Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Pond Skimming

                                                           Pond Skimming
A fantastic ski season came to a close at Beaver Creek on Monday with Employee Appreciation Day.   Last season, the snow cover barely made it into April.  But this year, the skiing was still excellent and it seemed a shame for things to have to end.  Each year, the Beav closes to the general public after the second Sunday in April, but on the next Monday the Centennial lift runs for a couple of hours for employees and there’s a free lunch for all.  There is also one other interesting activity that brings the season to a close, pond skimming. At the base of the mountain, a long rectangular ditch with a blue plastic pool liner is created and filled with beach balls.  Then, a succession of daring employees (many in colorful costumes) zoom down the hill and attempt to make it all the way across the pool without sinking.
  I’ve worked in various positions at Beaver Creek for seven years, and the Employee Day has always been something I’ve looked forward to.  In 2011, a record 400 inch snow year kept right on going ‘til the closing weekend, when three more feet fell.  The skiing on Employee Day that year might have been the best the season, and I made the only three sets of tracks down the Harrier run that day in powder so deep I almost needed a snorkel to breathe.
  Every year when the pond skimming event was going on, I always wished that I was in it too but never had the nerve to try.  Maybe it had something to do with making a fool of myself in front of everyone, or just the thought of swimming in cold water. But by the time every year the event began, I found myself wishing I could do it, too. 
  It wouldn’t be the first time I had travelled across freezing water though.  At Arapahoe Basin each spring, a natural depression forms at about 12,000’ that people also ski across, or at least try to. The first time I watched them doing it, it seemed like a pretty crazy thing to try.  The “pond” was about a hundred feet long, and anyone trying to ski or ride across it needed to have every bit of speed possible to make it across.  The pond is in full view of the main lift, and I got to see many people try it.  By then end of the day, the success ratio was about 50/50, and I decided to give it try on my last run of the day.  I thought that if I didn’t make it, at least I wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in wet ski boots.
  I finally got the nerve to try, and went as fast as I could down the hill headed for the open, icy water.   Hitting the water with my tips up, I sailed past the chunks of ice and had just enough momentum to get all the way across without sinking!  The other skiers and riders watching gave a little cheer, and I skied the rest of the way down the hill with dry feet.  The next weekend was the 4th of July, and on that Friday my wife and I went to A Basin for our last ski day of the year. At the end of the day, after telling her about my previous pond skimming adventure, I decided to do it again.  This time, I approached the pond with as much speed as I could, but had a different approach angle.  The hill was steeper at that angle, so I thought it would be better, but it went across the ruts that the normal skiers carved and it slowed me down.  This time, I only made it three-quarters of the way across, and sank like a stone into the cold, waist-deep water. The assembled onlookers hooted and hollered as I slowly waded through, as cold as I’d ever been in my life.  Having a pair of steel Volant skis attached to my feet didn’t make it any easier.  At the water’s edge, a couple of guys helped pull me out, which was good because without them, I might still be in there. 
So by the time this year’s Employee Day rolled around, I was ready to finally give it a try.  For a costume, I wore my old Cookie Guy outfit.  Beaver Creek is famous for the free freshly-baked chocolate cookies that are given out each day at three pm.  The volunteers who hand out the prized snacks wear white chef’s smocks and matching floppy hats. For three years I was one of those lucky folks.  As much as I’ve always loved getting those warm, yummy cookies, being the person who hands them out is way better.  For twenty minutes, I was the most popular person on the planet and loved it.  If you are a person with any self-esteem issues, giving out free cookies is a wonderful way to temporarily cure it. 
When I got the hill, I made my way to the signup desk to get registered for the pond skim.  The lady behind the desk asked me for my name while she scanned the list.  When I told her that I wasn’t on the list, she informed me that it was limited to the first fifty people who had signed up, and that the list had filled quickly. This was very disappointing, as I had really been looking forward to doing it this year, but too late was too late. 
I went over to check the pool area, and it looked great.  Beaver Creek does everything first class, and the setup for the pond skimming was no different.  The pool was about seventy five feet long, and about three feet deep. Two dozen beach balls were floating about to provide a cushion for any errant skimmers that might veer off course. One difference I noted in the setup was that the pool had a pretty steep ramp to it, giving the skimmer some big air before launch. The A Basin pond was pretty level, deeper, much colder, and filled with floating ice chunks, not beach balls.  It looked way safer and more controlled than the natural pool at A Basin that I’d waded through before.  It made me want to do it here all the more.
  On my first lift ride up the mountain, I shared the chairlift with a snowboarder named Keith who was dressed in a green dinosaur suit.  He said that he would be doing the pond skim, and I told him that I had wanted to but that I hadn’t signed up in time.
