The Big Steep

The only thing slick about Arizona Snowbowl is the snow

Snowbowl might have become a world-class ski area. It has the mountains and the terrain and the snow.

Instead, because of the cost of litigation and drag of court injunctions and the impossibility of expansion, it has remained an old-fashioned ski area, the kind of place you might have found 25 years ago, before skiing was an "industry."

And the general consensus is that this is good. In an era when skiing has become blander and more expensive, Snowbowl is still raw and woodsy and friendly.

"Areas like that remind those of us who have been in the business for a while what we liked about the sport and what we want to get back to," says Mike McMenamy of the National Ski Areas Association.

Peter Shelton, a contributing editor of Ski magazine and a correspondent to Outside magazine, adds, "You're talking about an experience that's disappearing."

Time Traveling on Skis
B.J. Boyle is ski-patrol director at Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff, snow sheriff, as it were, head disciplinarian despite his toothy grin, avalanche expert and rescuer of lost boys and fallen snow angels. With his mirrored sunglasses, his hat pulled low and collar zipped high against the mountaintop cold, about all that's visible of him is his ski-town mustache.

Once upon a time, Boyle was a Phoenician, but then he got addicted to the extended rush of controlled falling that is skiing's main allure. He's worked at the sacred mountains now for 17 years.

It's a stunning February morning, sunshine glaring off the groomed slopes and the wilder snows on the summits of mounts Agassiz and Humphreys above and the concave bowl that connects them and from which the resort takes its name. Boyle stands up from the chair lift and coasts down the ramp to start his patrol.

After a moment's kibitzing with other Snowbowl employees at the ski-patrol shack, he jumps down the Ridge trail, a steep black-diamond run that was buffed and polished the night before by the grooming crew.

Though Boyle is as comfortable on downhill skis and snowboard, today he's skiing on telemark skis, which, in essence, are downhill skis with an adapted cross-country binding that leaves the heels of his boots free. They give him greater mobility, he says, so that he can move uphill as on cross-country skis, or downhill as his job demands. And when he goes downhill, he alternates between classic genuflecting telemark turns and swooping parallel Alpine turns. He skis easily and gracefully, as if the skis were an extension of his legs and the terrain were mapped out in his unconscious.

When the ancient Europeans invented skiing, they had winter transportation in mind. With skis on their feet, they went uphill, downhill or across the hill.

Skiing for transportation long ago yielded to athletic endeavor; cross-country and telemark skiing were reinvented as separate sports. And at the same time, ski areas ceased to be mountain experiences and became winter theme parks.

In the 1960s, skiing in America still took place on weekends when parents (often of European heritage) loaded the kids into the station wagon and spent a day in the wintertime woods. Clarinet and accordion music doodled from loudspeakers.

As skiing became more popular, the fledgling resorts decided they could sell more than just uphill transportation. They added shops and restaurants and nightclubs and luxury hotels into the mix.

They added snowmaking to guarantee snow, invented grooming machines to make sure it was just perfect, carved acres and acres of trails and bulldozed the steeps to accommodate a perpetual crop of novice skiers and terminal intermediates who took an hour or two's worth of runs between sleigh rides and massages and hot-tub parties.

Skiing became a vacation, the kind that you saved for all year long.
And the price went up and up.
"The ski areas have abandoned any pretension that skiing is a middle-class endeavor," says ski writer Peter Shelton. "They're going directly for rich people."

And indeed, leaving out the cost of travel, the cost of food and lodging, a single day's lift ticket at Aspen, for example, now costs a whopping $56.

An all-day ticket at Arizona Snowbowl still costs only $31.
Boyle skis off the main trail and onto a narrow catwalk through the trees, skirting the boundary between the ski area and the wilderness area as part of his patrol. The glades below the catwalk are out of sight of the main trails, and, consequently, they are empty.

Back in the '70s, as one former "lift rat" confesses, the ski patrols and the lift attendants used to sneak off into the woods to smoke dope.

That's as gone as the snows of yesteryear.
The walkie-talkie pinned to the suspenders of Boyle's ski bibs crackles to life and a managerial sort in the main lodge orders him down for his mandatory drug test. It's a stipulation of the area's use permit with the U.S. Forest Service that the area's employees be drug-free; after all, they are giving first aid and operating heavy equipment.

Boyle grumbles about the indignity of having to drop everything to go pee in a jar, but he shifts gears anyway, points his skis toward the lodge and rockets back into the late 1990s.

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