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Confessions Of A Mediocre Skier: Why I Ski
BY Dr. Jamie Penk

I'm sweating profusely and my goggles have fogged up. I don't mind taking a break to clear them because I'm halfway down a steep mogul run that I've been picking my way through. I'm exhausted. My friends are all ahead of me, waiting for me to finish. Before I'm ready, I point my skis down, intending to move straight down absorbing each mogul with my knees. Instead, my thighs, burning with lactic acid, object and almost without consent my body heads for slower lateral turns until I finally make it through.

I have skied poorly, I know I can do better, and I am rewarded with only exhaustion as I finally catch up. My friends nod, we exchange a few thoughts, and then they turn to move on. I want to rest, but I follow, grudgingly, down the wide blue groomer. My legs scream in protest. All I want to do is barrel straight through so my legs can finally ease up. A slow skier ahead of me is making wide turns and, of course, he's doing them irregularly so I can't really pass with speed. A few more turns as my legs nearly give out.

Why do I come on these trips?

Every year for over a decade my college friends and I ski for a few days at Jackson Hole. For the uninitiated, this is an unforgiving mountain with uniformly steep terrain. The tram ride, always our first lift up, takes you past a series of cliffs to drop you at a barren peak as the operator tells you only expert level skiers should get off. The door opens and zero-degree winds howl past as you shuffle out. The first day is always the worst for me as a midwestern 'weekend warrior' of skiing. It's my only ski trip of the year, and it usually comes in January, when the Chicago climate has kept me indoors and pushed me past my fighting weight.

The second day I head off with a different group to the 'less difficult' black diamonds. Under the careful management of our most enthusiastic skier, this trip has grown from five guys sharing a one-bedroom condo to 19 spread across two houses, which has grown the diversity of the group's skiers beyond expert-only. I like to alternate from the experts to a squad I endearingly refer to as the B-team. And with this group is where I start to find my groove.

I head in to the trees, connect a few turns and hit a jump. To me, it looks like the cover of ski magazine. To others, my back ski may have never left the snow. Still, there is great snow and I'm flying through it. Somehow my stamina improves as my internal playlist kicks in and my skis stay pointed (mostly) downhill.

By the end of the day I am exhausted. Much like Batman fighting Bane, I ski like a younger man and my body usually breaks before my spirit. The group slowly coalesces outside the Mangy Moose bar for the only Budweisers—large ones—I drink all year. Today's discussion centered around how we watched one of our friends approach an uncovered creek. We could have warned him it was there, but we were so intent on seeing if he'd see it and be able to jump over it that we forgot. He didn't make it, but his temporary inconvenience was well worth the pleasure we derived.

Dr. Penk enjoys the payoffs of a big snow.
The doctor profits from getting to the mountain early. Credit: Les Houches.

After a few drinks we head back to one of the houses. Bourbon is poured and conversation turns to what is going on in the lives of friends new and old scattered across the country. We used to go to town for dinner, maybe a bar. I prefer staying home now, my old friend smoking pork in a makeshift smoker on the porch as we drink in front of a fire. It may well be that I come more for this than fraught runs down a difficult mountain.

The last day we pour out of the tram, somehow a little less foreboding now. We head down Rendezvous bowl as I chastise myself silently. 'STAY OVER YOUR SKIS….LEAN FORWARD' I remind myself as my body tends to the more logical approach of leaning back as I hurtle down a steep incline. We continue down another mogul run, myself showing a bit more style today and then to the Sublette lift.

Next is one of my least favorite things on the trip. Off the lift we head around a few turns to get to the 'Headwall' hike, an uphill boot-pack that climbs about 300 feet. My friends love this because the runs off of the hike hold powder much longer than lift-accessed runs. To me, it is an exhausting expedition that shreds the fiber of my already-tired legs.

We take off our skis and march up. Sometimes we are perilously close to the cliff, but I'm too tired to care. I bring up the rear, of course, as we make the 20-minute climb in heavy ski boots. After the ascent we are blasted by cold winds as we begin a traverse to the Casper Bowl. Here we wait for our snowboarder friends to catch up as I check out the eight-foot straight drop off the edge that begins the run.

A drop like that should concern me, but I know that right below it is knee deep powder to soften the landing and I jump off without a thought. A few turns gliding through fresh, untouched, snow and I make it to the tree line.

We get to the truly frightening Greybull run where my friend jumps off a cornice into a very steep, very narrow, chute. I've done this a hundred times, I know I can make it down, but it always gives me pause. It is so steep it seems like if I just reach out a little more I could touch the tree tops. I start down, staying straight, manage to miss a rock, now through the crux of the chute and down to the mogul field.

The powder is great here and we continue through deep snow, still mostly untouched. I'm gliding easier now, it seems each mogul or dip is placed just right for me. I'm still sweating and my legs are burning again, but this time only one thought goes through my head: I love this trip.

Main photo credit: Jackson Hole Mountain Resort