Snowed In


Trading logic and reason for one day of euphoria.

Illustration: Ryan Dee

Illustration: Ryan Dee

“If you guys get on this chair, you’re gonna be stuck in Silverton for a long fuckin’ time!”

We all have those days in the mountains that in memory seem more the stuff of dreams than reality. The rough edges fade, tedium reaches its half life, and all that remains is a canvas of white that burns like a secret flame for the rest of our lives, following us into our dreams, offices and long summer seasons.

It’s that moment, usually on the heel edge, where everything clicks and the love for making turns transforms into a life-defining obsession.

Jackson Hole is legendary for producing days like these, where you hit that peak flow and the ecstasy of powder riding becomes everything.

It’s the feeling you get early morning on a deserted South Hoback run, burning the fall line in frenzy, seeking out the hallowed nooks that seem more church than hillside.

It’s the feeling you get with friends at the top of a long Glory bootpack, bereft of haste, when you finally strap in and let gravity say more than words ever could.

It’s the moment powder brings us together, on the chairlift, on the run, in the backcountry, when friendships are consecrated through hoots, hollers and screams of joyful, fearless abandon.    

While these moments in Jackson Hole have cemented my love affair with snowboarding, my primer arrived before moving to the valley in the mythical dale of Silverton, Colorado, in January 2008. It was one of those classic storm systems where the NOAA forecast read 100 percent snow for the foreseeable future. Looking back, it was unwise for me to head deep into the mountains a day before my spring semester was to begin at Fort Lewis College in Durango. But sometimes the irresponsible decisions are the best ones to make.

Compelled by the forecast, I hitchhiked over Molas and Colbank passes. The morning after my impulsive midnight hitch, I awoke to find a San Juan snowpocalypse—20 inches of powder on the streets of Silverton—and that was in town. By 6 a.m., my partner in crime Ron and I were mobbing his truck through deep drifts up the mining road to Silverton Mountain.

The snow intensified.

We got to the base, and it was ghostlike and deserted, save the sound of snow-muffled generators in the distance.

The snow intensified.

We crawled up to the yurt, swimming our way through wind drifts 30 to 40 inches deep. Falling through the structure’s threshold, Silverton co-owner Jenn Brill greeted us with a congratulatory grin for being the first ones to the mountain. She knew better than anyone what we were in for. We drank coffee, dialed in our kits, then went down to the deserted two-seater, and waited.

The snow intensified.

Over the next two hours, the line behind us grew, bombs echoed through the canyon, and the snowfall took on a silent, downward intensity. Then the chair began to spin, groaning to life with a labored hum. Patrollers went up to make their cuts and when they came down, they weren’t the same people.

And then it began.

Riding first chair on such a day is the best it gets, though deciding what to drop can be maddening—it all looks good. But this was one of the rare days at Silvy where everything was open, including liftline and the adjacent RMYF, a 2,000-foot avalanche path with consistent pitch the entire way. Our choice was obvious.

Unloading the lift, skating frantically to the entrance gate, my heart was ready to explode. I clipped in and hopped up. Time melted away. My past woes, my future worries, all of the things that resonate in the constant din of the human brain crystallized, then shattered, and I found peace.

That morning, Ron and I lost ourselves in the aesthetic purity of riding. Time faded, each turn lasted only moments, but also an eternity. Every run, we lived and died. Gods were born and prayed to, then forgotten, only to be born again. I lost track of who I was and what I was doing; there was only the turn, and the timeless meditation that accompanied it. This was a love that could never be taken from me, and I promised myself I’d guard it with reckless, savage abandon for the rest of my days.

Coming down from the powder high several runs later, we rested our legs in the base yurt for the short duration of a few breakfast pints. As we settled in next to the crackling wood stove, Aaron Brill bursted into the yurt like a drunken yeti.

“If you don’t leave now, you won’t be able to!” the Silverton Mountain owner yelled into the den of powder hounds, scoundrels and dirtbags. “This system isn’t letting up— CDOT’s gonna close the passes. It’s now or never, people!”

But no one stirred.

I readied the hammer for another lap, and in delighted mirth I realized my current situation epitomized the old San Juan saying: “In Silverton, when times are good, you don’t wanna leave. But when they’re really good, you can’t.”

A Ska Euphoria later, I was back at the base of the double-seater. I had no place to stay in Silverton, no plan to fall back on. The sensible thing to do was leave.

But powder days like this don’t instill people with much sense. They seduce the bad decisions out of us, one irresponsible choice at a time. The lift beckoned to me like a midnight booty call that you definitely should ignore, but can’t.

Waiting for the chair, the liftie yelled to the crowd: “550’s closing in 45 minutes, if you want to get home tonight, YOU NEED TO LEAVE NOW.”

We held firm, and made no move to call it, we couldn’t, no matter the consequences.

Just before we got on the chair the liftie looked at us and grinned. “If you guys get on this chair, you’re gonna be stuck in Silverton for a long fuckin’ time!”

Caked in snow, we grinned back and said nothing.

Sam Morse is a wordsmith/snowboarder who likes bad puns, good books and cooking tacos.

@s.a.morse