Now that the shock of last week’s tornados dulls back down into the low grade, white noise of confusion, I can go back to talking about what I like talking about. Winter.
Last Saturday I made my first foray up my new home, Stratton Mountain. After about 6 straight days of snowmaking, the upper mountain rolled with whales, but no lift service. So I did what any self-respecting slackcountryist would do: I strapped my skis to my backpack and hiked.
Memorial Day weekend, I hiked Stowe on my own. It was also the first time I’d ever done such a thing, and one of the few times I’d ever skied by myself. Looking back, I hiked Mansfield that morning because I had something to prove. Exactly what, I’m still not sure, but I think it had to do with love and independence. (Spoiler alert: most everything I do in some way returns to love and independence.)
I needed to prove that I love skiing for skiing’s sake. That this is the sport I do precisely because it’s difficult, because it requires time and sweat and heart. I also felt I needed to prove that I can take care of myself. That I can rely on myself to make wise decisions while moving with the mountain, not against it, and that I can do these things all on my own.
Last Saturday, I was three quarters of the way up the mountain when I realized I had nothing to prove. That day, wearing almost the same clothes and almost the same gear, it struck me that I was on the mountain because I love skiing, and that I was by myself simply because that’s what was most convenient. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I wasn’t even trying to impress myself. I was just going up for the sheer pleasure of going down.
It’s awfully exhausting to have something to prove.
Over a delicious salad, pizza, and beer, I told my sister-in-law that I felt that I’d found myself and – just like in the Avicii song – I didn’t know I was lost. She laughed and said, “Just think, you’re going to find yourself at least six more times in your life.”
Tomorrow is the first day of Stratton’s lift served season. I’m waking up early to capture the Opening Day excitement. Follow Stratton’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram if you can’t make it. I’m also sure I’ll be updating my personal accounts, too.
1. The latest technology will not solve your problems.
Being a gear head is fun. You reap the benefits of a multi-ski quiver, gloves with touch-tech, your phone’s fitness tracker, and goggles with snap out lenses. But none of these things are really going to make you a better skier.
There are fantastic skiers who rode straight skis long after parabolics became the norm. They lose their toenails every winter because their boots don’t have a walk mode. DIY slipboards with the graphics peeling away from the core.
Shiny new gear can help, but it won’t really fix anything.
To be a better rider, you have to put in the time, energy, and focus to build flexibility and strength. Experience is what makes you better. It’s the same in life. Chances are, you don’t really need the newest car, the latest iPhone, the fanciest college degree. These things are nice, but having them doesn’t change who you are or what you’re capable of. You are the most important thing you have. Put in the time. Be awesome.
2. If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.
Fresh and boastful after my first winter at college, I bragged to my dad that I hadn’t taken a single nosedive all season. Can you believe it? A full winter without falling over, crashing, or yard-sale-ing in full view of the lift operators. Dad shook his head and said, “Then you’re not trying hard enough.”
It was true. I was cruising through ski season without challenging myself. I wasn’t hitting anything that scared me, and definitely not pushing myself. I was really just bumbling along, cocky as a crow. The next year? I pushed harder.
Last year, I worked the hardest I’ve ever worked on skis, and you know what? I bit it. A lot. I had some really spectacular falls, but I also had a spectacular amount of fun and learned more than I have in a long time. Absolutely worth it.
Guess what? It looks like life’s the same way. Cruising doesn’t get you anywhere interesting. If nothing else, pushing the envelope makes for an excellent life story.
3. There is a world of difference between a ski buddy and a ski partner.
This comes from an old Warren Miller VHS, the one I watched over and over again growing up. The lesson is remarkably simple: ski buddies are people you can go out and rip with. Ski partners are the people you trust with your life.
With a ski buddy, you go out and rip. You have fun all day tearing up the slopes, then sit in the parking lot and cheers your PBR tall boys. You have a blast.
With a ski partner, you explore new terrain and push the envelope. These are the people who you trust. The ones you rely to help out when the going gets rough, scary, or injured. They talk you through the icy pitch, coach you over the drop, and could probably turn your skis into a makeshift sled to haul your ass out of the woods.
It’s very important to know the difference between the two groups of people. Cruise the slopes with your buddies. Do Tuckerman Ravine with your partner.
When it comes to off-slope life, have fun with your buddies. But trust your partners with your heart and soul.
4. If you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.
I was raised on a steady diet of Warren Miller movies, and at the end of every one, Warren’s soothing voice warns: If you don’t do it this year, you’ll be one year older when you do.
Thanks, Warren, for imparting a premature, morbid understanding of mortality in a 9 year old.
At first, this saying echoed in my head to chastise me for cowardice. No, I didn’t follow my brother off that jump because I’m 9 years old. Next year, when I’m 10, maybe I’ll do it. Emphasis on the maybe.
Now that I’m in my twenties, I’m starting to see it in a different light. I’m not yet old enough to worry about my physical health, but I do realize how quickly life changes. If I don’t drop this chute this year, I might not have a chance next year. Why? I might have a pass to a different mountain. I might have packed up and moved, or the friend who has been dreaming of this line might move. Without him or her, dropping in won’t feel as special.
At the same time, there are definitely things worth waiting a year for. Last year, I didn’t make it to Tuckerman Ravine due to a recurring knee injury. But you know what? Next spring, when I’m one year older and wiser, I’ll be more prepared. My knee won’t let me down.
