At the Northwest Chair, the head of the line is orderly. Six people stand at the turnstiles to the loading ramp. They've probably been there for hours. There is another row of six behind them, and then another row, but then the line loosens and spreads out. The liftees string a maze through the crowd. They pound in posts and roll out orange cord from a large spool. They cut groups in half and separate ski partners. They work with their heads down because every third person asks them to open the lift already. A loud “boom” buffets the mountain. The crowd erupts in cheers. This is the sound of avalanche control—of dynamite exploding. At the far end, the tail of the line fans across the base area as people stream in from the parking lot.

You are standing about a third of the way in. You have just come from the ski school office, where you have skipped work and taken a pair of your boss’s skis without asking. It is not an uncommon practice, but your boss’s three-year-old kid grills you anyhow. He emerges from behind a desk in his pajamas and says in a heavily congested but high voice, “Those aren’t your skis.”

Two minutes before nine, the lift opens. Whoops go through the crowd and people are happy. Full chairs swing out of the terminal. One chair with only five people goes up and the crowd, angry, shouts: “Six to a chair. Six to a chair.” But you are starting a third of the way in, so there is still a long wait. You shuffle forward and you spot familiar faces. You give a nod to Pete Oleck, a snowboard instructor you haven’t seen  in a month. He asks you how much they’re reporting. You say you don’t know. You ask, weren’t you fired? And he says yeah. He had someone else buy his ticket for him. There was no way he was gonna miss today.

You ride up with four strangers and a guy you recognize, but whose name you can’t remember. You acknowledge one another, but you don’t talk. Twenty feet below, Mt. Rose is a changed resort. The new snow has smoothed out the mountain and softened it. The trees sag. Castles of snow rest on sign posts. Soot on the rim of the Chutes mark where the half sticks of dynamite exploded. It looks like the mythical version of winter.

The first person down is a snowboarder straightlining Northwest. He leans way back. The nose of his board rises just above the snow. He is not very good. His arms wave up in the air for balance. Two other snowboarders follow. Both make long turns, leaving winding trenches in the snow behind them. The snow must be three feet deep where they are. A skier follows, and then another. People crisscross each other’s tracks.

As you come to the top, you watch people skate off the chairs to Upper Northwest, to Upper Ramseys, to Silver, over to Gold’s. Nobody stays at the top for long. Two guys next to you on the chair make a plan for their first run: Upper Ramsey's to Jetta to Aida’s. If one falls, they agree, the other will lap around and pick him up. There will be no stopping on the first run. “No friends on a powder day,” one says to the other. When your chair lands, you join in on the silliness too, skating between a couple skiers, then around a huddle of snowboarders who have stopped to strap in. You make it to Upper Ramsey’s before the guys on the chair. You catch air off a lip and drop in on an untouched swath of snow. You land off balance, but your tips pop through the surface, and you recover. You ski long fast turns. The snow builds up under your feet, then dissolves as you change directions. You drop into Mineshaft, then change your mind. Several pairs of tracks have already cut through it. You veer through the trees to a whole spit of untouched powder, and make two long turns where typically you would’ve made six or seven.

By late morning, rumors have circulated and people start to gather at the entry gates dotting the closure line to the Chutes. This is the main course of the powder day. You are at the El Cap gate. In front of you, a guy tells a friend about the line he’s going to ski. He calls it “My Line,” and makes it sound like he has rights to it, that he is the proprietor. You would be annoyed with him, if you didn’t have your own secret spot too.

After an all-clear over the radio, patrollers drop the “Closed” signs. The serious skiers and snowboarders (or the skiers and snowboarders who take themselves seriously) pour through the little makeshift entrances, straightlining toward trees, and cliffs, and rocks, and nooks they have been talking about in line or keeping silent about. Some auger in on the first couple turns and go tumbling. Other ski cleanly down. The less serious slide up to the main chutes and lean over to take a look, daring each other to go first.

You dip in and out of the trees. You are loose and hungry. Where usually you would be spotting escape routes, you look for speed: holes between trees, over lips and rocks. A puff of snow goes over your head and you are blind for a turn. You get air off a rock you didn’t see and land just fine. You aim for a bigger rock, auger in on the landing and go over the handlebars. But you pop up on your feet and keep going. This is when skiing feels like play, when turns and technique feel like window dressing to gravity.

You coast out onto the flats. You let your skis run. You can feel the tips of your skis wanting to hook and dive, but your legs are too weak to do much about it. You pass other people. Other people pass you.  Everyone’s skiing has gone sloppy. Everyone is just trying to keep it together down to the lift.

In the afternoon, the mountain goes from crisscrossed tracks to churned-up snow. Ruts muddle up the traverses and moguls form down the middles of runs. People stop midway down to talk. Kids gather at the top of cliffs, yelling to whoever went down first, “What’s the landing like?” The parking lot thins out. People go to work. But after a long lunch, you rally. You ride up with friends, one of whom is your boss, who has pawned off his sick kid on a Rosebud instructor. You say, “Go big or go home.” You follow each other down trails you have skied countless times before, down trails you have skied several times that day, but they feel new—at least renewed. You are all wobbly and tired. The skiing dissolves. You lie on the snow, waiting for each other. There is no telling when there's going to be another one of these days, but you have used up all of this one. You will talk about this day later, but not in specifics—unless it’s about a crash or a lost ski. Even the date will be fuzzy in your memory. You will use words like “big” and “epic” and “huge,” but you will remember the day most when you are lying in bed or riding in a car, or sitting on the couch, when you aren’t planted firmly on the ground and the nerve endings on the bottom of your feet are free to feel the snow from all of the past days like this one coming up to meet them.


Matt Reed lives in Anchorage, AK, where the snow only melted last month. His previous publications credits include The Nevada Review.