Brion Oconnor Solitude

An Ode to Rock Skis

My Last Turns of The Season.

I’m the sentimental type. Blame it on my Irish DNA. Coupled with an occasional pessimistic streak, I admittedly get caught up in certain points on the calendar. I like beginnings, detest endings. As a youngster, like most kids, I hated the end of summer. In sports, I always loved the start of a season, and loathed the last game.

That’s one of the reasons – if not THE reason – I treasure spring skiing. The only thing that made the end of high school hockey season at all palatable was knowing that I another four to six weeks to get some turns in. Mom, who raised my five siblings and I by herself after my dad passed away, was a stickler for commitment. That meant I wouldn’t be doing any skiing during hockey season.

I distinctly recall my junior year in high school, after our clan moved back to Mom’s home state of New Hampshire, when she announced the family was going skiing for a weekend up north with some family friends. Unable to locate my ski pants, I asked Mom if she knew where they were.

“Why?” was her surprisingly terse reply.

“Um, because I can’t find them,” I said.

“Stop looking. You’re not coming with us,” Mom said. “You’ve got hockey games, and you have an obligation to your team. Find a teammate you can stay with.”

If you knew my Mom, you know there was no further discussion. And she was right. Joining a team meant you were all in, and it’s a lesson that I took to heart. That meant my ski season wouldn’t start until hockey season ended (given the hapless state of our team, that was usually sooner rather than later).

Of course, my over-reliance on spring skiing necessitated a quiver of skis. As vividly as I remember my Mom telling me that I wouldn’t be doing any in-season skiing, I can recall the day I “got” my first rock skis. During a glorious spring session at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire, I gleefully headed out onto trails that looked like they had coffee stains, with brown patches everywhere.

I didn’t care, because I was making up for lost time. My Kastle skis weren’t intended to be rock skis, of course, but after an all-day outing at Waterville Valley, my boards were trashed. I took one look at the deep grooves gouged along the bottoms, shrugged, put the skis in the attic above the garage, and forgot about them.

Over the next eight years, during my college and early “professional” life, I had to give up skiing simply due to a serious lack of finances (rent payment or ski, tuition payment or ski … such dilemmas!). The first thing I did after getting my second post-grad job, with a nice pay hike, was to run out to the local Ski Market and get myself new boots, poles, and sweet pair of silver Rossignols. It was late winter, and I couldn’t wait to baptize my new set-up.

An old friend of mine, Keith Ratner, and I spent a day at Cannon Mountain one Saturday, and then I visited my brother Sean at Loon Mountain for a few outings. That’s all it took to rekindle my love affair with skiing.

Just as I was getting my groove back on, though, spring arrived. I couldn’t stop, and didn’t stop to think about my old Kastle skis in the attic of Mom’s garage. One warm day, I hit the slopes at Mount Sunapee with my siblings, and promptly shredded the bases of my shiny new Rossignols.

Without missing a beat, and without a shred of sympathy, Sean announced: “Dude, now you’ve got yourself a new pair of rock skis.”

Those Rossi rock skis eventually gave way to a pair of Dynastars, and some bombproof K2 KVC Comps. But I’ve always had rock skis in the basement, because spring skiing is simply too good to pass on, no matter how unpredictable the conditions might be. March is simply prime ski season in the O’Connor household.

I’ve maintained that belief for the past three decades. For a nice 15-year stretch, I skied and snowboarded with abandon, November through April. Even after Lauri and I tied the knot, and welcomed our daughters into the world, our trips to ski country continued unabated. Typically, come mid-March or so, Lauri and the girls would give me a pass to grab a few spring ski weekends with my buddies.

That gave spring skiing a distinctly different vibe. I’d brush the cobwebs off the rock skis, dig out a really good rain jacket (an absolutely essential piece of gear), grab the SPF 50 sunscreen, polarized sunglasses, and a case of carbonated beverages, and run off with the boys.

