Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reasons to be cheerful (and thankful) ...

Boston, drizzling ...

Having just wrapped up a few stories for the New England Ski Journal, I got to thinking about one of my favorite ski tales (which, by the way, are almost as good as fish tales, depending on how much alcohol is flowing apres ski). A few years back, I was on a ski press trip to Utah along with Maddi, who was all of 8 at the time. On this particular day, she was in the ski school at Park City, and I was freeskiing this superb resort, grabbing as many turns as I could. Then it all turned bad (No, that's not me in the accompanying photo -- it's actually from Vail -- but I've always wanted to use it! Plus, I think it's safe to say that, had I seen this photo before my Park City adventure, I'm not sure I would have ever gathered the nerve to jump!) ...

Lift hucking in the Wasatch

The bright light of day was already beginning to relent to the peach and pink hues of late afternoon when I curled into the Silverlode lift line at Park City, Utah. I was pushing my luck, having roamed far from the Park City's sprawling base village, where my 8-year-old daughter Maddi would be waiting for me after her ski lessons. But I couldn't help myself – it had been an glorious Utah day at a world-class resort, and I was going to squeeze every run out of it I could.

A large, no-nonsense lift attendant herded me onto the Silverlode high-speed "six-pack," along with five other powder hounds. She didn't crack a smile when I quipped, "Beautiful day, eh?" Maybe she didn't like the look of the dark shadows that were rolling in. Her loss, I thought (though she could have learned a lesson or two from my friends back at Sugarloaf). The six of us plopped onto the padded seats, the chair clamped onto the high-speed cable, and we were off. For about 12 seconds.

I'd barely had a chance to say "Hi!" to the snowboarder on my left when a loud "Bang!" shot from deep inside the lift building. The lift jerked to a halt, and then started swaying up and down. We all instinctively grabbed the safety bar, trying to settle our nerves and our stomachs. "That didn't sound too good," said my new snowboarder friend, in a deep, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style Austrian accent. Once the waves in my gut subsided, I looked over the front of the lift and saw that we were suspended about 15 feet over a fresh patch of untracked powder. "Doesn't look too bad," said Ah-nold with a big, toothy grin. "I'm not so sure," I replied with a shaky laugh, the thought of flinging my 40-something body off a lift not sitting well at all. Being from New England, I'd seen what lurks beneath the lifts – sheared tree trunks, jagged rocks, and other assorted hazards, both natural and man-made.

So as the lift rocked gently in the breeze, we made ourselves comfortable. To my right was a Wall Street type, who immediately pulled out his Blackberry and started multi-tasking, not saying a word to anyone. To his right were a mother and daughter, the latter wearing a helmet festooned with one of those ridiculous polar fleece ornaments that made her look like a court jester. She was chit-chatting non-stop, in a high-pitched Valley Girl voice, convincing me that if the lift didn’t start soon, I'd be forced to jump just to save my sanity. I was certain the poor, ordinary looking character sitting next to them on the far right felt the same.

Five, then 10 minutes passed. Anyone who's been stuck on a lift knows what an eternity that seems like. Even Mr. Wall Street started getting agitated, after he apparently ran out of things he could do on his Blackberry. Finally, Mom thought to call the resort from her cell phone. She explained that she was sitting on the Silverlode chair, and it hadn't moved for 15 minutes. After nodding her head a few times, she blurted out "Thanks," closed her flip phone, and sighed. "Well, they’re sending someone over, " she said, exasperated. "It appears they’ve blown a piston or something."

"That's it, I'm out of here," announced Ah-nold abruptly. "You go, I go," I stammered, though unsure where the words were coming from. The irony is that, during my first forays into skiing as a youngster, I had an annoying penchant for falling off lifts, much to my Dad’s consternation. But that was a long, long time ago, when my body was much more pliable. Plus, I don't think I ever fell more than five feet, max. This time, I’m looking at a good 15-foot drop, with a body that’s unaccustomed to hucking off of high places.

Undeterred, Ah-nold quickly unfastened his board, tossed it aside, took a deep breath and pushed off, hitting the snow in a soundless burst of powder. "It's good … very good," said my Austrian shredder, beaming. And with that, he collected his board and post-holed his way into the nearby woods (apparently to avoid prosecution).

Without giving myself time to allow another doubt to creep into my grey matter, I threw my poles into the divot created by Ah-nold’s landing and reached forward to pop off my skis. I ignored the surly demands of the barking lift attendant, who, I learned later, had every right to insist that we stay on the lifts, since it's illegal to jump off them in Utah. Better I didn't know. My only thought was that it was late, and getting later, with little to no hope of getting off the lift and getting back to Maddi before sundown. Other than jumping.

I jettisoned my skis as well, watching them spin in a perfect arch before hitting the snow, like a twisting diver off the high platform. One stuck the landing, sinking past the bindings, which told me I had at least three feet of fluff to cushion my 215 pounds. Rushing to prevent thinking, I bid Mr. Wall Street, Mom and Daughter, and Joe Average a quick adieu, slid my butt to the edge of the seat, and launched myself. I’m fairly certain I didn’t look as graceful as my skis, especially on impact. My feet hit first, but my forward momentum drove my face into the powder, filling my mouth, nose and ears. And it felt wonderful.

