The first time you ski or snowboard each season is special.
And on Nov. 18 at Wolf Creek Ski Area, it was extra-special, with a foot of snow from the previous day's storm, plenty of open terrain, bluebird skies and no crowds. My skis hadn't touched snow since Arapahoe Basin got their mid-May dump and I could barely contain my anticipation. Slopes that had been covered with unforgiving rocks and grass were now draped in delightful powder. I'd spend my summer hiking and biking in the Rockies, but once there's a lift to take you up and snow to whisk you down, the mountains attain a new majesty.
Was it me or was the lift running WAY too slowly for my powder ambitions?
But by 11:30 that morning I was done. Toast. Legs burning because I didn't do enough of the right exercises this summer. Mouth dry like sandpaper because I forgot to bring water. Face burning red because I didn't put on sunblock.
Of course, I was back in line for first chair the next morning to get the leftovers, no worse for wear, but why does it seem like I have such a steep learning curve each fall? I'm not talking about the actual skiing - that's the easy part - but the many little things that go into a great day on the slopes.
So to help you avoid my pitfalls, and to write these down so I hopefully remember them, here are some small yet vital lessons to keep in mind as you reacquaint yourself with skiing and snowboarding.
Early bird gets the worm
It might be tempting to hit "snooze" when that alarm goes off at Zero-Dark-Thirty, but if it's been snowing and you're after the goods, you want to be geared-up and in line when the lifts start running, usually 9 a.m., to get your share of powder before it gets tracked out. Even if you prefer the corduroy of groomers to the steeps, it's still a good idea to get there early before the snow gets bumpy or slushy.
Walking in ski boots is tricky
Though it was sunny at Wolf Creek, I watched a woman nearly fall on her child because her ski boot caught no traction on a patch of ice under a picnic table. Ski boots may be the most awkward footwear ever designed, so take it slow and carefully anywhere water has pooled or ice exists, basically anywhere at a ski area. It's one thing to hurt yourself on a double-diamond run and quite another to tear a meniscus because you fell in a puddle in the bathroom.
Prepare for the elements
I'm not talking about just the cold. That's just the tip of the iceberg. The air is thin, so if you're coming from sea level maybe take a day to acclimate in the base village. The sun is much more intense at high altitude, especially when reflected in snow, so apply sunblock liberally and re-apply at lunch.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, repeat
You might not notice how much you're sweating in the sub-zero temperatures, but if you're skiing hard, you're losing fluids. The thin air can also dry you out. Take frequent breaks to rehydrate or, better yet, bring your own water. Bulky backpacks can be an inconvenience and a safety hazard on the lift, so I prefer a slim 1-liter hydration pack with insulation from the cold. Blowing into the hose between drinks will help prevent line freezing.
You can burn as many as 500 calories an hour downhill skiing, so you have to fuel your body. But who wants to ski those first few runs with a belly full of bacon and eggs? I prefer a snack about once an hour while riding the lift, just enough to keep the legs moving but not enough to weigh me down. I like a similarly light lunch of a sandwich or soup from a thermos, with a delicious Colorado craft beer to wash it down. You probably won't be able to ski as hard after lunch as before, but if you're still skiing, that's what's important.
Unless you spend a lot of time in elevators, the ski lift is probably a unique experience in your calendar. You ride with someone, have your few minutes of conversation or silence, and go on your way. Be considerate by not smoking or rocking the chair, and don't complain if others want to lower the safety bar. In the lift line, be sure to wait for your friends outside the maze and alternate where lanes converge. And overall, keep conversation light and respect anyone who doesn't seem interested in talking. Nobody wants to talk religion or politics up here, especially these days.
Don't ski hungover
This should be a no-brainer, but there can be a party atmosphere around skiing. People are on vacation or just the weekend and ski towns are full of bars and night clubs that serve drinks late into the evening. Riding the lift when your head aches and you feel nauseous is unpleasant to say the least, and trying to exert yourself in such a state can be worse. Be smart, especially if you've just arrived in Colorado from lower elevations and have a lower tolerance for alcohol.
If it's 11 am and nobody has skied it, there's probably a reason
To wrap up this list, I'll share an experience from a more recent visit to Wolf Creek. A couple inches of snow fell on Nov. 28 after an extended dry and warm period. Smart skiers avoid sun-exposed, south-facing runs at times like these, because it takes more than a little snow to cover the crust and exposed rocks. But when I saw that not a soul had skiied Thumper that day, a vision of freshies trumped my good sense. It turned into an ordeal of side-sliding on crusty moguls and stepping over rocks and clumps of grass. The pain in my legs endures as I write this.
The moral of the story is that ski areas do their best to rope off hazards and flat spots that will drag you to a halt, but they can't mark them all. If it's nearing lunchtime and you still see untracked snow in a relatively accessible spot, then someone probably knows something you don't. There could be boulders or tree stumps or a creek. Remember, under the snow it's a forest out there.