Uphill People, Downhill People

For many, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. Families roll out barbecue grills. Co-eds drink beer in folding lawn chairs.

Pro Tip: Always match your beer can to your ski graphics.
Pro Tip: Always match your beer can to your graphics.

Today, Memorial Day 2013, I went skiing.

Between Saturday night and Sunday, a beautiful nor’easter dumped 8″ on the summit of Mt. Mansfield (and 3 feet on New York’s White Face). The lowlands were pelted with rain. Monday morning had me waking up to sunshine and blue skies. Naturally, I threw my skis into my car and high-tailed it for the hills.

All day, two thoughts circled through my mind. One I’ll write about now. The other I will save for the next blog post.

The first: Brendan Leonard over at Semi-Rad wrote about a divide between Uphill People and Downhill People. He is of the former – finding pleasure in the journey UP, whether it’s sending a climbing route or skinning into the backcountry. As he describes, “I enjoy the Zen rhythm of methodically skinning up the snow, forcing myself to stay at a pace that I could hold for an hour straight without stopping…”

I have a deep appreciation for the uphill. Movement is my meditation, after all; the more all-consuming the better. This morning, I took a round-about way up to avoid the sight and sounds of other hikers (all four of them). In no time at all, I fell into a natural, steady pace. With no one to catch up to or slow down for, I simply walked forward. And up.

It was a warm day in the sun, but the wind flowing downhill was cold. It picked up the smell of the snow and beckoned me ever forward.

I stopped to eat lunch below the gondola summit and leaned again the pylon. Here, the snow lay inches thick and heavy with the morning’s warmth. I felt no need to walk any higher. The tops of things don’t interest me, particularly when I’m hungry and surrounded by snow. By the time I was done eating, the cold wind had picked up and drove me to my skis.

Clicked in and buckled up, I pushed off. The first turn wasn’t so good. Neither was the second. But, as I made my third arc, I hit the rhythm and my face exploded into a wide, open-mouthed grin. I turned off Gondolier and onto Switchback – which was perhaps not the brightest idea. Riding down Switchback meant navigating over ditches and large rocks while sliding on a fifty-fifty mix of snow and small rocks. I loved every minute of it. I was drunk on the same heady elation that overcomes me on long powder runs. It’s a thick, rich, sweet feeling of absolute thankfulness. (I imagine this is analogous to drinking Turkish Coffee.)

The most fun I've had since I discovered my brother's afraid of worms.
The most fun I’ve had since I discovered my brother’s afraid of worms.

See, I’m a Downhill Person. I love stepping down, then down again, then down once more, ever faster as momentum builds. I love the jarring shock of my legs absorbing the full weight of me with each step or turn. When I ski, I fly downhill. When I hike, I run downhill. When I am in the throes of a moment I want to savor forever, I run downhill. Even when I’m afraid, I find it’s best to take a deep breath and go downhill.

If the uphill is meditation, the downhill is ecstasy. At speed, I am released to being the child flying, arms flailing, as she runs into the arms of her mother.

(Aside: My love of the downhill is funny, because I am afraid of heights. But I think much of my fear isn’t fear at all, simply a horrified reaction to l’appel du vide. The call is strong in me. It stubbornly persists, insisting that I could fly if only I jumped. I long to fly. If I could, I would fly as high as Icarus, then drop like a peregrine, only to open my wings and climb once more. This is why I ski. It is my answer to l’appel du vide.)

The balance between Uphill and Downhill is the joy of earning your turns. By going both ways, reap the benefits of both motions and mindsets. The zen and the ecstasy – or whatever it is that goes through your heart as you get out there and enjoy.

How did you spend your Memorial Day weekend – going Uphill or Downhill? (Or relaxing around a grill?)

Friends on powder days

Skiing at Smuggler's Notch
Slacking on my home turf.

“Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves. This is the joy we feel when skiing powder… This overflowing gratitude is what produces the absolutely stupid, silly grins that we always flash at one another at the bottom of a powder run. We all agree that we never see these grins anywhere else in life”

Dolores LaChapelle

I said goodbye too soon – turns out, winter’s not done with us here in Vermont.

On Smuggler’s Notch yesterday, four inches of light, fluffy powder felt like six. Wind scoured some of the upper trails to frozen spring ice, but deposited it lovingly in the precious, sheltered woods. My first run, I hit a pillow and stepped out of my skis, face-first into a wind-pushed drift a foot deep.

New friends on powder days
The smile says it all.

After that, I met up with a friend-of-a-friend, but by the second run we were real friends. Nothing helps you get to know someone like a long, windy ride on a double chair. Except for maybe the winding way down, ducking in and out of the woods. Turns out, contrary to popular belief, you make the best friends on powder days.

The day was perfect from start to finish – powder turns  on the trails, powder turns in the glades, and powder turns in the slackcountry. I relaxed into the rhythm of bumps beneath my skis, flying through the woods empty but for the two of us… Exactly what my spirit needed.

