It’s quiet on Hero Rock in the summer. The mountain bike trails don’t really reach over to this side of the mountain yet, so the chairlifts sway empty in the breeze and the only real excitement is the squirrel frantically hoarding nuts in the dead stump in the landing. The local bear comes through occasionally, snuffles through the alders next to the rock, and flips some boulders looking for grubs. When the wind is right you can catch snatches of song from the summer concerts at the base area, but otherwise, it’s quiet at Hero Rock.
Hero Rock didn’t always have a name. It was deposited here eons ago as the glaciers receded. Most of its history is monotonous, with a few snippets of excitement. Once, a long time ago, a young Shoshone hunter killed a bighorn sheep just above it, where the big mogul line forms now, and butchered it on the smooth rock. The rock felt the blood pooling along its edge and wondered for a moment if this is what it feels like to be an altar. But then the hunter hauled his kill back to camp and eventually, the ravens dispersed and the taste of hot blood faded.
A century later a bear cub was wrestling with its siblings and lost its footing, fell off the rock, and bounced into the drainage. The bear was fine, but it lived out its days with a limp. Years passed and the rock was alone, except for the occasional bird or rodent that made a nest there. Their lives were short though, and the rock never really changed.
But then, about 70 years ago, a person visited the rock in the winter for the first time. His skis were long and heavy, bent alder, and his boots were leather. He slashed smooth turns past the rock, fully buried in snow. He didn’t know it but he was the first in a long line of many.
A few summers later lifts grew on the other side of the mountain, skiers started driving the long windy road from the valley. The occasional backcountry skier would poke over to Hero Rock’s drainage, make a few runs, and shuffle back. Then one summer the quiet drainage exploded into life. They dug and blasted holes, hauled in towers, strung cables, gladed run after run. They felled a tree that dropped onto the rock and an errant chainsaw blade scored him, sparking and bucking as the operator swore. The rock basked in the sun, wondering what these changes meant.
That winter was different. Usually, the rock drowsed through winter, serene in his drainage. But this year the skiers just kept coming. They’d unload up high, giggle and swerve their way down the slope, and inevitably drain into the field of snow above the rock. He could see them staring at him as they rode the lift, eyeing him for size. They’d stop a turn above him, sometimes tangling in the bushes and then steel themselves for the leap. There are two main lines off Hero Rock, and a third, bonus. The first is obvious, slide straight off the nose, land seven or so feet below, suck up the traverse track, and claim it as you skid down to the lift.
The second option is for the faint of heart. You can approach the rock from the uphill side, ski along and over it, and side hop off the corner. Just a foot or two of drop, a few more bushes in the takeoff and landing, and you land traversing diagonally across the main line of travel, so look out for cross traffic. The final line is the bonus, for experienced skiers tired of the too-flat landing off the nose. Instead of stopping above the rock and gathering your breath, you have to carry speed, skiing fluidly into the takeoff. Take the same line off the nose but pop, and soar for a second, tuck your knees up into a shifty, and reach out for the landing with your poles. This line takes you out about 20 feet further and adds another 15 to the height of the air. It clears you out over the bomb holes left by ski school, and if you nail it, lets you catch a cupped transition just about twice the length of your skis. The rock knows all these lines because it’s seen all of them, over and over again.
It’s seen the ski team groups who clump up above it, stealing their courage as they prepare to take their knees to their chests on firm days. It’s seen the out-of-towners who love to talk about how they hit a bigger cliff at Jackson Hole and then tumble off the side tangled in their selfie sticks. The rock has seen the lift hecklers talk reluctant snowboarders into leaving the ground for the first time. It’s seen its share of ski patrol sled recoveries, and it knows exactly where you’re likely to kick a ski. It’s heard there are bigger cliffs on this hill, with better landings, but it doesn’t really care because it’s Hero Rock, it’s the one you can see from the lift, the most obvious proving ground for anyone who likes to slide down snow.
Summers are still quiet at Hero Rock but now the whole drainage looks forward to winter. The lifts will kick off and the mayhem of skiers and riders skidding off the rock will return. They’ve talked in the lift lines about winters maybe getting shorter, the Hero Rock growing as less snow starts to fall. The rock hears it all, but he doesn’t care. Maybe someday winters will end, maybe someday they’ll butcher another animal on the rock, let him taste the steaming blood. For now, the skiers sacrifice their knees on the altar of their own egos, and use the rock as their temple. And that’s enough, after all, it’s just a rock.