Daughter eats up first ski vacation

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The thought occurred to me about one week before I was scheduled to take my daughter to Park City, Utah, for her first skiing vacation:

What if she doesn't like skiing? Airline tickets had been purchased, accommodations reserved, clothes bought, vacation time allocated. Paige McMullen, 10, had never really been in snow, let alone at 10,000 feet above sea level, which is the altitude of the Wasatch Mountain range outside Salt Lake City, the site for the 2002 Winter Olympics, and our vacation.

Paige, who lives with her mother in Jacksonville, Fla., is a Southern girl. She had seen snow once, in Washington, D.C., when she was about 5. Geez, I thought, what if after the first day of skiing she says to me, "Daddy, I really don't like this sport?"

I grew up outside of Buffalo, N.Y., and have skied at just about every major resort in the Northeast. I also have skied at Taos, N.M., and Lake Tahoe, Calif. Heck, I can now say that I've skied at the three sites in this country that are Winter Olympics venues -- Squaw Valley, Calif.; Lake Placid, N.Y.; and Park City. Even though I hadn't been on the slopes since 1990, I figured I would be fine with three to five days of hard skiing. I could give Paige any pointers after her first day with a qualified instructor.

Here's a rule of thumb for first-time skiers from the South: Snow skiing isn't really like water skiing. The most similar sport, to this dyed-in-the-wool western New Yorker, is ice-skating. If you can ice skate, you can ski. And I knew that Paige was a good ice skater, took to it the first time she stepped on the rink at Incredible Ice in Coral Springs. And she's a good athlete (like her old man) who plays softball, golf, etc. Heck, she keeps bugging me about playing hockey. But that's a whole different story.

PIZZA AND FRENCH FRIES

The original plan was to ski Sunday through Tuesday, take a day off, and finish with a full day of skiing on Thursday. But once I got to the resort after flying all day and wading through renting equipment, I signed myself up for five days in a row and Paige for three consecutive days. Again, I wasn't sure if Paige would take to the sport.

The March Sunday dawned sunny and fairly warm at 35 degrees, which is one of the outstanding features of spring skiing in Utah. I was surprised at the ease of getting Paige dressed and prepared. For her first class, she joined seven kids aged 6-11, and Dan, a funny and personable instructor from Romania.

I left her at 10 a.m. and went off to explore the slopes with my friend, Dave Trimble, who was putting us up at his house in Park City, and his kids Jonathan and Stephen, who already had been through the Deer Valley Ski School and now were fearless. Surprisingly, I hadn't forgotten much in 10 years and had a wonderful time getting to know the Deer Valley layout.

Around lunchtime, I returned to check on Paige, who was making excellent progress. The program starts off in a fenced area on the beginner slopes, teaching the rudimentary skills of turning and stopping, as well as how to use the chair lifts. Getting on and off the chair lift is probably the most harrowing experience for novices, who are often afraid of falling as they exit and holding up other skiers.

By the end of the day, Paige and her group had moved up to the next level of the mountain, an easy green run right in front of the base chalet. The instructor put the beginners through a series of drills and obstacle courses. The method Deer Valley uses is called "pizza and french fries." Veteran skiers know these forms of skiing as snow plow and parallel. Pizza refers to the V-shaped ski position used to turn and slow down as you descend a slope. French fries is a quicker, more parallel descent. Hanging around and watching Dan teach enabled me to gauge how much progress Paige had made and how much help she would need for the rest of the week.

I really wanted Paige to have another day of lessons. But the month of March is peak season, and group lessons were sold out for the rest of the week. As the first day ended, with clouds heavy with fresh snow beginning to let loose, I asked Dan if Paige was ready to attempt more of the mountain.

"Paige is a good athlete who isn't afraid," Dan said. "She's about a Level 3 in ability, which means she can ski green and easy blue slopes. She's ready to go with you and your friends to higher elevations."

