Miles driven: 7,640.
Days on the road: 47.
Ski areas: 18.
The breakdown of a ski safari of a 20-something, perhaps hitting the road before hitting the job market?
Try a late-60s, AARP-eligible retiree who had this in mind for decades.
The year that is about to end can’t close out quick enough for most of us. But for Don Mclaughlin, former facilities and support services vice president at St. Peter’s Hospital, then at Ellis Hospital, 2020 was the fulfillment of a dream that began while growing up in Cohoes, where he still lives, and skiing with his dad in the 1960s.
“First, there was college, followed by the Navy and then a working life with no time for this,” said Mclaughlin, as he reflected back on the road trip that had him leave home last Jan. 24 and return March 15.
He did see Capital Region friends early in the trip and his friend Terri Gill flew to Calgary to share the drive home with him.
But, for the most part, it was a solo journey.
However, it was not a random ride in the hills. He had been working on a plan for almost a year.
The first stop after a three-day drive west was Westminster, Colorado — near Denver — where, with old friend Ed Pater, he skied Eldora and Winter Park, then days at Arapahoe Basin and Keystone.
Mclaughlin knew Colorado well from prior trips. One day in Denver it turned warm. What to do on a ski trip when the temperature is 75 degrees? Flexibility is important when traveling, so it was a round of golf on Feb. 1 for Mclaughlin, a low handicap regular at the Edison Club in the bad-sliding months.
Mclaughlin’s son, Bryan, is a ski instructor at Breckenridge, and he had other friends such as former St Clare’s Hospital CEO Paul Chodkowski living nearby. So with temperatures back to mid-winter normal, he had six more days of skiing in the neighborhood, highlighted by 30 inches of fresh powder on the last day with his son and daughter-in-law.
The Colorado Rocky Mountains have the highest elevation ski terrain in the United States, so going from the Capital Region to peaks that are more than 12,000 feet can be a difficult adjustment.
Not so for Mclaughlin.
“I never had an altitude problem anywhere on the trip,” he said
HEADING OUT ALONE
On Feb. 8, he headed west, alone.
The first stop was the Salt Lake City area, where he and a group from the Capital Region have skied regularly in recent years. He skied a day each at Alta, Snowbasin and Powder Mountain near Ogden.
Next, it was off to Sun Valley, Idaho. On one of his two days on snow there, he skied 40,000 vertical feet. Half that total is considered a good day for most skiers. From Central Idaho he drove to Grand Targhee, a medium-size area by Western standards, but well-known for its snow quality and double black diamond access road. His second day there was a powder day.
Over the pass into Wyoming is Jackson Hole, with its infamous Corbet’s Couloir, which for many advanced skiers is a rite of passage. Mclaughlin had skied Corbet’s years earlier, but it was closed this time, so no temptation to repeat in the two days he was there.
From Jackson Hole, north through Yellowstone National Park to Big Sky, Montana. The signature lift there is a 20-passenger tram that tracks the sheer upper face of Lone Mountain. Mclaughlin was on board both days, making first tracks on the second. Before heading north into Canada, there was a stop at ski Bridger Bowl, an appealing favorite of locals outside Bozeman.
Next, a stop in Whitefish, Montana near Glacier National Park. There, Mclaughlin experienced the curse of high altitude skiing: flat light.
Once you are above tree line — about 8,000 feet of elevation — and it is a cloudy day when the color of the sky and the color of the snow surface are about the same, you get flat light, often resulting in vertigo. You don’t know where you are headed, or even if you are going down or up. It is frightening. This was Mclaughlin’s second day at the former Big Mountain. Lots of snow and interesting terrain but if you don’t know where you are headed, get to cover, or at least find a tree line for perspective as soon as possible.
Whitefish is about an hour from the Canadian border, then open to regular crossings. It was on to Fernie in British Columbia, the first of several large areas Mclaughlin skied in western Canada. From there, the drive north to Revelstoke includes the Trans Canada Highway that becomes a two-lane road along the way, an adventure in mid-winter. But Revelstoke, a relatively new area, is on every serious skier’s must-try destination list these days. It has the greatest vertical in North America at almost 5,600 feet — 40% more than Whiteface, the most in the East.
Revelstoke may be hard to get to, but with a vast mountain area and miles of skiable terrain, it attracts more and more skiers every year. Three days of earning bragging rights there, and it was on to Kicking Horse, the final stop on his solo itinerary.
After 26 days on the road alone, Mclaughlin drove to Calgary to meet Gill, who joined him for three days in Banff, the gateway to the Canadian Rockies where spectacular skiing is matched by spectacular surroundings. The final ski day — No. 28 — was at Sunshine Village, which straddles the British Columbia-Alberta border.
It was a four-day trek back to the Capital Region that included a detour south across the border to North Dakota, the last of the 50 states Mclaghlin has now visited. He has also visited all 10 Canadian provinces. He got home on March 15, the same day New York state closed its ski areas due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
For a journey of this length with some challenging miles, Mclaughlin never varied from the schedule he had planned before starting the trip. He made every reservation along the way.
So, Don, how about those Baby Boomer knees and legs?
That’s a lot of mileage, even for a Gen Y skier.
“Never had a problem,” he said. “Never had to take a ski day off.”
What are you doing this winter?
“I’m staying home. I bought a pass for Gore, and that’s where I’ll be as often as I can.”
Had enough travel?
“No! I am spending my spare time planning another trip for next winter.”
For a first-person account of Mclaughlin’s trip, check out https://dons2020skiadventure.blogspot.com.
WORLD UNIVERSITY GAMES
The World University Games are scheduled every two years. In January 2023, this international competition is expected to attract some 2,500 competitors to Lake Placid, the largest international event there since the 1980 Winter Olympics.
The 2021 Games were to be held next month in Switzerland, but have been postponed until next December.
TUBING AT WEST, WINDHAM
If the kids are looking for a change of pace on snow, the tubing lanes at West and Windham are now open. No skills are required.
The West Mountain park by the base lodge sells two-hour passes to those who reserve online at westmountain.com.
At Windham, the park is a standalone located a short distance from the main mountain access road. Reservations are not required for three-hour passes.
SPOTTED ON THE HILL
For 50 years, Jim Blaise had a hand in every job at his Royal Mountain ski area, from fitting rental equipment to flipping burgers in the base lodge.
All things, it seems, except skiing.
Blaise, who sold the area last fall, had his first day on the slopes in more than 20 years last week. He started on the beginner hill and marveled at the shaped skis he was trying for the first time.
“I guess I need to take a few lessons,” he concluded after his runs.
Happy New Year.