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Skim or swim: Colorado ski season winds down with a splash, not a schuss

A frigid slide on skis through an icy pond -- known as pond skimming -- has marked the end to ski season across America since the 1920s

A pond skimmer at Arapahoe Basin. (Provided by Arapahoe Basin)
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Spring break, long ago, Stowe, Vermont. Eight inches of powder. And then, something I remember even better: The ski area had filled a lined pit with water and I stood agog watching one person after another ski across or swim, cruise or cartwheel into the drink.

Only two girls entered, neither getting far, and I wished more would try. The head of the ski school, a silver-haired character I swear was named Pepi, swished across with a princely bearing and stepped coolly off the rim.

A high schooler visiting from Maryland, I wanted to do it, but did not dare.

A pair of pond-skimming skiers take the plunge at Aspen Highlands in an earlier season. (Hal Williams, Special to The Colorado Sun)

I always remembered it, though. I just had no idea how long it would take for location, nerve and opportunity to coalesce and create a chance for me to skim a pond at the bottom of a ski resort.

Closing days have already begun at ski hills out East, and one of the great, offbeat and riotous traditions of ski culture looms large in Colorado. Pond-skimming events (I am not sure they can be called competitions) are a final-day custom, a last hurrah, a big happy party ideally — though not always — held under sunny skies promising that summer is coming soon.

Contestants wear costumes, and watchers crowd the sides and runout in T-shirts and Hawaiian shirts. It’s cheers and beer, sunglasses and music. Pond skimming gives everyone something to come together and watch, serving up watery mayhem but also skill and elegance, as some glide, all smiles. Actually, they all smile.

A young skier’s game

Over all the years, and through moves to Vermont for college and out West to live, I kept a distant eye on pond skimming. Sometimes my now local area, Aspen Highlands, held the event, sometimes not.

A pond skimmer in a Santa suit rides into the finish at Aspen Highlands in 2018. (Jeremy Swanson, Aspen Skiing Company)

I was always excited when it did, though sometimes only hearing about it later. One year the area set up a small pond at the base lodge, and my younger son, then 12 or 13, and his ski-team friends zipped across, and when that wasn’t enough, started going backwards and on one ski.

“It’s easy,” Roy told me.

But I didn’t try, lest I humiliate him with ineptness. One boy’s mother, a good athlete and sport, did try, but crashed posthaste. The boys eventually started wiping out, too, mainly because they had sprayed all the water out of the pit and were hitting the blue tarps. Roy’s lips were blue, too, by then, but a car and heater were near.

Six or eight years ago, on a sunny day, my friend Heather and I watched pond skimming from the midway lodge at Highlands. The event involved costumes, of course, and also vehicles, some of them a lot more seaworthy than others. Heather got the appeal.

“If I had brought extra clothes, I’d go,” she said, making all the sense in the world to me. Neither of us had brought clothes. The previous year I had come with spares, but found no event. Another year I brought clothes, but that time only sleds were allowed, though I did hike up to the start and plead.

I always longed to try it, but I also did not want to get hurt, out there with all the eggbeater and entanglements. With each miss, I was sorry, but in some small way relieved.

The pond skimming crashes are big and cold. (Jeremy Swanson, Aspen Skiing Company)

Then two years ago, circumstances converged, and I found myself in the official pond-skimming registration line, filling out a waiver. It asked my name, address and age. My age started with the number 5. Everyone else seemed to be 22 or maybe 19. Still, it was finally a chance. I trudged upslope with my skis, the blue water sparkling, filled with bobbing chunks of ice and snow — more chunks than I’d expected.

At the top, music blasted and a cloud of sweet smoke wafted by as I stepped into my skis. Below me at the start, a boy I’d watched grow up, now an event promoter in a sparkling golden suit, asked in shock, “You’re doing it?”

Almost immediately the announcer called my name, with the casual directive, “Dropping in!”

“Wait!” I said.

