Chair 23: October’s perfect gift

Posted By: The Ski Channel on October 19, 2009 3:35 pm

After spending an hour in the serpentine line that wrapped Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge, my girlfriend and I had finally plopped down on the chairlift for the first time this season. It had been many moons since we had last done this together, and our comforting silence said it all.

All the ugly times spent cheering me up over not being able to ski, hearing my best friends rave about stomping their latest tricks, and dealing with the confused stares of the public, were over. We could finally usher in a fresh start to a new ski season.

Heading into this beautiful October day, I had low expectations of my forthcoming ski season, and even lower expectations on that particular day. But being a broke college grad, and no longer holding a season pass, I was more then happy to take advantage of Mammoth’s complimentary life tickets on opening day.

Arriving to the mountain after our early-morning drive from LA, I was all too excited to put on my ski gear for the first time in months, click into my bindings, and ride the “white ribbon of death.” Perceptions sure do change when you suffer a nearly life-altering injury while skiing.

Last March, I had a scary brush with a spinal cord injury after completely overshooting a terrain park jump while performing a Flat Spin 720, a trick for me at the time that was essentially the equivalent of a straight air for the average skier.

In one epic fall that March afternoon I managed to suffer a brain contusion, damage arteries in my neck, and displace my C4-C5 vertebras.

Now, after three taxing months in a cervical neck brace, two ambulance rides, and one surgery later, I was told that my neck was fully healed. No physical therapy, follow-up treatments, or new-age techniques would make my neck any better said the doctors. Whatever pain or shortcomings my neck offered up now, were consequences I would have to deal with the rest of my life.

Before getting on skis for the first time this season, I wasn’t so much nervous about getting hurt again, but was worried about overcoming the rust that commonly plagues skiers even after a normal summer off. Tacking on an extra 3 months to the typical off-season, I was all the more anxious to return to my polished form.

Following a quick opening run down Chair 5′s “Sanctuary,” we darted towards Forest Trail to check out the latest jib offerings. A mailbox, aircraft carrier box, and banked box, were just some of the items Mammoth’s Unbound Crew had crafted for opening day.

After seeing the high talent levels of skiers and boarders around me, I was also ready to attack these obstacles with only the most stylish trickery. Refusing to take baby steps, I attempted to perform my once textbook 270-rail slide, a nearly complete rotation before landing in a grind on the rail. Sadly, my cocky efforts resulted in completely missing the rail, as I embarrassingly slipped off to the side. Clearly it was going to take longer then I hoped, for my inner Tom Wallisch rail skills to come back.

Frustrated with the obvious hurdles that still laid ahead in my return to skiing, I decided to venture into the lodge for some much needed hydration. While chugging water, I felt the vibration of my cell phone inside my ski pants.

Opening my phone, I quickly turned my eyes to a text message that simply read, “23! Jealous.”

Instantly, I knew what this cryptic string of words meant. Mammoth’s Chair 23 chairlift was operating for the first time this season. Mammoth was operating top to bottom, and it was October 16th. Wow.

As I sat there inside the bar, I nearly allowed myself to ignore partaking in this rare event. My whole body ached, and I had a severe case of “early season” legs. My annual ski-training regime had only kicked off September 1st, and I hadn’t exactly been religious at following my own program.

As fate would have it, I would find myself at the top of Chair 23 not soon after. My girlfriend had since retired to the hotel, and I was waiting on a phone call from a prospective employer. I had time to kill, and I knew it.

After a friendly chat on the lift ride with a stranger now turned ski companion, I turned my attention to the events at hand. I slowly inched my skis over the edge to peer down the face of “Dropout Chutes.” My scouting from the lift resulted in setting my line through a casual chute, as it provided the least chance for being surprised by any subterranean rocks this time of year.

After a few hop turns to get the feel for the run, I clenched my teeth and called upon some of the best skiing advice I ever received. I channeled my “inner Junior Seau” and got forward on my skis like a linebacker preparing to spring onto an unsuspecting quarterback. I proceeded to tear down Dropouts with my best GS turns, and sliced through the October corn snow with ease.

It was in that moment that I realized I was back. Sure I knew I might be weeks or months away from getting back my full arsenal of tricks, if ever. It didn’t matter though, because I had come full circle. I had metaphorically flipped the bird to all the horrible memories of the past few months. From the unconscious ambulance rides, to the catheters after surgery, it was over, and I had won.