"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Stevens Pass & The Hitchhiker

By on November 27, 2018 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments

By Andy Dappen

“Going to the Pass?”

Snow sticks to the hitchhiker’s pile hat as he sticks his dripping beard through the car window.

I want to tell him I didn’t pull over to pick him up; I pulled over to drain my bladder. But I’ve been where he’s at. “Yeah, throw the skis in the back,” I tell him. “I’ll be right back.”

Soon he’s asking me if I ski the pass much. I watch the water dripping off his soiled coat soak onto the clean upholstery of my car.

“Often enough to be a little bored with it,” I tell him brusquely.

He gives me an odd look. “Ever skied Highland Bowl?”

“Never heard of it,” I confess.

“How about the chutes off Tye Ridge.”

“Nope.”

“You must have skied the glades down into Schim’s Meadow.”

“Actually… no.”

“Geez! What have you skied then?”

Not much, I deduce by the time we reach Stevens Pass. Apparently, there is much to learn about a hill I’ve skied fairly often over the years, and because I’ve granted the favor of a ride, I am positioned to ask a favor. “How about an insider’s tour of the hill?” I say. “Payment for the ride.”

The brown eyes brood as he weighs the onus of his obligation. “Can you ski?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I tell him, “You decide.”

Twenty minutes later we reach the top of the Seventh Heaven chairlift. This is the source of many of Stevens’ steeper lines. “How about a warm-up run?” I suggest meekly. Friendliness exudes from my guide’s eyes like spit from a camel’s mouth.

Three local boarders who exit the lift behind us start chatting with the hitchhiker and they all agree Tunnel Creek is the run of the hour. It’s a Stevens Pass classic, the boarders tell me, dropping a 1,000-vertical feet below the base of the ski area before intersecting the highway.

I’m interested but campaign for a delayed departure — I’d like to remember how to ski first.

“Gotta go now,” the boarders insist. “Snow at the bottom will suck in an hour.”

“Right,” says the hitchhiker and starts up the boot track leading to the apex of Cowboy Ridge. Soon we’re cutting turns through forgiving powder and the hitchhiker is flying off boulders with the boarders. I keep my feet anchored to the snow but am keeping up, feeling like one of the boys.

As we drop, stumps, rocks, saplings, and knee-deep cement all conspire to test skiing ability. The hitchhiker wiggles effortless turns through the mine field while I ricochet like a pinball between alternate hazards. Eventually, I’m sideslipping more than skiing. The boarders are long gone, but to his credit, the hitchhiker stands by his dog.

In the bed of a friend’s pickup as we shuttle back to the ski area, the hitchhiker asks, “Warmed up yet?”

I’m stewing in sweat. “Yeah.”

“Then let’s hit Highland Bowl before it catches much sun.”

We ride up Big Chief Mountain and hike east along a spur. My companion points out several lines as we walk. “Skied those trees before?” he asks.

“I have,” I tell him proudly.

“Yeah, everyone skis them. If you don’t get ’em first thing after a dump, they’re trashed.”

A 10-minute walk delivers us to a ridge feeding both north- and south-facing bowls. The hitchhiker teeters at the top trying to decide which side to ski.

The Wenatchee Bowl to the north offers better snow, but my guide seems to be pondering my inadequacies. He makes his decision and jumps onto the large south-facing slopes of the Highland Bowl and cuts effortless GS turns. I follow and, without the distractions of rocks, stumps, and saplings, trace an exemplary sine wave through the white paste.

Below the bowl we enter old-growth forests and slalom around fat hemlock poles coated with green lichen. Airborne powder crystals from my guide’s contrail sting my face. Carving turns on a double fall line, we angle our way back to the lift.

I suggest we replay that scene but the hitchhiker has other ideas. From the top of the Tye Mill Chair, we traverse out Tye Ridge where a few minute’s hike has us looking down a shaded chute loaded with thigh-deep fluff.

We hop in for what prove to be the best turns of the morning. Steep, deep and, when I bail to avoid planting my face on a tree trunk, cold. I want to return for a rematch — to ski it cleanly — but the master assassin is onto new kills I never knew existed.

At one vantage point he finally stops to identify three lines off the South Divide with crude names. “Those names aren’t PC anymore so now they have prissy names like ‘Rock Chute’,” he says, nearly vomiting on his words. “If it’s equality the ladies want, let them name a few of the neighboring chutes.”

“Like that one right there, could be named after you,” he says pointing to a short but sinister thread of snow cradled between rock walls. “They could call it Little Willie.”

The Big Kahuna figures we’ll hit “Rock Chute” later as a nightcap.

“So how about a cruising run down the backside,” I suggest, yearning a few mindless turns where I am not on the edge of destruction. “Then you can show me the glades into Schim’s Meadows.”

The hitchhiker agrees but can’t stick to the game plan. Partway down the planned run, the powder pulls his skis off-piste like a magnet.
“Come over here,” he commands, breaking snow across a flat meadow.

The meadow looks large, and the promise of good skiing beyond seems small.

“Is it worth it?” I rebel.

“Had the best single run of the season down the creek bed beyond these flats.”

I follow, not knowing what “best” means to a maniac.

The skiing is indeed superb — for a while.

Moderate angle woods, hummocks, snowed-over logs, powder… ideal terrain and conditions for a hack.

Suddenly, we pour over a roll and are funneled into a narrow creek bed. The snow on the north bank of the creek course is powdery; a body length away on the south bank it is sun crusted.

I hit the sun crust and explode. I’ve just stopped tumbling when the hitchhiker blasts by, covering me with the frozen dust levitating in his wake. He alternates between turns of powder and crust with all the concentration of a grandmother knitting by the television.

A few falls later I catch up to the model of patience. We ski down and are three minutes late in catching the last ride up the Southern Cross lift. We’ll have to scrap skiing the glades — the look I receive could melt this anchor into molten. We are forced to ride the Jupiter Chair and from its top climb to reach the entrance to Rock Chute.

I’m apprehensive — the line is narrow and steep; accelerating down this cyclotron on my back isn’t my idea of a good end to a great but challenging day.

“I’m going around,” I tell my companion. “If you need a ride, meet me at the bottom.”

“Pick me up if you see me out on the road,” he says before flying over a small jump capping the entrance to the chute. The boy paid a high price for his ride this morning; apparently he wants no more debts with me.

By the time I descend easier slopes and point the car homeward, the hitchhiker has vanished. But his mark hasn’t.

I give the mountain a long look as I drive slowly past. I’m reminded of those pictorial illusions where the white space creates one image, the black space a different one. For the first time, I’m seeing beyond the white of the cut runs to the black of the trees.

And for the first time in years, I can’t wait to ski Stevens again.

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