Tuesday, October 4, 2011

SKIING: Alpine or Downhill?

skiing [skee-ing] -noun 1. the act or sport of gliding on skis

When we look at skiing today, what do we see? If I look out the windows of the ATC, I see skiers wrapped up in so much gear that you can’t really tell if they are human as they glide down the mountain and rush onto the gondola. They go up. They come down. That seems to be all that skiing has to offer for this group of early Monday morning skiers. The wind is howling out and it seems that all the skiers are avoiding any interaction with the alpine weather, instead seeking comfort inside base lodges and gondolas. They let their skis glide down perfectly groomed trails, tree-line to tree-line marked by huge tractors as one would mark a field for planting. These skiers can travel at extremely high speeds, without problems or obstacles in their way. Anything that does challenge this consistency is marked with black and orange bamboo – Look Out! something over here might interrupt your rhythm. The exact same turn like the one you made thirty times before on this immaculate white ribbon. As you cross Rime, you grumble under your breath – the Glades would be great to ski today, but the lift isn’t running. You curse the corporation for its unwillingness to spend valuable natural resources on your favorite pastime and keep heading on down Great Northern. Again, and again, and again.

Has skiing really been reduced to this? Sometimes it feels like we are hamsters trapped in our exercise wheel. Up, down. Up, down. As many times as we can, perfecting one movement over and over again. We are willing to pay an exorbitant amount of money so that the corporation can provide us with this perfect product. But somehow, Mother Nature doesn’t always agree with this idea of downhill skiing. She sends high winds, cold temperatures, wet precipitation (we’re not allowed to say the R word) and a variety of other forms of weather that are seen as challenger’s to the corportate claim on our mountain. Curse mother nature, we say, for making it so windy today. The wind is blowing the snow off the trails. The snowboarders are pushing the snow off the trails. The groomers must not have packed it down properly last night. The snowmakers must have not put enough moisture into the mix, making the snow too light.

down-hill [doun-hill] -adverb 1. down the slope of a hill; downward 2. into a worse or inferior condition -adjective 3. going or tending downward on or as on a hill. 4. free of problems or obstacles 5. of our pertaining to the sport of skiing downhill

Downhill Skiing: the act of gliding on skis down a hill that is free of problems or obstacles.

Wow. I am falling asleep just writing that definition. It seems that skiing has taken this definition to heart is going downhill itself. Where’s the excitement? Where is the adventure? Has skiing really been reduced to signs that shout “Moguls Ahead” and “Thin Cover” and snow guarantees? The corporation dictates where, when & how we are allowed to ski every day and we blindly accept these limitations. We have first responders just a quick phone call away. Most aren’t here for the challenge and the excitement of being in the mountains, they are here to ski downhill. And with every meticulously planned trail, each turn an attempt at perfection, skiing becomes that much easier. How many runs can you get in an hour? The challenge of skiing now is how fast can you get to the bottom, back on the lift where you can complain about each imperfection in either the trail, the lift, the turn, the public, the…trust me, downhill skiers find plenty of things to complain about.

al⋅pine [al-pahyn] -adjective 1. of, pertaining to, on or part of any lofty mountain 2. very high, elevated 3. of, pertaining to, on or part of the Alps 4. growing on mountains above the limit of tree growth: alpine plants

Alpine Skiing: the act of gliding on skis on a lofty mountain, above the limits.

Hmm, this seems a little less definitive as to what we are gliding on. In alpine skiing, the skier is up on a high mountain, no other description is given. We think about the difficult struggle of the alpine plant, growing against all odds in such a harsh and challenging environment. There is no guarantee that the weather or conditions will be perfect. There is no one to place a protective screen around the plant from the harsh winds and beating sun. Each moment is a new experience, never repeating itself. An alpine plant endures an exciting new struggle each day; life is not free of challenges or obstacles. Life is survival amidst these obstacles.

An alpine skier faces the same challenges. You get off the gondola and look around…I wonder what the mountain has in store for me today? Hmm, the glades triple isn’t running; I bet the snow over there is fantastic…down the Downdraft headwall and up Heavenly Traverse...then down the natural snow hidden away on West Glade. An alpine skier has to know and understand the different challenges that the mountain will present throughout the course of the day and instead develop creative solutions. Rather than follow the herd into the base lodge, the alpine skier seeks alternative means of protection: narrow trails provide shelter from the wind and slow turns on variable terrain get the blood pumping. Prepared for anything, the alpine skier doesn’t need to rely on a product provided by a corporation; they seek out that which is different, new and exciting. The alpine skier seeks out the gnar with enthusiasm rather than shying away from it in trepidation. Instead, they hide away from the perfect commercial skiing provided by the corporation and seek out the adventure that awaits just around that next tree, choosing the creative solution. There is no such thing as a perfect turn or a perfect day, for each new moment brings new challenges and new experiences that expand both our knowledge of the glide and of the mountain. It is the obstacles that make us who we are.

Are You a Downhill Skier or an Alpine Skier?>

Choose, But Choose Wisely,
For While the True Grail will bring you Life,
The False Grail will take it from you.
--Indiana Jones and the Holy Grail>


  1. I never really thought about it in the way you've deconstructed it, but I think I get to the same result. I started calling myself an alpine skier when I started earning my turns: I'm not always headed downhill, but I'm up in the alpine. And I'm super happy!

  2. Depends on the day