Smuggler’s Notch was my mountain when I first moved to Vermont. Pulling into the parking lot at 7:45 in the morning, it felt like coming home.

Processing moments

slackcountrying in Vermont's green mountains

So much has happened in the past two weeks. My mind-space is taken up by processing it, leaving little room for stringing meaningful syllables together.

Changes at my current job which sent me for an emotional roller coaster of disappointment, adrenalin, creativity, and hope.

Accepted a new job, which I’ll start in a week. (I’ll probably tell you about it come summer, because it fits quite well into my warm-weather slackcountry training plans. Suffice to say, I am: excited, elated, elevated.)

rough draft one
20 pages of moments

Started in on the second draft of #muse. (You know, that novella I mentioned before I realized that I’d rather talk about skiing?) Draft one is an enormous outline of scenes. Draft two is daunting, as it’ll have to be more of a… y’know… draft and less a collage of moments.

Not to mention weekends in the mountains, balancing delight with frustration. There’s nothing I love more than skiing, but at the same time I know there’s so much I can do better. I’m hyper-aware of my mistakes – especially my unending struggle with falling too far back on my skis. It’s becoming more and more apparent that I need a new pair of boots. And AT bindings, AT boots, and a bright headlamp.

I leave you with the promise of more posts to come and this moment from yesterday’s adventure.

slackcountrying in Vermont's green mountains
Not all who wander are lost. But some are. We weren’t. I swear.

“Let the mountain come to you.”

I am sore, aching, and exhausted from two days on the mountain.

Friday’s storm dropped 11 inches on Stowe, filling in the rutted glades. It’s not enough (is it ever enough?), but the mountain feels whole again – complete under a fresh coat of white. Saturday was spent flowing through trees, and pounding through row after row of soft moguls. Sunday was for cruising with my coworkers, leaning into the turns, and taking the scenic way down. These were my best two days of riding so far… and not just because of the freshies.

Skis, snowboard against the sky

I haven’t ridden my best this year. I spend a lot of time frustrated, struggling with lines and recovering from poor decisions. Earlier this year, I even grazed a tree hard enough to knock the wind out of me. I want to blame my boots, the longer length of my new skis… anything to explain why I’m struggling. Rookie mistakes.

Saturday, I ended up upside down in a tree well. As I squirmed, one of the guys called out “Relax, don’t struggle.” Which… I didn’t do. I was too embarrassed and angry with myself for bailing out. Instead, I grunted and fumed. Between the two of us, I was right side up in no time, but rattled… The feeling was not improved by the next obstacle – a thin, steep chute narrower than my skis are long. Cover was thin… and the wall of solid ice on one side of the run-out was hardly reassuring.

The only way down was to take on turn and go for it, skis pointed straight. Which… I didn’t do. I was too scared to take the line, and ended up sliding part of the way and fumbling the rest, redeeming myself with a single solid drop into a pillow of soft powder.

Looking up from the bottom of the chute, I watched the next rider come down, moving with the fall line much more gracefully. Standing there, I thought about a story that Bob Berwyn shared with me about the woman who taught him to telemark. Something the woman said stuck out to me when I first read it, and just then it came back to me like a tap on the shoulder.

“Let the mountain come to you. And trust your skis.”

After the group shared high fives in celebration of our survival, we turned to the fall line. I exhaled, the worst over, and found myself finally relaxing into my turns. Too tired to battle my skis, I let them follow the fall line through the white.

Today, I ducked in to the woods to lap up what was left of the soft, riding easily. All the while, I reminded myself, “Relax, don’t struggle. Let the mountain come to you.”

Slackcountry Living

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am writing a ski blog. This happened entirely by accident. See, in the summer, I can be distracted by other things – running on pavement and diving into lakes, sitting in the shade of oaks and eating cherries. In the winter, I think of one thing and one thing only. Skiing.

In recognition of this, the blog needs a new title, and I’ve settled on Slackcountry Living.

The slackcountry (or sidecountry) is the sweet spot between the well-known Ski Area Boundary and the fabled Backcountry. Ride a lift, duck a rope, and you’re suddenly getting to know a mountain on its own terms, not yours. No snowmaking, no patrollers. Just you and the fall line. And maybe the guy behind you – slackcountry runs aren’t marked on the map, but locals know they’re there. At least it’s less crowded.

(Disclaimer: you can also get incredibly lost. Don’t do that.)

Hopefully by next winter I’ll have enough money to buy AT gear and disappear into the true backcountry on daylong tours. (If I do, you’ll hear about them.) But, even if I am so elevated to skiing and riding greatness, I intend to remain a slacker at heart.

Come ride with me as I explore the slackcountry. It’ll be fun.

Riding solo at Stowe
Early season ride at Stowe, VT