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It's all downhill from here: Skiing at Yosemite's Badger Pass has been a family affair for generations. It's California's oldest ski area and--refreshingly--its most low-key and traditional too. By Bill Donahue.

WHEN NIC FIORE first came to Yosemite National Park in 1948, it was dark outside. It was snowing, and when the young ski instructor awoke on the valley floor the next morning and gazed up at the sheer cliff of Half Dome and its topping of glittery powder, he was astonished. "Zis is beautiful," Fiore said in his thick Quebecois accent, "but where do the beginners ski?"

Up at Badger Pass, he would learn, 3,000 feet above the valley floor, on sparsely forested slopes. Badger Pass is the oldest ski area in California. Festive parties of novices had been flocking to Badger since the 1930s, wearing woolen knickers and cable-knit sweaters, as they teetered, giggling, on 9-foot-long wooden skis. Experts came too, doing fancy skijumping tricks like the gelandesprung off snow-covered rocks, and Fiore would soon fit right in. Over the ensuing 56 years, as he headed the ski school and taught more than 100,000 students, he became legendary for yodeling as he schussed down the mountain. He led fledgling skiers in singing the French Canadian classic "Alouette," and he remembered everyone's name. Well, almost everyone. "He always called me campione," Badger lift mechanic Jerry Kell says, invoking the Italian word for champion. "And one day, after I'd been here for about 15 years, he came up to me and, real quietly, asked, 'Urn, what's your real name, campione?"

Nic Fiore went to the great ski slope in the sky four years ago, but Badger Pass remains charming and old school. Full-day lift tickets here are only $47--compared with $99 at Squaw Valley. The three chairlifts are elderly; they move at a deliberate pace. The mountain is tiny, so small that a mother can always know where her kid is skiing, and the base lodge is humble. It's a low-slung brown wooden structure appointed with giant snowflakes cut out of wood and filled with old hickory skis graffitied with the names of

regulars who have deemed Badger their special place, their family redoubt, for decades. There's no village of boutiques selling $300 silk scarves at the base, and if you're looking for a gourmet delicacy at lunchtime, you should probably go with the french fries.

Last winter, I began wondering if Badger could tempt me back. I was a downhill skier once: a diehard, a high school racer back in the 1980s, a kid in love with the magic of swooping and gliding down a mountain. But then in college, I quit cold turkey, disgusted by how far the sport had strayed from its innocent roots--becoming, basically, a fashion show for ninnies in Day-Glo pink parkas. Decades later, when I went crazy for nordic skiing, my disdain for alpine only thickened. Riding chairlifts uphill seemed ... frivolous, a cop-out tailor-made for wimps seeking to bypass the rigors of winter. Still, I retained in my bones that old hunger for carving turns at high speed, for careening along, downhill, through a white world.

WHEN I ARRIVED at Badger one sunny Saturday morning, the slopes were freshly groomed by the snowcats, so that from the big picture windows in the lodge, the snow beckoned, an unbroken sea of striped corduroy. I knew that in time it would warm up and become soft and slow, so I rented some skis and rode to the top of the Eagle chairlift, then took six quick runs in succession, bombing the hill, going fast, never stopping--getting my fix.

The turning came back to me like riding a bicycle, and so did the sweet rhythm of skiing a small mountain. Each of my runs at Badger was about SO seconds of heart-pumping thrill followed by a few minutes of meditative repose on the chairlift. You're way up in the mountains, with nothing but the big dome of the sky above you. You wait, each chairlift ride, to crest the last ridge and get a view of nearby Mt. Hoffman, which sits at eye level, cragged and snow-encrusted, off in the white distance. The pine trees are spindly. The whole world feels clean and simplified somehow, and as I rode the lift, paired with various strangers, each conversation drifted toward airy expressions of enchantment and awe.

It's so nice up here, isn't it?"

"Yeah, it's nice, really nice ..."

I encountered only one person who wasn't happy: an aggressive middle-aged man dressed in a sleek black ski suit. "I'm disappointed in the snow conditions," he said. Beneath us, a tween-age snowboarder was hucking over a jump, unsteadily, like a new fawn on spring legs.

GRADUALLY, IT WARMED UP. The lift attendant at the top of the Eagle chair, Lance Wettersten, cracked out his ukulele and began serenading skiers--a little Tom Waits, some Decemberists, a few songs from the indie rock band Bright Eyes. "I love being up here," he said. "I have a six-second connection with someone four times a minute."

