The Last Chairlift – A Skiing Journey is a dedication to my wife Joyce, an avid skier who loved the mountains and died nine weeks earlier. While dealing with the minutiae of death, forms, documents, cards, photographs, I came across her first lift tickets. They were in a box with other things she had intentionally decided to preserve. There were three of them, each stuck on the one below, and still on a wire bale. The bottom one, which was the earliest, was dated December of 1989 from Cannonsburg Ski Area. The other two, dated in January of 1990, were from Crystal Mountain, Michigan. I remember those three ski days well.
Joyce and I had met in December of 1987, and even though we had nothing in common, we seemed to feel an immediate connection. I had been skiing for about fifteen years, not very well and not very often, just the three or four days a season that 90% of “skiers” manage. Joyce had never skied and made it clear she had no intention of ever doing so.
While my son was in high school, I became Ski Instructor at Cannonsburg, a local community ski area. Joyce came out on Ski Club nights and tramped through the snow to the darkest, coldest, farthest from the lodge corner of the area to watch my son and I race NASTAR. As I think about it now, perhaps Joyce was taking notes on how to ski and working up the courage to give it a try.
I was back at Cannonsburg for another ski season in the fall of 1989. Joyce still seemed adamant about not skiing, so it was a surprise when she said she wanted to give it a try in December of that year. I signed out boots, skis and poles, set her up one of our star instructors, and off they went. After her lesson, I asked if she wanted to go back out; the answer was yes, but after a stop at the ski shop. She came out with new skis, boots and poles. We finished that first day with Joyce doing Stem Christies on an intermediate slope.
Very shortly after that first day, we skied twice at Crystal Mountain, and each day her skiing improved. It was an absolute delight to watch. After skiing those three days in Michigan, Joyce wanted to go out west. I pointed out that we will be skiing the equivalent of ten Cannonsburg Ski Areas, stacked one on top of the other. She was not deterred, and we planned a trip to Kirkwood Mountain Resort in California, an area known for its steeps. By the end of that trip, she was handling groomed intermediate runs with ease and loving it. There is something magical about watching someone you love, doing something you love, and doing it well. We made a second trip to Colorado that winter, this time to Steamboat Ski Resort.
Joyce was still hanging around the Ski School, but now she was a skier and doing a lot of skiing with instructors. With her jet-black hair, beautiful smile, and English accent, she had all the ski instruction any person could handle.
We were at Cannonsburg Ski Area a lot, and in time, Joyce took and passed her PSIA certification test. We taught midweek lessons to many school groups. We took advantage of the PSIA clinics offered, and we each worked to improve our skiing and to help the other improve. We were always talking technique on chair lifts and deciding where we would focus as we skied down. We did that so much that, now and again, one of us would say, “Let’s just ski this one.”
We critiqued each other’s skiing and also other skiers from the chair. Three of our favorite judgments were “Back seat driver”, “Shoulder swinger”, and “Ski pole FedEx guy. (He’s not using those poles, so he must be taking them to someone else.)
I had started skiing years before Joyce, and so was ahead of her on the learning curve. For years, I would ski ahead, stop, and wait for her; when she caught up, off we’d go again. My stops got shorter and shorter, and I clearly recall the first time she beat me down the slope. I heard about that for a long, long time.
As I write this tribute to Joyce, my wife, lover, friend and partner in adventure, I recall one of my favorite memories of skiing with Joyce. It takes me back to Boyne Mountain and a run called Victor. It’s an intermediate slope, probably about 400 vertical feet with a consistent pitch, top to bottom. It is situated so that on sunny days, the lift cables cast parallel shadows on the snow, straight down the fall line. We loved to play on them. We would ski side by side, each on a shadow line, making synchronized turns. Alternatively, we would follow each other down a single shadow, she turning left, I right, and left tracks that looked like a Warren Miller movie. We were easily spotted in our matching yellow parkas, and were often rewarded with claps and cheers from the chair, and a thumbs-up from the lift operator.
Going through the remaining memories, I came across Joyce’s last season pass to Boyne Resorts dated for the 2014-2015 winter season, which marked the end of twenty-five years of skiing and ski travel together. Where did the time go? As the old saying goes, time flies when you are having fun. During my moments of reflection, I computed some real stats to put it into perspective how much our time skiing together meant to us. We skied on average 29 days per season, about half of those in Michigan and the remainder travelling to destination ski resorts in the west. This equated to 725 days, approximately 36,000 runs, and an amazing 5,850,000 turns at 58 different ski resorts, including some of the most notable resorts in the world, Whistler Blackcomb, Vail Ski Resort, Beaver Creek Resort, Jackson Hole, Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands.
Joyce and I were together for thirty-two years and married for 30. We enjoyed a great many things: we biked, hiked, kayaked, traveled, and enjoyed music and theater. But the most important thing we shared was a love of skiing and a commitment to do it well. It helped keep us active, healthy, involved, and in love.
Joyce passed away on June 9, 2020, at the age of eighty-one. She was the love of my life. I’ve continued to ski, and I still work on maintaining skills and perhaps mastering new ones. And now and again, on exiting the chair, I’ll say to myself, “Maybe I’ll just ski this one”.