Then Maddi and Brynne started playing winter sports – swimming, basketball, and hockey in particular – and our mid-winter forays up north slowed to a trickle. Every weekend, it seemed, there would be a swim meet or (more likely) a hockey game. And even though Brynne had plenty of teammates whose parents didn’t think twice about blowing off hockey games – without any regard for how those absences would affect the team – I had Mom’s voice in the back of my head. We made a commitment. We stayed home for the games.

Skiing, once again, took a back seat. We’d squeeze in a day on the slopes whenever we could. But, for the most part, our weekends were filled with trips to aquatic centers, gymnasiums, and hockey rinks (OK, mostly hockey rinks). Until spring. Instead of “boys weekends,” spring meant family ski trips.

Suddenly, my wife and daughters got a glimpse of my own childhood. The girls had to accept that mid-winter skiing would only happen if the stars (and schedules) aligned, and we could find a free weekend, or even a free day. More often than not, they had to wait until spring, just like I did.

The flip side, though, was that by the time spring came around, the girls would be absolutely stoked to head north to strap on the boards. Lauri and I never had to bribe them. They were good to go, always, without a hint of hesitation.

But there’s another element that’s crept into the equation as I’ve rounded the corner of the half-century mark. I’m 59 now, and there’s the undeniable sense that there may be fewer skiing days in front of me than behind me (especially following a pair of hip replacements – including a revision – and major back surgery). I don’t say that in any negative sense; just stating the facts. Or at least the probability.

Now, more than ever before, I view the ski season like a good ski day. You always want one more run. These days, I want to get one more day. And then another, and another. As a kid, I had that youthful optimism (naiveté?) that winter would come back around in a few months. Now, I understand that tomorrow, much less next winter, isn’t guaranteed. That makes today much more precious.

Almost exactly a year ago, in March of 2016, my left hip had deteriorated to the point where it was affecting not only my hockey coaching, but also my everyday quality of life. I took an assignment to head to Utah’s Salt Lake City, and the spectacular resorts of the surrounding Wasatch Range, before going under the knife to get the hip replaced. I joked with my wife that the trip would be my “Last Hurrah,” just in case surgery went awry.

With an ample supply of Ibuprofen – Vitamin I – and plenty of rest, I was able to ski for four days, in a wild array of conditions (including a bizarre spring snow squall at Snowbird). The conditions were classic spring skiing – a little crusty in the morning, softening up as the sun arched across the sky, terrific snowpack, and legendary resorts. The final day, at Alta, was absolutely perfect, but I was done by 2. I skied down to the main lodge, got myself a beer and a good seat on the outdoor deck, and just enjoyed the sun and the scenery.

My quads still ached when I got home the next night, but Lauri could tell by my smile. I was ready for surgery. I’d had my fill. I was happy.

Sadly, a very successful hip replacement was later derailed by lower back issues, which cropped up during my summer hockey coaching duties. The diagnosis was severe spinal stenosis of my lower back. I sent through a series of “non-invasive procedures,” including chiropractic adjustments to steroid injections. When it was clear that my symptoms were only getting worse, and surgery became my only option, I went back under the knife in early November.

By all accounts, the surgery was a success. I’m no longer in pain. I’m slowly getting better – actually, the pace has been glacial – but skiing still isn’t part of my recovery plan. My wife, a therapist, keeps reminding me that all improvement is good. Be patient, and keep walking, she tells me. My surgeon – a skier himself – had hoped that I’d be able to hit the hill this spring, but that doesn’t appear to be in the cards. Nerves, he said, can be notoriously finicky.

This March, I’ve been to the mountains twice with my family, not as a skier, but as a spectator. My back, and the lingering nerve damage to my left leg, still need to heal. So, I have to bide my time. The rock skis remain tucked away. As a result, the 2016-17 season may mark the first time in 30 years that I won’t be making those big ol’ GS turns in the soft stuff, risking more damage to my rock skis.

I say “may” only because I’ve still got all of April in front of me. So I’m holding out some hope. And hope, as they say, springs eternal. Just like the change of seasons. Just like spring.

Recent Posts:
Why Tuckerman Ravine Lures Skiers.
Hall of Famers on Snowsport History Week.
10 Tips to Ski Powder.