Not flight from Telluride, though that too was about to happen, as locals who have been working since before Thanksgiving flee the sudden quiet and the retreating snows.
No, this was about the little girl standing rock still near the picnic tables at the top of the mountain hoping to lure a camp robber with a cracker in her outstretched hand. The bird, when it came, swooped in on stubby gray wings spread wide as a fan.
You could have used a fan outside Giuseppe’s at 11,890 feet – it was that warm on Saturday. Women and men stripped down to their undershirts. Jimmy P and I rubbed on our skis’ bases wax that was specially formulated to break the suction of wet spring snow, snow-cone snow.
Not that it was all soup. In fact, when we got on the hill at noon, we were too soon. Ski Patroller Tony Daranyi told us later that the overnight low temp had been 12 degrees, way colder than previous nights. The water in the snow had locked up tight – no longer snow, but ice. In the morning, even late morning, the groomed runs were as hard as corrugated tin. And just about as loud under your edges.
But one by one, the sunny aspects loosened up. That was the key: following the sun. East-facing slopes first, then southeast, then south. By late afternoon, just about everything had softened, everything except the highest, steepest north-facing pitches on Palmyra Peak. At 13,000 feet, they retained a semblance of the powdery winter texture that was deposited with the last storm, nearly a week before.
Jimmy P and I found wet, silky turns on Lower Woozley’s Way heading into Prospect Bowl. Then on meandering Madison. Then on the skier’s left side of Majestic, sliding down off the Gold Hill ridge into Revelation Bowl.
This was the sense of flying we were looking for. The snow was like pineapple sherbet underfoot, a surface so easy to carve, so forgiving of mistakes, it allowed you to let go. Let go of the instinct to hold on to the mountainside. Just let go and fly.
Repeated turns scraped the snow into piles of hominy-sized grains, which made perfect slush pillows against which to bank. Even the darker, dust-colored snow – which absorbed more heat and melted faster and deeper – yielded gracefully to a well-steered turn. Some of the piles behaved like the foam of a breaking wave, my two skis substituting for a surfboard.
But surprisingly, and most impressively, the flight of the day involved skiers standing still and risking a stiff neck.
Hang gliders seized on the warming-rock thermals to spiral upward from their takeoff on Gold Hill. Pink and green and white-winged birds, they flew higher and higher, until you worried for their pilots’ oxygen supply. Jimmy P remembered that Telluride’s Captain Jack Carey had at one time held the world altitude record, at something like 21,000 feet, flying these mountains.
They looked like nylon swallows painted with Easter-egg colors. I watched the pink-and-white one until I lost him in the sun. Then he reappeared just above us on the ridge, hanging in the updraft, holding steady, like an eagle converting lift into stillness. He’d been up for an hour.
Jimmy P recalled a visit from his father years ago, his father from low-slung Wisconsin, who watched some of Telluride’s early box-canyon hang gliders and wondered aloud whether Jimmy, or indeed anyone, could resist trying something so ethereal-looking, so mythically seductive. Jimmy had always been fascinated, obsessed even, with airplanes. And yet something – an instinctive understanding of risk beneath the beauty? – had kept him from going aloft.
With the pink glider still teasing gravity, Jimmy P and I headed down the mountain to town. The lower one got, the spottier the snow became. Across the valley there was no snow at all to cover the blushing red-rock cliffs. The woods on either side of the packed trails showed big patches of pine needles and dirt. The air smelled of dirt and summer.
Down at the gondola base, the ski company had had to bring in snow, to spread a narrow white carpet from the bridge over the San Miguel River to the ski racks at the Oak Street mall. Skiers coasted across this strip, like celebrities arriving for the opening of a new season: the too-rapid flight of winter.