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Don Rogers: Avalanche of memories

Last Thursday, I snowboarded at Alpine Meadows, my first time there in four decades..

I’d come up in March 1981 with a couple of buddies from my fire crew in Santa Barbara, up 50, past Lake Tahoe and what I remembered as a winding side road carved out of snowbank.

For years, I hadn’t remembered which ski resort, where it was exactly, what the mountain even looked like. Not till I was climbing those concrete steps echoing up through the middle of the base lodge did a whole cache of memories click in.



I remembered how cocky I was about my first time skiing. How hard could this be, really? A couple of basic tips and up a lift we went. Green, blue, black — no idea.

Might want to avoid the blacks, one buddy suggested, after we skied off our chair, me like I was born to it, I swore. Then they took off, both eager to get the most out of their half-day passes and totally with my blessing. I’d catch up later once I got the hang of this.



Instead, of course, I spent the entire afternoon on one short, narrow run in one yard sale after another. Turn and crash. Half turn and crash. Two turns and crash. Skis everywhere, poles sometimes everywhere. Off skis, my legs post-holed hip deep. I fell standing up, skis popping right off.

A young woman about my age cruised down and stopped to talk a moment. Two yard sales farther down, she came by again. And then again. Then she was off to other runs. Altruism has its limits when the snow’s good.

The ski patrollers were relatively patient, if only half-humored when I tried joking with them while keeping them from their beer at the end of the day. But I did learn to turn along an easy grade on what I took for a road come summer.

I didn’t go near a chair lift again for nearly 20 years after that, until we moved to Vail, Colorado, and the kids took to snowboarding, ducks on a pond.

Now I love it. How could you not? Last Thursday, amnesia lifting, I searched for that first run and maybe found it, slipping right through before looking for more challenging stuff.

It was a great afternoon, the kind that makes you remember why you tough out the cold days, the bullet-proof ice, the utter lack of fresh snow in dry seasons. The elemental why living in a ski community is the best.

FLIP SIDE

I finished ecstatic in a stolen moment, a long late lunch break, and happened upon what looked like a great geezer party on the lodge’s deck.

It was a reunion. I could tell by the gray hair, the names and titles scrawled with Sharpies on stickers stuck on coats. I could tell by how happy they were to see each other, plain that for many it had been awhile.

But no, not only a reunion. This also was a wake. There were tears, shaking voices, speakers choking up at a microphone as they described that day exactly 40 years ago and almost to the minute of the 1982 avalanche at Alpine Meadows that roared at 3:45 p.m. into the base area, crushing buildings and burying a dozen people, killing seven.

They and the survivors were friends and coworkers and family of the people on the deck. A new documentary, “Buried,” would play that night in the lodge and will make the rounds of ski towns everywhere, I’m sure. Maybe save some lives.

The ski patrollers whose patience I tried the previous year were among the rescuers, maybe victims of that avalanche. As one of the speakers observed, their bond, their dedication, their purpose meant that they would of course keep the mountain open the rest of the season, and the next, and the next.

This community looked like others I know connected to elements much bigger than we humans, gatherings like this especially poignant with deaths at sea, in fire, snow, usually young people who were living their lives more fully than most, their luck playing out.

Decades have passed and they remembered like yesterday. You could tell by the deep breaths and wiped cheeks as one by one, their friends spoke.

In ski towns, this community ripples well beyond the mountain itself. No one stays long in such a place without knowing someone who died out there hitting a tree, in a fall, an avalanche. I can tick off a grim handful, and remember good times with each.

Even so, an avalanche like the one at Alpine Meadows that swept down to the base, the lodge, for them, takes this to a whole ’nother level.

And still we go out there, willingly, joyfully. Back out to sea, into fire and most definitely up the lifts, knowing how easily it can all go wrong.

I don’t know that there’s any virtue in it. But for at least some of us, it’s what we live for, what we can’t live without.

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at drogers@sierrasun.com or 530-477-4299


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