The chute was longer and much steeper than it looked from below, slate gray, and solid ice. I didn’t want to be hurt, to be a fool. Downright delusional. My health-care costs were already sky high. Still, I wanted to.

An old tradition

As early as spring of 1969, Sugarbush, Vermont, bulldozed out a cavern in front of its base lodge: clear 120-feet across. There was pond skimming at the likes of Stratton, Okemo, Jay Peak and Killington; from Sunday River, Maine; to Gore Mountain, New York; and Beech Mountain, North Carolina.

Where to find pond skimming

Some of the Colorado ski areas hosting pond skimming this year, according to Colorado Ski Country:

Out West, participating areas have stretched from Big Sky, Montana, which got creative by putting two ponds side by side, connected by a snowpatch; to California’s Mammoth Mountain and Squaw Valley, which uses a real pond; to Park City, Utah; Hood River, Oregon; and Stevens Pass, Washington.

Way up north, Banff is the granddaddy of them all, beginning purportedly in 1928, when Cliff Whyte and Cyril Paris failed to find a snowed-in Canadian Pacific Railroad cabin, dug a shelter, and started skiing in what is now Sunshine Village, including during the spring snowmelt — though in a 2015 article in Powder magazine the resort owner’s daughter called the tale true “except for the pond-skim part.”

She also laughed off any notions of real dates and numbers. “I don’t know how long it’s been going on,” she told Powder, “but I know it’s tomorrow.”

Here in Colorado, hosts have included Powderhorn, Purgatory, Winter Park, Steamboat and Keystone. Vail’s World Pond Skimming Championships, started 17 years ago as a take-off on the World Alpine Championships, draws thousands of onlookers.

One year, looking around in hopes of ever getting to try it, I found one at Arapahoe Basin, on a real lake that forms near a high lift. But ultimately I didn’t want to drive for hours to an unfamiliar place.

All dressed up and nowhere to go but down

For Highlands closing, I had hauled out a classic one-piece “powder suit,” but it just looked apologetic amid the tutus, prom dresses, and banana and unicorn suits.

The long runout stretched below, shadowy.  

This is it. You’re doing it.

Down, down. Bap! I felt water under my skis and skied for maybe one second, just long enough to think “Maybe!” And then I caught an edge … and splatted, face first.

In a video taken from the start by my husband, Mike, a great alarmed cry of “OH!” rises up.

“I’ve never seen you do anything like that,” said my older boy, Ted, away in college at the time. “You just went straight down, without slowing down at all.”

He shared the video on his Instagram, and one of his friends, who was ringside, commented: “Dude, that was your mother? I thought she was dead!”

Pond skimming at Copper Mountain. (Red Bull, via YouTube)

I rose up, bleeding slightly from a scratch to the chin, and missing a ski, which an event worker fished out. But I had learned something. This is the allure of any sport: You figure out one thing, anything, and then, through curiosity and temptation, want to see if it works.

Because I had slapped onto the far shore, only my toes in the water, I was still dry. I trudged back up. One group in period costumes did a “Titanic” song-and-dance routine before riding a homemade ship into instant flotsam. One guy went starkers — full monty — and immediately crashed. Some people whizzed across with elan, some even two or three at a time.

I dropped in again. Go fast, react when you hit, keep the skis flat.

Whoosh. I crossed. I did not exit elegantly, like Pepi did. In fact, 10 feet beyond the far edge, I fell. The runout was pure ice. But I had made it over and was thrilled. Relieved. Ebullient.

Then I wanted to go up and down it all day, but friends were waiting, and if I stayed dry I could go skiing. Another little relief.

“I was shocked,” Ted said on the phone, the subject arising as the ski season winds down. “You went so fast, and you crashed so hard.”

“Why?” my old college roommate Rin asked. “If you want to have a midlife crisis, can’t you borrow a sports car?”

There are small victories in pond skimming, including emerging with a dry costume at Aspen Highlands in a past year. (Hal Williams, Special to The Colorado Sun)