Between heaven and hell

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a big milestone happening this winter. And I’m not talking about Donald Trump’s 1 millionth foot-in-mouth insertion.

That little big hill up the road, Purgatory Ski Resort, turns 50 this winter. (A number that happens to coincide with the spousal unit’s age, as was excitedly pointed out by the offspring the other day. “Dad! You’re as old as Purgatory!”)

It’s perhaps a lesser-known fact that this season also happens to be my 20th anniversary of skiing at Purg. (Ok, technically it’s 19 years, but for the sake of nice, round numbers and hyperbole, let’s just go with it.) As a perennial season pass holder – with a few years taken off for backcountry exploration during my nonfamily days – I estimate this amounts to some 350 days on the little big mountain. I know, a mere pittance for the pass-scanning crazed, but better than most weekend warriors.

And it all started 20(ish) years ago. For those who have been around the lift maze as long as I, you may recall this was the season leading into the last Super El Niño. (Ok, maybe another stretch of the poetic license, as it officially didn’t hit until 1997. But the parallels are uncanny, if not at least vaguely similar.) And, if I recall, the beginning of that first season was fat.

As was my ankle, the result of one of those late-season, ill-fated Westwater trips (you know the ones). Why anyone would rope a complete newbie into guiding a paddle raft down a class IV stretch – and why she would accept – is beyond me. Although, in hindsight, I suspect it had something to do with a severe hangover and the high likelihood of carnage, which I managed to deliver with aplomb.

Anyway, back to the ankle. After a month of hobbling around on crutches, I decided the swelling and discoloration had subsided enough to stuff it into a ski boot for opening day. It also happened to be a powder day, in which case I saw the agony of the boot a fair trade off for the agony of missing a powder day. “Maybe,” I reasoned in perverse, selfish logic, “the stiffness of the ski boot will make it feel better.”

The theory was, unfortunately, immediately discredited upon taking my first few, excruciating turns. As I gingerly and somewhat lopsidedly made my way down Pandemonium (and straight back home), I got a distinct sense of why they called this place “Purgatory.” Here I was surrounded by heavenly fresh, untracked turns yet suffering in my own private hell of misery, pain and frustration.

That pain and frustration was something that would return to my skiing career later on, as I brought two young offspring into the equation. (Go ahead and gasp in horror and parental judgment at this statement, but any parent who doesn’t admit to a little FOMO on a powder day while shepherding junior, yet again, through Animas City, is a liar. That, or they haven’t heard of ski school.)

And although we have now reached the mostly self-sufficient tweener years, there is still a little bit of that first day pain and suffering. It typically starts with trying to drag Offspring No. 1 out of bed at 10:30 a.m. (again, judge if you will, but I prefer to think of it as “choosing my battles.”) Alas, this is soon beset by the realization that, in the midst of moving twice in the last seven months, we somehow completely forgot to buy a pass for Offspring No. 2. We face the fact we will have to suck it up and buy her a ticket for half-day, which – once we unearth everyone’s long underwear, ski socks, gloves, helmets, pants, jackets, foot warmers, snacks and a plethora of other stuff we will likely will realize we forgot once we reach the parking lot – will be the time we get up there anyway. Of course, the semi-annual switching over of gear in the family truckster escalates into a full-scale cleaning, shop-vac-ing and de-dog hairing session, which only pushes the ETA farther back.

Alas, at the crack of one, we roll into the upper lot (where we incidentally score rockstar parking, so take that judgey early risers) and head into the ticket office to plead forgiveness for the lapse of child No. 2’s pass (thanks, Judy!) And without further adieu (or my warm ski gloves, which were among the aforementioned forgotten articles) and slightly underdressed for this foreign concept called “winter,” we manage to board the six-pack without flailing or fighting (a small miracle in itself.)

This is when the benefits of being a slacker really start to pay off. See, just like that first, first day 20(ish) years ago, the snow actually starts to pile up in the late-afternoon hours. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it epic, but it turns out to be a surprisingly darn good way to spend a late-November day. Add to that the fact that everyone in the family unit skied in utter peace and harmony with minimal whining, and I’ll call it a raging success over that first, first day.

The irony of this perfect Purgatorial moment in time wa not lost on me – as, from what I understand from those who have gone before, No. 1 and 2 will soon be leaving me in their dust trails. So I savored every second, as I did memories of my two decades (ish) at this funky little big mountain caught in its own limbo of sorts. Where you can still score rockstar parking after 12:30 p.m. but get in a full day’s vert on the frontside. Where fur boots and lift lines are virtually unheard of, but signs asking patrons not to smuggle in bota bags or advertising “bizza” are commonplace. Where a birthday party of 8-year-old boys can get an education courtesy Ralph Dinosaur on the Purgy’s patio, and where, yes, it is possible to have too much snow. Where everyone has their own special stash, and isn’t afraid to share it (with a select few), and where even on those days where you have to park in Gelande, you can still find spots on the backside where you won’t see a soul.

The place that sometimes has a long, fancy name – or even a fancier acronym – that we all just call “Purg.”

Happy birthday. May you continue to inhabit that happy middle ground of little big – but not too big – mountaindom for 50 more years. And may I live to ski it.

– Missy Votel