The Joy Of Snow

Last November, my mother flew over to stay with us for Thanksgiving week. On the eve of the big holiday, that Wednesday afternoon at the tail end of November of which it often appears that the only people left working in America are those transporting all the other people, I took advantage of unusually heavy early-season snow to sneak in a few runs on Hunter Mountain.

Returning home, my mother asked about my activity. “So tell me what you do. You ski down the mountain and then you go back up and…?”

The question was not sarcastic. It was asked with eternal maternal interest. But still, in its apparent wry humor lay the foundation of the big question we skiers and snowboarders often ask ourselves: What do we do? We ski down the mountain and then we go back up and…

…Yes, we go back down again. And again. And again. And so on, until we finally give in to exhaustion or the mountain closes for the day. All recreational sports – especially those that don’t reach a ‘result’ – can seem pointless if you examine them closely enough, but skiing seems especially so. How can so many people get such a thrill out of doing the same thing over and over again?

But therein lies its appeal. Skiing (and snowboarding), as any aficianado will quickly assure you, is a sport that never produces the same results twice. Each mountain varies in its topography, its vertical drop, its climate, its conditions. And each run on every mountain offers equal variety. There are the cruisers and the moguls, the straight ‘corduroy’ and the spring ‘corn,’ there are groomed pistes, off-piste trails and occasionally there’s backcountry to explore. There are bunny slopes for beginners, wide intermediate trails that wind casually around and across a mountain, and there are the steep drops marked by their single or double black diamonds or worse: warning signs which only need a skull and crossbones to prove that death awaits any skier who has not already successfully conquered the run in a previous life.

Everything but the skull and crossbones

Most importantly, for those of us who pursue the sport (and here lies the crux of our addiction), no repeat journey down one run is ever quite the same as the one that preceded it. You will always find yourself coming down at a different pace, at a new angle, or an adjusted posture. In turn, the run will greet you with an altered course. It might be softer than it was twenty minutes earlier, it may have had moguls carved out of what was previously just flat snow; it may have exposed some natural terrain of rocks and undergrowth; it may present you with bumps or crevices you avoided or failed to notice last time round; or the sun may have dipped behind clouds or over the peak and the run will have a fresh coating of ice. They say that the mark of insanity is repeating the same process over and over again and expecting a different result. By such criteria, then, it’s confirmed: downhill skiers, snowboarders and the like are crazy.

Because of this one certainty – that each fresh run will bring with it new uncertainties – downhill skiing is one of the few sports that demands total and complete focus. I love running, but work follows me with it, gets inside my headphones and occupies my mind. I love football, but there are still those down times when the action is at the other end of the field and your mind can wander back to the state of your love life. Let your mind wander on the ski slopes and you can lose a limb. Ten years ago, shortly after Campbell was born, I took in just the one day of east coast skiing with my brother-in-law before moving the family to London for six months. At the end of an afternoon during which I had failed to fall despite icy conditions, and having completed our last run of the day, I mentally switched off while skiing slowly over to my partner; my skis crossed, I crashed into him, we both hit the ice and while he got up laughing, I lay there in the certain awareness that This was what it felt like to break a bone. Twenty-four hours, a few X-rays and several hefty doses of morphine later, a Manhattan specialist told me I’d likely lose the use of my left shoulder. A fortuitious combination of the British national health system and a renowned American surgeon proved him wrong, but still, I learned the price that day for not paying total attention until the bitter end. (My brother-in-law, who continued thinking until I crashed right into him, later developed and died from a brain tumor. There is no justice.)

The skier or snowboarder, then, is an animal always aware of changing elements, fresh challenges, and new thrills. Above everything, though, he or she is perpetually chasing a certain sensation – that feeling of complete mental purity, of being totally at one with the mountain and completely absorbed with the moment. Everyone longs to escape the pressures of work, mortgage, and other professional and personal responsibilities. But coming down the mountain, such escape is not merely a choice: it’s a necessity.

In some States, getting this high is a felony.

All the above thoughts and more accompanied me as I boarded the tram at Snowbird last Tuesday morning with my 10-year old son Campbell for our journey up one of America’s most illustrious and challenging mountains. We’d had a fantastic introduction to Utah’s stunningly beautiful Wasatch range at the aptly-named Solitude Mountain through the previous weekend. Unfortunately, and in retrospect unwisely, it had been so enjoyable a weekend that I’d casually logged on to my e-mail Monday morning to see what was happening in my work world. What with the time difference, my Inbox was already crammed with truly frustrating business stuff that chased me up the mountain, consumed my thoughts, surely contributed to an annoying fall on a steep chute, occupied an hour of e-mail time at the end of the day, and then followed me as we switched mountains by taxi, checked in to our new hotel, and prevented me from a proper night’s sleep despite evident exhaustion. Waking up – if I can be so generous as to call it that – on Tuesday morning, I felt completely wiped, and totally envious of those who are not self-employed and can leave their work at the office for a week. In doing so, I realized I not only had the power to take the same escape route, but that for the sake of my holiday (and indeed my sanity), I had to do so. From my web host’s home page (not my mail program), I typed out an auto-responder that bluntly announced I would be incommunicado for the next week, removed my mail program from my start-up items on the laptop and determined that the world would have to get by without me for the next few days. (And of course, it managed just fine.)

Snow had been falling throughout Monday night and as our fully packed tram neared the peak, the entire Wasatch range disappeared into a white mist. The tram conductor issued what would become a familiar refrain about the “easiest route down,” accompanied by the repeat of a warning we had seen at the tram entrance: the peak was for “experts only” this morning. (In other words, there was no easy route down.) We stepped out onto the peak, precisely 11,000 feet above sea level, and as snow fell hard on our clothes and equipment, struggled for a sense of direction. The map was all but useless right now, and so were the markers, which were all invisible until you’d already passed them. Snowbird regulars fanned out from us in every direction, both back down the mountain face our tram had just climbed, and over the edge into the vast expanse of Mineral Basin beyond. By the time Campbell had affixed his snowboard, the only other skiers still at the peak were similarly disoriented novices. Following each other along the ridge for fifty yards or so, we quickly realized that we’d already missed the entrance to the sole blue – or intermediate – run down the mountain. Our only choice was to enter the vast bowl of the Gad Valley in front of us, all of which was designated black or double black, though all of which looked white as far as the eye could see. And, it should be noted, the eye could not see far at all.

The view back up into the Gad Valley, taken on our second day. The first day we couldn’t see anything but white.

Thirty seconds later, as I carved my way through a fresh bowl of snow bigger than the whole of Hunter Mountain, I heard a reassuring sound behind me: “Whoo-hooo! The snow is fantastic!” And there was Campbell, slicing and bouncing his way through the six inches (and several acres) of fresh powder like he was having the greatest time of his life.

There are all the psychological, practical and physical explanations for an adult’s addiction to the downhill. And then there’s the child’s reasoning, which is the most valid of all: THIS IS FUN!

The reason we do it? THIS IS FUN!