 “Oh man, the signup list was filled up in a day or two! You needed to jump on it!”, he laughed.
That didn’t make me feel any better, but then he said, “I was going to do it with my friend Steve who was supposed to come today, but he got stuck at work.” Immediately an idea popped into my head. 
“So he’s on the list but not coming?” I asked.
“Yeah, why?” Keith replied.
“What’s his last name?” I said, to which Keith replied, “I don’t know, but I have his number and I can call him”. Keith pulled out his phone, and without even saying hello, said into the phone, “Steve!  This is Keith, what’s your last name?” After a pause, he said to me, “Bennett!”
“Great, thanks!  Tell him Steve Bennett is going to be pond skimming after all!”
The Centennial lift reached the top, and I thanked Keith for doing me a solid.  I made a fine run back to the bottom under a sparkling cobalt Colorado sky and made my way to the check in desk again. Then I remembered my Cookie Guy outfit and ditched it.  I walked up the desk and stood before the woman who only minutes earlier told me that I couldn’t do the pond skim without preregistering. 
“Hi, I’m here to do the pond skimming”, I told her. 
“Name?”, she asked.
“Steve Bennett”, I replied, as if I’d been saying that to people my whole life.
She smiled and gave me a numbered bib to put over my chest.  “Just put this on before you go, good luck!”
“Thanks!” I replied, and went over to retrieve my Cookie Guy outfit. 
I tried to squeeze in as many runs as I could before the lift closed for the last last time of the season. It was a beautiful day and the snow was perfect. On my last run, I traversed over to the area where the pond skimming was held, and saw a line of skiers and riders hiking up the hill from the base.  I joined their queue and made my way to the area where we would launch from. Some ski patrollers were there and had a sled nearby, which I thought seemed to be unnecessary. If someone were going to crash, it would most likely be at the bottom of the hill, right in front of the two hundred or so people gathered to watch. 
I thought that we would go down the hill based on our bib numbers, but instead they just let us take whatever turn we wanted.  Of the first four intrepid skimmers, two made it and two didn’t.  I was going to wait and watch to see if there were any special techniques that the successful skimmers used, but it was pretty much a matter of just going as fast as possible, sticking the landing, and hoping for the best.  But the more that I watched the others do it, the more nervous I got, so I decided to get it over with as quickly as possible.  Once the last (unsuccessful) rider was out of the pool, when no one else volunteered I jumped into the vacuum. A ski patroller looked at my bib and radioed down to the announcer, “Next one up is Number 32”.  From below, I could hear the announcer call out, “Our next contestant is Number 32, Steve Bennett of Guest Services!” 
I sped down the steep slope as fast as my Volants could take me.  Near the bottom I could hear the crowd roar when they saw my Cookie Guy getup.  The pond looked much longer than it did when I was standing beside it two hours earlier.  I hit the ramp at speed, kept my skis level, and flew through the air higher than I thought I would, but stuck the landing in what felt like perfect way. However the angle of my skis must have been have been a little too steep, and it slowed me down, and I only made it halfway across the pool before I slowly sank.  The crowd hooted and hollered, and as Steve Bennett made his humiliating way to the edge of the pool to be helped out by the ski patrollers some onlookers yelled out, “Hey Cookie Guy!  Where are our cookies?” and “Yeah! Where are our cookies?”
I got out of the pool dripping water and yelled back, “Sorry, all the cookies got wet!” and the crowd let out a huge laugh. 
Once out of the pool, I was given a free Beaver Creek towel to dry off with, and made my way back to the crowd to watch the rest of the event.  I was a celebrity for about two minutes, until the next rider came down and had a more spectacular crash than me. 
After what seemed to be the last nice last contestant had run, I squinted up the hill to see if that was the end of things.  The ski patrollers up there were gathering their gear, and I noticed that one was starting down the hill pulling the sled behind him. Instead of just weaving slowly down the hill, I noticed that he was going straight, and picking up speed as if he were going to try and leap across the pond. No way, I thought.  The patroller kept going faster.  No fucking way!  As he came closer, I could see the sled better and saw a pair of knees sticking up out of the sled.  Not only was he going to try and do the pond skim while towing a sled, he was going to attempt it with someone in the sled behind him!
The patroller hit the ramp with a lot of speed, and flew through the air.  In the sled was a female ski patroller, whooping loudly heading towards her unseen fate, undoubtedly the bravest person on the mountain that day. They hit the water with a huge splash, kept right on going, and made it all the way across to the loudest and most deserved cheers of the day. The 2018-2019 ski season at Beaver Creek was finally over, with a literal splash. And I got to finally do my pond skim, (or at least Steve Bennett did).