When we see great men pursuing great things, mere mortals like you and I tend to dwell excessively on the trials they endure. We see the knee surgery scars, not the medals. We see the fetid stables, not Hercules’s apotheosis.
Nate “Dogggg,” a Breckenridge chef, is a ski-town legend because when he looked at a lift line, he didn’t see boredom; he saw glory. Every year, he camps out for, and wins, the first chair on the first day of the ski season.
But when you and I—unfamous folk dwelling in obscurity—find him in the Arapahoe Basin parking lot on October 15 of this year, near midnight, two long nights and a day before the rope drops, alone except for the snowmakers on the mountain and the spiders spinning cobwebs on the stairs leading to the Black Mountain Express lift, we’re prone to fixate on his tribulations: the solitude, the tedium, the cold; how he’ll catnap face-down in the passenger seat of his two-door sedan while his buddy holds their place at the front of the line; how he hasn’t eaten anything in 17 hours except for a handful of “sandwiches in a can”; how, if you offer him your burger and fries, he’ll decline, because there’s no public bathroom open yet—Nate Dogggg gotta suffer to regulate his digestive system.
It’s easy to appreciate the allure of first chair on certain days. Say, later in the season, on a powder day, when first chair transports you to the lip of a run as white and blank as a slab of Carrara marble, and lets you carve a single graceful line onto the face of the mountain, feeling like the Michelangelo of powder. This is why Vail Resorts offers its First Tracks program to skiers who want that solitude and purity—and are willing to pay a premium for it, without the need to wait in line.
But is the Dogggg’s life worth it? Days of boredom for the chance to spill out onto the early-season Icy White Ribbon of Death a mere five seconds before the next dude? Tonight, alone in the A-Basin parking lot with plenty of time, now that his drunk has worn off and his hangover, too, he wants to correct our thinking.
One time, Nate Dogggg says, a girl made out with him strictly because he was on the front page of the paper. One time, a guy offered him health care for a year if he would share first chair. This year, a snowboard company is producing a limited-edition board with his name on it.
Nathaniel B. Nadler came to Summit at 17 as a pretty good halfpipe rider, hoping to be a star. Athough he says he’s technically a pro rider (albeit one who doesn’t compete) he found fame via his first-chair career. At 36, having long ago adopted the moniker of an R&B singer but added two extra g’s to make himself Google-able, he proudly asserts: “Even now, I get more nationwide coverage than Shaun White during the X Games. Shaun is just on ESPN, but I’m on all the outlets, in all the scripts, the newspapers, on the news at 6 a.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m. I am creating a legacy. I am going to be remembered.” He is so well remembered that one TV anchor on the six o’clock news mispronounces his name.
Before the empire of the Dogggg, Colorado’s most prominent first-chair fanatic was a retired airline pilot named Elmer Mulkins. Born in 1922, Mulkins spent the last three decades of his life camping out for first chair at Loveland Pass Ski Area, which from 1999 to 2005 enjoyed a six-year run beating A-Basin as the first resort in Colorado to open for the season.
But in the mid ’90s, Nadler and his compatriot, “Trailer” Tom Miller, decided they wanted in. They hounded Mulkins, arriving at the parking lot days early and partying loud. The septuagenarian Mulkins was irked. They battled for first chair for a few years. Then Mulkins died. Cardiac troubles, says his usurper: “We stole his heart.” On opening day, 2000, Loveland kept the first chair empty, save a banner reading “Elmer’s Chair.”
Flash to opening day this season, October 17, at A-Basin. First resort in North America, again. After two days doing nothing, Nadler tells the media this is his 19th consecutive year snagging first chair (his detractors say it’s more like 14). But who’s counting? Nate Dogggg.
As the slumbering chairlift rumbles to life, digital cameras and cellphones whir; posing for so many photographs, he’s hoping for a kickback of some kind. After all, he’s appearing in character.
“What about royalties?” Trailer Tom asks.
“I don’t have anything I could be royalty of,” Nate Dogggg replies.
Oh, but he does. Nadler loads onto first chair and rides skyward, toward the Continental Divide, where the sun is rising. Like those fleeting first rays, when he arrives at the summit, at least for a few moments, on this mountain he’ll be king.