The other day, I wheeled into my favorite ski area, unloaded my equipment, showed my vaccination record, and had a happy revelation: I was only the second person in the lodge.
There’s no place I’d rather be than at a ski area — and no place I’d rather be than at the front, or maybe within the first half-dozen, in line at the lift. For me, first tracks mean a first-class skiing experience.
Most of you reading this column have never experienced this first tracks phenomenon, and in a way maybe I shouldn’t be bringing attention to the joys of early arrival at a ski area. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am coming to believe that self-interest requires me to urge you to perfect this congenial regimen: Sleep in late. Have a leisurely breakfast. Do not forget to do your stretches, all of them, even the ones you usually skip. Please take your time laying out your ski outfit for the day. Do not pile your layers at your bedside before retiring for the evening. Start fresh in the morning to assemble your ensemble. It’s better that way. At least it’s better for me if you do it that way.
But I am a journalist and have been taught — by mentors, by experience, and by conviction — to tell the truth, and the truth is that skiing is better in the morning. It’s especially better in the hour or so before you laggards arrive on site. You don’t know what you are missing, and though I am about to tell you, I am not so sure I want you to share the exhilaration of the first tracks experience.
But first, an explanation of first tracks. The meaning of the term is obvious: Make the first tracks down a groomed slope or, just as great, down a fresh layer of powder. One definition I found on the web goes like this: Cutting through fresh snow before anyone else does, leaving behind your trail for all else to see.
I’d just as soon you didn’t see that fluffy trail, because after my first run I want to take another, and then another, all before everyone else starts lugging their skis to the rack in front of the closest chairlift.
All this brings us to a vital nuance of this endeavor: You don’t have to create exactly the first tracks, just the first ones before someone else ruins the perfect snow. So you can be second, or third, or even 25th on the lift if you are visiting a big ski area. There always is plenty of room to make first tracks. Think of it this way: It’s your first tracks that matter.
This is one of humankind’s great truths that I was never able to pass down to my children in their youth, committed as they were to wasting precious first tracks minutes in their comfy beds and then lingering over cereal or, worse yet, wasting time on Facebook, no doubt telling their friends that their first tracks father was a tyrant, the Genghis Khan of the mountains. Too bad that this was the one time in our family history that FOMO — fear of missing out — was not a prime motivator.
But my experience the other day as Visitor Number Two shows just how much everyone else, fast asleep in their trundle beds, is missing as my first tracks were being created on trail after trail.
There was no lift line; of course there wasn’t, as pretty much no one else was within miles of the chair. There was no pile-up at the chute at the end of the lift; there wasn’t anyone around to create a pile. There was no need to look behind me to guard against out-of-control skiers or fully-in-control snowboarders; no one was out of control or even in control. There was no impulse to ski around a group of people in ski school; the great scholars of the snow wouldn’t assemble below for another 45 or 50 minutes.
It was just me and my friend, Brian Puddington, a fellow traveler to the mountains and fellow believer in the cult of the early riser. We had a grand time, skiing more in the two hours before the resort came alive than any of those who arrived later. And of course bragging about it to anyone else who would listen, though given the hour of the morning there was almost no one around to listen at all.
Just as well. The Ski Bore is almost as insufferable as the Golf Bore.
In recent years the term first tracks has come into its own. You can find it as the title of a charming 56-page paperback by Glenn Parkinson titled “First Tracks: Stories from Maine’s Skiing Heritage,” published in 1995. There is a First Tracks Lodge, near the Creekside Express Gondola at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia. Holders of this year’s Ikon Pass are entitled at many resorts for first tracks outings that allow skiers to “grab early morning laps before the lifts open to the public” on specified days of the ski season.
Not that I am suggesting that you do that. Instead: Go ahead, make my day — sleep in.
David Shirbman can be reached at email@example.com.