time. It was zoom up, zoom down. I started timing myself and it turns out I am way faster than the lift.

I was euphoric. I had never had such snow in recent memory. It was the kind of snow that makes that slightly raspy, somewhat silky sound at the bottom of the board. Just the right amount of traction for your board not to go crazy and shoot away from under your feet, but not bogged down to the point of having to stand on the back to avoid drowning in the snow.

It was noon and I had a sense the tram might be operating. I still heard the occasional charges go off, but I also could see the cars moving. So I took a Wounded (Arrow to My) Knee and sighed as I waited in line at Swift Current. Curse the name.

They were moving, no doubt! As I got closer to the top, I could see skiers coming down the bowl of the triple chair, but some of them disappearing towards the tram. When I got to the top, I turned right and down to the tram base.

Only to see a line a mile long. I also saw that the tram itself had teensy cars, not bigger than those of Bridger Gondola in Jackson Hole, but with the same frequency of the Aerial Tram. It would take at least two hours to get through that line, and frankly I wasn't having enough boredom to allow for that.

I skipped and did one of the runs in the bowl. It was mad fun, with the powder spraying every which way as I zoomed between crags and rocks. I could have gone back the same way, but it would have meant going on the slow triple chair. So I opted to seek out White Magic and do that again.

Back to Ramcharger. Back to Thunder Wolf. I knew there was more to the mountain than that, but I was having a perfectly wonderful time, and who knows what I would have gotten anywhere else.

It was 3p when my stomach started complaining. I hadn't eaten anything all day and had snowboarded my heini into the ground. I looked at the restaurant at the top of Ramcharger and Thunder Wolf, Everett's, but the sight of long-stemmed wine glasses told me it was going to take too long. Down at the bottom, I found the place I craved, the cafeteria in the mall. They even had a grab-and-go chicken tenders and fries area. Obviously, the grab-and-go stuff tasted stale, but the line at the grill counter was too long for my hunger.

By the time I was done, I could have still gone up for at least two more runs. But I was beat, beat, beat.

I stood up and looked at the map outside. I had spent the best snowboarding day of at least three years exploring less than a third - maybe less than a quarter - of the mountain. There was the peak to be bagged, there was the mountain down from Everett's I had only looked at, there was an entire North-facing section, Moonlight Basin, that was supposed to be perfect but I couldn't go because of the avalanche charges. I could have gone there after noon, but I was too much in fun to accept change.

I got onto the bus smiling like I had won the lottery, Which, in my world, I had. I was drenched from head to toe and it would take an hour to dry out the base layer with the hair dryer. But, boy, was that fun!

The verdict? I love Whistler, I love Jackson Hole, I would love to go back to Snowmass and Snowbird. But if I have a chance to go back to Big Sky, I will, no matter what else is available. The snow was amazing, the runs were well designed and there was huge variety, there was lots of challenge on Lone Mountain - you could see it on the ride up, the couloirs tracing lines of insanity for skiers and snowboarders to conquer. Best of all, it was Presidents' Day weekend and there was no crowd!

Subcategories

What's new in the world of snowboarding, or snow in general? What's the latest trip? Where is the freshest powder? Who got busted in the off-limits terrain again?

The snowboarding trip of the year 2016! Three world class ski/snowboard resorts in the northernmost reaches of the mountain states. A six day trip spanning three states, in the middle of winter!

Blog articles about surfing, my newest passion.