With blood and adrenaline thumping through my veins, I spun to give my chair mates a quick thumbs up, before gathering my gear and tracing Ah-nold’s footprints into the woods. Only then did I hear the cheers of other skiers stranded in chairs further up the line. Taking one last glance behind me, I watched as the daughter, hanging full-stretch from the chair, plopped down with a yelp! I kicked off the packed snow on the underside of my boots, snapped in, looked around for any vigilante lift attendants, and skied off to find Maddi.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Running the Baja ...

Boston, early Monday ...

In honor of that wacky, reckless (though not without wrecks) ode to internal combustion -- the Baja 1000 -- held every November along Mexico's rugged western coastline, Men's Fitness asked me to do a story on my own four-day white-knuckle ride with the gang at Maverick Business Adventures and Wide Open Baja. You can check it out, with a slew of photos, in the November issue, or read it online here. The unedited version is below.

Dust to glory

I've got the gas pedal pegged to the floor. My co-driver Rich Bellofatto, a finance guy from Long Island, is screaming above the din of the high-torque 240-horsepower engine: "Punch it! Punch it!" Our 3000-pound Baja racer jerks into the tracks of the fine Mexican silt like a spastic slot car. My chest slams into a five-point harness that keeps me from getting jettisoned, while the steering wheel threatens to tear away from my grip. Finally, we lurch out the other side of this talcum pit, our rig covered in what our guide describes as "liquid dirt." My heart is pounding like a jackhammer. Bellofatto flashes a mega-watt smile. "Nicely done," he says.

This, in the world of Wide Open Baja, is what passes for a day at the office. And that office is found right along the route of the famed Baja 1000 race. Legendary racer Rufus "Parnelli" Jones once described this south-of-the-border demolition derby, held every November, as a "24-hour plane crash." Jones, a two-time Baja 1000 winner, wasn't kidding. This crazed mix of high-octane fuel, rubber and corrugated dirt roads through one of the world's most diverse desert environments is an eye-popping experience. And it's no "reality show" – it's real.

"Wide Open Baja is the only company I've worked with that gives you enough rope to hang yourself," says guide Andrea Tomba, warning against overconfidence. "It's easy to go from really fun to really wrong at 60 miles an hour. Baja is the temptress. She'll seduce you, and then she'll spurn you."

Seduction comes easily behind the wheel of a full-blown Baja racer boasting almost two feet of suspension per wheel. But unlike schools based on NASCAR or even drag racing, we're motoring along public roads (though the term "road" is applied rather loosely), not a racetrack. The terrain is spectacular but rugged, with hidden dangers, ranging from precipitous ravines and toe-curling switchbacks to suicide cattle, lurking around each corner or rise. We even took these burly buggies on the highways, and into cities like La Paz (when "ordinary" vehicles were forced to stop at speed bumps, our 20-inches of suspension allowed us to hit them at 40 mph). As Tomba said: "There aren't many places that will let a bunch of lunatics like us drive on public roads in race cars."

Talk about immersion. After a brief walk-through of the cockpit, I slid into the driver's seat, not with an instructor beside me, but with another Baja neophyte. In short, the driver is immediately and completely accountable for a $120,000 racing rig (each accident – flat tire, ruined transmission, dead cow – comes with a $3000 deductible). The co-pilot is no idle passenger, but a vested partner. The race cars are equipped with GPS units and radios, and the co-pilot is responsible, when he's not hanging on for dear life, for alerting the car behind about upcoming hazards (which have been sent down from the lead, or guide, car). It's a high-stakes version of the old telephone game, where incorrect instructions can send cars hurtling off the road. Key facts must be conveyed precisely and quickly. It doesn't take long to learn who in the group is a good communicator, and who can get you hurt, says Todd Clement, Wide Open's founder and a Baja veteran.

The driver, meanwhile, is trying to process all this information while keeping a 3,000-pound beast under control barreling along at breakneck speed. The most comical comment, in hindsight, was Tomba telling us: "It's not a race. We'll see some beautiful areas. Look around. Enjoy it." Those words came back to me again and again as I desperately tried to keep up with the wicked pace set by Tomba, especially after several mechanical problems put our group behind schedule. One leisurely glance to take in the surroundings could have been disastrous.

Still, once comfortable with the pitch and sway that comes with plenty of suspension on these washed-out "roads," you can really open up these rigs. Chasing the car in front of us, Bellofatto and I spent as much time in the air as we did on terra firma. "You just can't describe the feeling you get while you're screaming through the desert at 80 miles an hour, surrounded by walls of killer cactus 15 feet high, and hitting jumps that would crack a Hummer in half," says Mike Dillard of Austin, TX.

The next day we all jabbed the gas pedal a bit harder, trusting the cars to do what they were designed to do. At the end of Day Two, when we motored into Scorpion Bay under the cover of darkness, I was spent. My helmet and clothes sported a thick layer of grime. My shoulders throbbed from smashing against the harness, and my right knee had a big purple welt where it repeatedly smacked a T-bar handle designed to provide the co-pilot some stability. My midsection was battered. No, this is not a pastime for the faint of heart, or faint of wallet (tour prices vary; plan on spending $1,000 per day). But the price of admission, whether financial or physical, is well worth it. When a Wide Open staffer handed me an ice-cold Pacifico, I was grinning like a kid.

For details on Wide Open Baja, visit or call 949-635-2292.