Eventually, Steve Wilkins, who has been on the ski patrol at Badger for 28 years, let me do a few runs with him. Wilkins, 65, is a graceful skier--he floats through turns with no wasted motion. On the lift up, he insisted that the true measure of a Badgerite is his impersonation of Fiore, the late ski instructor. Wilkins then gave me his own Fiore impersonation. Mostly, it involved dropping his voice several octaves, so it seemed like he was laid up in some Parisian hospital with a sore throat. He talked in halting and blunt declarative sentences, a la Kramer on Seinfeld, and he was pure bravado: "In those days, you know, I had a pair of 220 Kneissl skis, and they were that tall"--he reached way up over his head, gravely--"and I would just point them straight down the hill." Et cetera.

Wilkins's act wasn't half-bad, but I soon met a skier with deeper Badger credentials. Karen von Kempf, 63, has been skiing at Badger since she was 5. When she offered to take me to the "old Badger Pass," the site of the ski area's first trails, I jumped at the chance. Only then did I learn that the old Badger sits a half-mile to the east--and that we would essentially be hiking there, up and down hills and through narrow glades, on skis wider than ironing boards. It was a lovely slog, once you got used to it, and von Kempf was ebullient as we labored along. "Now, we're on an old stagecoach road dating from the 1800s," she said. "I take students out here, away from everything, and we just stop and listen to the birds."

People were skiing in California back then--gold miners, recent emigrants from Scandinavia. They flew straight downhill, riding 14-foot-long boards, at speeds topping 80 mph. By 1867, there was a race in La Porte, near Truckee, offering $600 in prize money, and there was also a California ski celebrity: Snowshoe Thompson was a skiing mailman who for 20 years bore his deliveries over the Sierra, carrying 50 pounds or more at a time.

The earliest skiers in Yosemite were, like Thompson, cross-country toilers. They came up from San Francisco on Friday night sleeper trains and, when they tired of skiing, rented galoshes and went tobogganing, or sledding on the lids of ash cans. Alpine skiing finally caught on in 1936, when it debuted in the Winter Olympics and Yosemite installed a cable-drawn sled that could transport eight standing skiers to the peak of Granite Dome. At first called the Up-ski, the contraption was later christened the Queen Mary Von Kempf and I skied downhill, along its course. It was almost flat and very slow. When we reached the base, I broke away for several more solo runs.

Winter days are short, and soon the sun was setting over the mountains. It got cold, and everyone gathered on the broad deck of the lodge. When the snow was at last empty of skiers, so that all you could see on the slopes was the crazy crisscrossing of tracks, it was time for a ritual. Each year in March, Badger hosts the Spring Fest, which sees glorified soapbox racers navigating the fall line, one by one, on skis. The racers are dummies, all homemade--out of discarded tires and scrap lumber and laundry baskets strategically loaded with sand. The whole event is at once absurd and enthralling. I sat by Badger's longtime janitor, Stanley Valim, and in sober tones he offered play-by-play commentary. "Now I don't think this one is going to do very well," he said as we watched a skiing "dog" falter and crash. "Now this one is called Superman ..."

There was an emcee wearing an aloha shirt and a red- and white-striped Mad Hatter's hat. The crowd cheered with glee, regardless of what was happening in the race (which was more a parade than a race, really, given the absence of clocks), and as I listened, I was struck by how fleeting winter is. In a few weeks, the snow here would melt, leaving mud; the laughter, too, would be soon gone from this place. By August, surely, every skier here would be longing to be back up in the cool mountains, on the white slopes.

There was one more dummy. Angry Birds built up a huge head of steam, then crashed midhill into a ski jump, spraying its ballast, a load of pine needles, all over the snow. The crowd went insane. Afterward I talked to one of the dummy's creators, 21-year-old Jonny Palazzi. He was smiling, and also a little philosophical in his moment of defeat. "Our weight was about 5 inches off," he said. "But we'll be back next year."

At this point, I knew I would too.

The daily rangerled snowshoe fours of Badger Pass are free.

From top: Badger Pass Ranger Station; mother-daughter bonding on the bunny hill.

Badger remains charming and old school, and it's small enough for a mother to always know where her kid is skiing.

From above left: Apres-ski family chat in the base lodge; a lesson at Yosemite Winter Sports School.

People were skiing in California back in the 1800s, flying straight downhill on 14-foot-long wooden boards, at speeds topping 80 mph.
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Author:Donahue, Bill
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Dec 1, 2013
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