Just after 5:30 on Christmas Eve, I stood atop Dollar Mountain, watching the lights from the Sun Valley Resort burn brighter by the minute. The winter sun retreated, leaving a fat, hay-colored moon in its stead. Behind me, in front of me, and on every side, congregated dozens of Snowsports instructors. For the most part, conversations were subdued as friends greeted friends and took a moment to survey the scene below, unanimously proclaiming it one of the prettiest Christmas Eve nights in recent memory. As this ever-multiplying group waited for the Torchlight Parade to begin, the quietude was interrupted sporadically by an impromptu Christmas carol or a shout of excitement.
I took it all in from the front of a line that stretched, I am guessing, a few hundred people back. Beside me, stood long-time ski instructor Hans Thum, smiling his trademark kind smile. He promised that all would be fine – he had his eye on me. Coming from a legend who has skied the Sun Valley Torchlight Parade 44 times, I felt reassured and grateful.
Because truth be told, I had been nervous all day about the endeavor. Although I have watched this dazzling tradition many times, I always watched from a distance. I hadn’t an inkling of the level of expertise required to participate — something I failed to consider when I asked (begged?) to ski. But standing there, as the temperature dropped and it grew darker and darker, I worried. My worst fear, as a non-Snowsports instructor (not even close) was that I might ruin it for everyone. I fretted about not being able to see where I was going. I worried that I would catch my coat on fire. Most of all, I dreaded an ignominious tumble down Old Dollar that would disrupt the perfect slalom of the parade route and take out the skiers and snowboarders behind me. Or what if I missed a turn and sailed off course, torches illuminating my humiliation?
But once the end of the wildly popular Nutcracker on Ice was announced via radio, it was go-time. Positioned safely between two Austrians, both of outstanding skiing pedigree, the call came to light the torches. Plastic caps off, a torch firmly in each hand, we lit the overgrown matchsticks by striking them end-to-end. Suddenly, the black surroundings glowed red and a battle cry went up among the crowd.
“Stay right behind me!” Hans reminded as we pointed our skis down the slope and held the torches away from our bodies. As the line began to snake down Dollar, skiing became hypnotic. Ahead of me, I focused on the tails of Hans’ skis, working to stay in his perfect tracks. The rest of the torches blurred ahead of me and out of the corners of my eyes. The snow on Dollar was textbook-perfect soft corduroy that kicked tiny plumes of powder into the flames. Down we went, effortlessly. After a turn or two, I couldn’t remember what I had been nervous about.
About three-quarters of the way to bottom, the first fireworks exploded overhead and everyone in that long, long series of s-turns began to cheer. Instructors ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, from “new hires” to seasoned pros, snowboarders and skiers alike, guests like me — held our torches high, all proud members of the Sun Valley family beneath that sparkling Idaho sky.
As the slope flattened and I approached the crowd standing outside Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge, the only thought in my head was, “I want to do that again.” As someone who is rarely at a loss for words, I could find none appropriate as I stood in my skis, beneath the firework finale. Magical is too trite. Inspiring isn’t quite right. I think I will go with transcendent and leave it at that.