By Paul Ulrich, Noted Wyoming Outdoorsman
It’s opening day and as always I am excited and nervous. It doesn’t help that the temperature reads -3 degrees and I don’t think it’s going to get much warmer. There are a lot of opening days we look forward to. Baseball, football, hunting season etc.
The opening day of ski season is a bit different. It marks the annual acknowledgement that fall is gone and the snow is here to stay. Hats, gloves, long johns and winter jackets are now part of us for the next 6-8 months.
For those that enjoy the outdoors in Wyoming it’s now official. Ski season is somewhat of a broad definition for me. Some love downhill or cross-country skiing. Some prefer the solitude and quiet of snowshoeing. Even others strap skis to an 850 cc, liquid cooled, fuel injected two-stroke engine to enjoy the snow. It’s all good, keeps us off the couch and allows us to enjoy Wyoming’s wonderful winter.
Today was opening day for downhill skiing at White Pine Ski Resort outside of my hometown of Pinedale. White Pine is one of seven small ski areas in Wyoming that primarily cater to locals and ski teams.
The Big Horns have two in Meadowlark and Antelope Butte. Casper has Hogadon, Laramie and Cheyenne have Snowy Range, Western Wyoming has White Pine in Pinedale and Pine Creek in Cokeville. Cody rounds out the seven with where I learned to ski at Sleeping Giant.
When I reference small ski resorts, I mean small. The resorts average between one and three lifts and a handful of runs. Jackson has 13 lifts and Park City has 43 lifts.
You will notice I left out Wyoming’s big three in JHMR, Grand Targhee and Snow King. No offense, Jackson. I love your resorts but my focus is the small hills. The hills where your neighbor is running the lift on the weekends and you can’t get sushi.
Beads And Underwear
Anyway, back to opening day. I drove the exhausting 10 minutes to the hill, geared up and was on the lift in another 10 minutes. No lift lines which is, by itself, priceless. As I rode up the lift the familiar began to come back. There is the petrifying fear of dropping a glove, the stickers on the towers and yes, the beads and underwear in the some of the pine trees.
As a kid seeing beads and underwear in trees next to the lift was mystifying. What kind of horrible fall off the chair lift tears off poor women’s beads and bras but doesn’t take their hats and jackets? Are they ok? I bet they are cold and miss their beads. A few years later it was explained to me. Boy was I wrong.
Speaking of chair lifts I want to point out how wonderful they are. Some of us grew up with very different means to get to the top of the hill. Primarily the torture devices also known as the rope tow and T-Bar.
The rope tow is exactly that, a rope on a pulley system that drags you up the hill as long as you can hold on. It’s designed to destroy your gloves, humiliate you in front of friends and inflict lifelong damage to your joints. It also occasionally gets you up the hill. There is nothing more impressive to a junior high girl than seeing a boy dragged up a hill crying with frozen snot covering his face. Confidence builder right there.
At least the rope tow didn’t seem to be intentionally built to inflict pain and shame. The T-Bar was. The T-Bar system was allegedly designed by the Swiss and gained popularity in the 1930’s. My unfounded but entirely reasonable alternative theory is that the T-Bar was German engineered and given to the states to cripple generations of Americans under the guise of winter wonderland fun.
Hear me out. The T-Bar is a spring loaded, twig and berry seeking mechanism that surely has left thousands of otherwise strong, healthy young men sterile. You literally attempt to put this frozen grape crusher between your legs to ride up the slope. If it didn’t catch you down below it bashed you in the chin leaving you toothless and brain damaged. Evil but genius.
I got a bit sidetracked so back to the beauty of small hills. After a couple of runs I stopped to warm up and ran into the lead owner of White Pine Alan Blackburn. We celebrated the start of another season and off he was to work. Yes, the owner was helping guests, tending bar and whatever else it takes to ensure a small hill operates.
I also ran into my friend and the general manager Katie Lane. Katie and her husband Bryan both work the resort in the winter. She runs the show and Bryan handles the fleet and equipment, maintenance and grooms the slopes. These dedicated and talented people with multiple roles and skills bring a frozen mountain of snow and rock alive for our communities.
I spoke to Katie about White Pine and other small operations. “What makes it special is that families can come here and not be intimidated by crowds, huge runs or the cost. There are no lines and no way to get lost on the hill.”
“We all know each other and it feels like family. It’s more personal. You aren’t a number here, you are a face and a name. We raised our daughter Baylee on this mountain. She started skiing and snowboarding at age 4. When she was ready to tackle the upper mountain she had to wait at the lift for the ski patrol to cycle through because she wasn’t tall enough to ride alone.”
Growing up in Park County means we had Sleeping Giant. In elementary school in Meeteetse the handful of us kids would load up on a bus every weekend in the winter that took us to the mountain.
Unsupervised (Yes, late 70’s it was perfectly fine to load a bunch of kids on a bus and drive them an hour and a half a way with zero adults. We turned out fine I think.) we spent our days cutting new trails through the trees, evading ski patrol and taking care of each other after the inevitable slam into a tree.
It is hard to put into words how our small ski resorts make me feel. They are just right. Meant to be I suppose. You belong there. I felt it growing up, I felt it teaching my son at Snowy Range and I feel it now.
After a few more runs I grabbed a burger and sat on the deck just watching. Watching skiiers young and old enjoy the day. The snow was good, the lift lines were quick and the view was spectacular. As I sat there and thought about how lucky I was a young man nearby offered to share a swig of his bottle of fireball. I may or may not have accepted that offer. It certainly crystallized why White Pine and the others are so special. That sense of family.
Our small ski resorts need our patronage. They are great for families, affordable and they keep our small communities together through our tough winters. And who knows, you might even get a free shot of fireball.