All ski areas rate skiers. Level 9 is double-black diamond ability, which means you're able to ski the hardest slopes and steepest chutes. I'm about a 7-8 in ability. I figured Paige was ready to go higher. "No problem, Dad," she said when I told her that Monday she and I would ski at the next level of the mountain. "I'm really getting the hang of this, and I love it!"

LET IT SNOW

Besides the skiing, what kid doesn't love to play in the snow? Starting Sunday afternoon and lasting until Monday evening, it snowed nearly a foot. Even after skiing all day Sunday, the kids were out in the yard having snowball fights, building tunnels and sledding. And, of course, sitting in the hot tub with snow coming down is a pretty cool experience, for kids and adults.

Monday, we skied in a near blizzard. I was glad I'd spent the money on good gear and clothes. It was snowing, blowing and cold. To Paige's credit, we skied all day, worked on "pizza and french fries," and by the end she was on easy blue slopes for intermediate skiers. I was proud of her ability to ski, but also of her ability to deal with the conditions. Paige made progress with each run and gained confidence in her ability to handle a variety of terrain.

And the beautiful thing about Utah is what awaited us for the final three days of our trip. The storm moved out Monday night, leaving the next three days with some of the best spring conditions I have ever encountered. As Dave kept saying: "You know what I like about skiing in Park City? Everything!"

Perfect is the only way to describe Tuesday. The snow was fresh and groomed, the sky was the deepest blue I have ever seen, and an old school friend, Pam Edwards, joined Paige and me for a half-day of skiing at Deer Valley. OK, Pam was my date for the eighth-grade prom. You know that scene from Jaws when Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw are getting drunk and comparing scars, and Dreyfuss pulls down his shirt and points to his heart and says, "Mary Ellen Moffitt, she broke my heart?" Well, that's Pam Hamilton (her maiden name). Pam had moved west, graduated from the University of Utah, met McKay Edwards, married and had four children. I called her a month before our trip, the first time I had talked to her in 25 years. We had an awesome day of skiing together and catching up on family and friends.

I faced only one dilemma on the trip. I originally had rented Paige's equipment for only three days. I asked her late Tuesday if she wanted to ski more. "I want to ski every day we're here," she said. "I want to ski faster than Jonathan and Stephen."

Of course, I wondered if I was pushing my daughter too hard. Maybe it had something to do with her waking up at 3 a.m. Wednesday, standing up in her bed, assuming a skiing pose and saying, "I'm ready, I'm ready." She was sleep skiing. Hmmm. Maybe I was pushing too hard. Nah.

PICTURE PERFECT

On Wednesday, the Trimbles and McMullens tried the Park City Mountain Resort. Park City has a twilight session from 1 to 9 p.m. (Actually, it is one of the better values.) In the Park City area there are three main ski resorts: Deer Valley, Park City and The Canyons. For family skiing, convenience and accessibility, Deer Valley and Park City are my choices. The Canyons has more expert skiing, but we didn't make it there on this trip.

I took my Nikon 35mm camera up on the mountain for most of Wednesday. It was a relaxing day, and outstanding for photography, especially with the late afternoon sun. Watching the sun set over the Wasatch Mountains with skis under your feet ain't half-bad at all.

Pam and her husband met us for our final day on Thursday. McKay is a developer who knows the Wasatch range as well as anyone. His family has roots in Park City and Salt Lake, and he planned an upscale housing development that is part of Deer Valley. Let's just say those one-acre lots go for $1.1 to $2 million. To top it off, he is in the process of writing a book on the mountains.

McKay, Dave, Pam and I skied black and blue runs for much of Thursday, and the kids and Dave's wife, Lisa, skied easier runs together.

At the top of Empire Canyon, looking toward the backcountry of the Wasatch range, McKay said to me, "You know, Don, the next time you come, we can ski across the range all the way over to Brighton and Alta, which is 12 miles as the crow flies but about an hour's car drive."

"Sure, McKay. You really think I could handle that kind of skiing?"

"I have no doubt," he said. "It would take a day, but the snow is unbelievable."

I will go back. Paige already has said she would go back in a heartbeat.

It's a trip neither of us will ever forget. And that's the point, isn't it?

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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