Blue Diamond, Black Diamond, what’s the difference?

In the mid-1980s, while at AT&T, I extended a trip in Colorado to go skiing. I chose a spot called Hidden Valley Resort. It wasn’t so much for tourists, but close to Denver, so ideal for one-day trips by the locals. I had no clue that bravado, stupidity, chauvinism and hubris could amass to cataclysmic intensity in one event on just one day.

Hidden Valley Ski area opened in 1955 and closed in 1991. Ten miles outside of Estes Park, Colorado, it moved skiers to the top with ropes, Poma and T-Bars and eventually chair lifts. Most memorable were the olive green, canvas-covered army trucks (replaced with school buses by the time of my visit) transporting more adventure-oriented skiers to the upper valley, where tow ropes transported them to the top of the mountain, allowing a downhill rush through pine groves and powder. The resort featured an impressive 2000-foot vertical drop from 11,400 to 9,400 feet, with 30 percent beginner, 30 percent intermediate, 30 percent expert and 10 percent insane (my opinion) trails. Patrons were mostly northern Colorado residents avoiding the long drive and high prices of larger resorts along I-70. In 1984, a season pass to Hidden Valley cost $100 and adult daily lift tickets were $10. The resort never competed successfully with the larger areas and after a lousy snow season it closed operation and removed its lifts in 1991.

Having not skied in several years, I began my day with a lesson. Sure enough, with a good instructor and attentive practice, I’d returned to being a “mid-to-pretty-good intermediate skier” of a few years earlier. So, I hit the slopes.

After my early sessions on the green slopes, I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon perfecting my technique on blue (intermediate) slopes. My skills had returned and I felt confident. After a quick bowl of chili for lunch, I headed outside. Carrying my skis toward the chair lift, I spotted a school bus close to me with lettering on the side saying “Upper Valley” and decided to take it. I stowed my rented skis on the rack and got inside. Realizing I was one of the first on the bus and it wouldn’t leave for a few minutes, I hustled to the restroom to pee. When I returned, half a dozen guys were now on the bus and it was ready to roll. I sat down and the bus pulled out. I pulled my gaze from the attractive skiers walking past the bus to its interior. It was then I saw it: A large sign, right above the driver’s head, where you typically see the sign saying “Tips Appreciated,” was one saying: “This bus goes only to black diamond and double black diamond slopes – Expert skiers ONLY!”

Bus to upper trails.

Oh boy, what to do? I had 15 minutes to think as the bus wound its way up the hill. First, I sure didn’t want to wimp out in front of all these guys and, at this point, everyone on the bus was male. I thought about ducking down in my seat and riding the bus back down, but realized it wouldn’t work. Second, my day so far had been going very well. My confidence level was high. I’d been on black diamond slopes before and while I wasn’t pretty, I always managed to get down. “Let’s see how this goes,” I thought.

At the top, everyone got off the bus and collected their skis. Thoughts of sneaking onto the bus disappeared as it left the second our skis were off the rack. Our small group of riders had sort of become a club, feeling a bit of comradery, never speaking to each other, but no dues, either. Latching up, I followed the group as they slowly traversed a ridge with a steep drop off to the right. OK, more accurately, a sheer cliff to the right. Every 15-25 feet or so, one of the group members would peel off and head down the slope. I kept following the guy in front of me, hoping he would lead us to a more gradual slope. It didn’t happen. As hard as it was to comprehend, the further we went along the ridge, the steeper the drop off to the right became.

This is the steepness I recall on the mountain.

With only 3 guys left, we finally reached the end. Hope of finding a gentler slope vanished. Instead, here was a T-Bar leading up and off to the left, into a deep white mist. Running out of options and terrified of having to ski off the cliff to my right, I followed my two remaining buddies as they hooked onto the T-Bar and we were pulled higher up the mountain. Examining the areas slopes sometime later, I realized I was heading to an area called “Tombstone Ridge.”

Arriving at the top, it felt as if I was close to the summit. It was colder. My two friends quickly disappeared into the thick fog covering the slope below, and the wind began to pick up. It was late afternoon and I was alone, at the top of a mountain, wearing skis. Everyone was gone. Thoughts of ski management people finding me in the spring alternated with my mumbling to myself “Don’t panic, take it one step at a time.”

It turns out lack of visibility can be a good thing. Because of the fog, I was unable to see very far down the mountain. Looking across a steep, icy slope, I saw a mid-sized pine tree, the nice Christmas-y type, 25 feet tall with big, wide branches at the bottom. I decided to go across the slope, rather than down, and into the tree’s lower limbs to stop my momentum. Miraculously, it worked.   More important, from this vantage point, I saw another tree on the other side of the slope, only a little bit further down, and I proceeded to ski directly into it as before, using the branches to break my rapidly accelerating pace.

This seemed to work. I crashed from one tree to another, not dying. Sure, I was skinned up a bit, but thick gloves and goggles make for better protection than you might think. But this was exhausting.  While recovering and gathering my energy in the branches of a tree, out of the mist came the savior I’d secretly been praying for. A skier in the distinctive uniform of the Ski Patrol was headed in my direction. “Oh, thank God, I am saved.” I thought.

The patrol person expertly skied right up to me, finessed a quick little turn and stopped, lifted her goggles and shouted to me through the howling wind, “Are you okay? Do you need any help?” OMG, it was a woman, a girl! Before thinking I said, “No, no, I’m fine, just catching a breather.” And with no time for me to reconsider my foolish response, she adjusted her gloves, smiled at me, pulled down her goggles and skied off down the hill. I thought to myself, “God, I am an idiot and a moron!”

The tree-to-tree skiing technique kept me from killing myself for the next few hours (well, okay, maybe 15 minutes) and I came to an ice-covered half-pipe-like formation. With no trees to slow my fall, I sat down, undid my skis and slid down through the bowl on my butt. Not the most dignified way to come down a mountain, but I did not die, either.

Emerging at the bottom of the trough, I saw a sign showing a list of runs heading off in different directions. And then, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, right in the middle of the list, was a blue diamond indicator (intermediate slope) and an arrow pointing to my left. I headed in that direction immediately and 30 minutes later, reached the bottom of the hill, alive, and able to recount this story.

Those of us committed to equality in the workplace and in life, often forget how deeply ingrained our sexist outlook really is and how it affects us in daily life. When in the delivery room with Maggie, as my daughter Ginger was born, I recall looking around me: the obstetrician was a woman, the anesthesiologist was a woman and the nurse was a woman. As my daughter was born I thought to myself, God help anyone trying to stand in the way of my daughter’s being anything she’ll ever want to be, and thankful she’d grow up in a world where people were judged on their abilities and not their gender or skin color. Sadly, we have a long way to go on both counts.

 

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