Crossing the line

I had a pretty easy go during my high school years. Even the “big talk,” that subject of every American teen-ager’s dread, hit pretty lightly in the Sands household.

“You know,” my dad suggested, clearly more nervous than me. “You might find yourself at a party and let’s say people are drinking beers. Yeah. Well, you should just go ahead a have one.”

He flashed a look over either shoulder and added in a whisper, “In fact, don’t overdo it, but have, you know, a couple. Nobody wants to be the guy in the corner holding a glass of water.”

Then the plot thickened. “The same goes for do… do…dope,” he stuttered (In his defense, this was the old Telluride in all of its hippie glory). “If there’s a joint being passed around, take a puff. What the hell, have a couple.”

My parents’ leniency did have some limits, however. There was one place my free-spirited, ski bum father would not let me go — powder. No, I’m not talking about the Peruvian or Columbian varieties; the “big talk” never got quite that far. But, there was a slice of Telluride life that was quite literally “out-of-bounds” in our house. Ducking a ski area boundary and dipping into illicit powder was high crime, punishable by a ride on the hickory stick. Worse yet, I’m certain my dad would have pulled my ski pass, since during my entire high school tenure, he was the leader of the Telluride Ski Patrol.

Over that time, I had acquaintances who got into vandalism, stole their mother’s pills and even did time in juvenile diversion for petty theft. Sure, I had a couple beers and smoked a joint or two, but my real racket was poaching powder stashes. Like all hard rules, that one was made to be broken.

And not to boast, but I was pretty good. At the tender age of 13, I tasted some of Telluride’s most forbidden shots – Farney’s Folly, High Anxiety and Sully’s Remote. By the time I moved into high school, I’d skied chutes, funnels and cirques over a good chunk of the San Juans and had casually ventured onto Gold Hill and into the biggest bad boy of them all: Bear Creek. Nice sets of tracks and a pack of red coats scratching their heads were all that I left behind.

In my defense, these were not the actions of a renegade adolescent. I was truly enthralled with powder skiing, hopelessly addicted to face shots and the sensation of flight. (I still am, but now I’m seeking some help.) In spite of the lure, I knew the consequences of the bust that seemed certain to happen.

“Who taught you how to do this?” I imagined my dad stammering from beneath his red jacket and white cross, while holding a severed yellow and black ski area boundary line.

Knowing of the ski patrol’s private powder reserves, I would answer, “You. You. I learned it from watching you,” and break into angst-ridden sobs. (Thank you Partnership for a Drug Free America.)

Luckily, I never had to pull that hollow ace-in-the-hole. Right when I was at my brazen powder skiing best, I tasted what the lawgiver had in mind when he created that first commandment.

I was 16 years old and skiing an innocent shot not far from rolling groomers. All alone, oblivious to snow science and blissed out on powder, I gave no thought to what might be lurking below. And as a result, I heard the thud of the fracture, watched the slope rip all around me and rode that white beast down the incline. Not buried by the avalanche, I dusted myself off, recovered my equipment and went straight home, almost ready to bust out those angst-ridden sobs. Instead, I took it as a wake-up and started viewing the backcountry, even the one just on the other side of the yellow and black rope, through new eyes.

Those eyes were still serving me last Friday as I stared over that familiar boundary line and a “closed” sign at one of the region’s ski areas. The old urge had appeared from somewhere down deep and was calling. “Just a couple turns,” it cried out. “Nobody will ever know the difference.”

It didn’t help that the Forest Service had just spread some good news. “If someone wants to leave the ski area boundary and ski into the backcountry, that’s their prerogative as a citizen,” a spokesperson announced last week. “We do not consider it a crime.”

That old rusty chain had been broken. This was the freedom that I, and countless others, had been seeking for so many years. “Just put your head under the rope,” the urge suggested. “Just a little duck, and you’ll be back inside the embrace.”

But somewhere along the road, that reckless teen-ager had grown into a man. Visible logs and a hollow snowpack had dominated that day of skiing, and something just didn’t feel quite right.

And so I took my new freedom and used it to make a decision. “The snow’s not going anywhere,” I told myself, turning my back on the boundary. And then a different urge replaced the first. “Maybe you should go get a beer instead,” it called out. “What the hell, go ahead and have a couple.”

– Will Sands