I have no idea what the rest of this year will throw at me, let alone next year. Life, love, family, friends, work. Anything can change in an instant, so listen to that voice that says “you’ll regret it if you don’t go.” If you don’t go now, for better or worse, you’ll be one year older when you do.
5. Relax. It’s just skiing.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner, an expert, or a professional freeskier, in the end, it’s just skiing. It’s supposed to be fun.
I remind myself of this often – to step forward with a shrug and a smile.
Go out and enjoy wherever your ride takes you.
What life lessons have you learned from your sport? Tell me about it in the comments!
If you haven’t been keeping an eye on the latest trailer releases, you’re in for some excitement. This ski movie season is going to be stellar – just check out the likes of Into the Mind and Valhalla. If your pulse doesn’t pick up, you might already be dead.
But there’s a new ski film trend that has me on the edge of my seat, leaning forward with a big stupid grin on my face. All-female films. Usually I’m not into girls-club, but I cannot wait to see these films.
According to the latest SIA stats, 40% of skiers and 33% of snowboarders are women. Think about it. What was the last ski film you saw? (Maybe you were just watching The Art of Flight for the umpteenth time like me.) What percentage of the riders were kick-ass women were in it? Not 40%. Not even 33%. And don’t you dare say that women don’t go big enough or ride heart-stoppingly gnarly lines. Just check out these teasers/trailers.
The first one I heard about was Pretty Faces, Lynsey Dyer’s compilation of female skiers tearing up some of the most technical terrain in the world and going bigger, harder, faster. My favorite quote from her on making the film?
Skiing has been everything I know. I’ve learned from skiing (about) discipline, how to get through suffering, committing myself, and listening to my intuition. I think a lot of girls think they can’t do what the guys are doing. Skiing’s taught me that I can.
Dyer, you’re speaking my language. The only bad thing is that Pretty Faces doesn’t come out until Fall 2014.
Fortunately, two more films are on their way, highlighting the strength of female riders. Sandra Lahnsteiner’s Shades of Winter premiers this September in Montreal. (Might be worth a road trip to see, but definitely worth tracking down afterwards.)
I’m looking forward to this one… I saw Lahnsteiner’s last film, Shukran Morocco. It’s fairly short, but tapped right in to my wildest dream… to throw my gear on my back and head into Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. The snow never looks very good, but riding in Africa requires an adventurous spirit and a deep appreciation for the culture and geography you’re skiing passed. I love it.
Shades of Winter promises deeper snow, gnarlier lines, and a larger cast of powerful women. So. Stoked.
3) Finally, there’s Hecuba. I haven’t been able to find all that much chatter about this film, other than that it should drop either this fall or the following spring. My fingers are crossed for sooner rather than later, because I just took a few minutes to browse Aprés Visuals‘ site. They have an incredible eye for sick, slick cinematography. The teaser is below.
I can hardly wait to own each of these films, invite some friends over, and cheer on some of the best riders in the business.
What do you think of these three films? Are you as excited about them as I am…. or are you drooling over another film? There’s plenty of good ones on the way this year. Just check out the list of trailers at Freeskier. You can’t watch just one.
This is the other thing I wanted to talk about. But first, I’ll start with a kind of a disclaimer. To quote Haruki Murakami: “I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone.” This has been true forever. I enjoy the company of others, sure, but I need a certain amount of alone time to feel rested and complete.
For years, however, I was under the impression that this need for solitude was ‘antisocial’ and therefore bad or wrong. I worked very hard to suppress this drive for solitude, which meant that several years were more difficult than they had to be. Not in the sense that I was picked on or otherwise mistreated. Simply in the sense that I was more tired more often than I needed to be. Constant social fatigue wore away at my self-confidence, spilling over from the social sphere and into my adventure sphere. Fear of going out and doing something by myself (and fear of somehow failing or running into trouble in the woods alone) meant that I didn’t get out into the wild anywhere near as much as I wanted and needed.
It’s taken several more years now of practicing doing things alone again, but I’m finding joy in the rehearsal. It started small with going to cafés to work or quietly sip tea. Then, a few bars. (I love reading in bars. I don’t do it often because interruptions annoy me, but bar-reading is great.) Or the beach. Or driving to the resort alone to link a few turns in the lift-served playground. These places are as pleasant and enjoyable by yourself as they are when in a group.
And then there was yesterday – earning my turns in calm, satisfied solitude. The peace of walking upwards and the exhilarating joy of sliding back down again.
Of course, there were other people out enjoying the day – hikers with their children or dogs, other riders in small groups. We flashed smiles to one another and commented on the weather, but for the most part I was by myself. Then, when I finally arrived home, I hopped on my bicycle to ride to the beach and lay stretched out on a towel writing the rough draft of these two blog posts. Eventually, I headed back into town to join friends for dinner, drinks, and laughter.
This perfect day was all due to the realization that yeah, I got this. I woke up Monday morning with the confidence in myself, my gear, and my ingenuity to get up and have an adventure doing what I love. If I got hurt on the mountain, I had a plan. If I locked myself out of my car, I didn’t have a plan, but I’m sure I would have figured something out.
Maybe this is just a small thing, but like icebergs, even small-seeming things can be quite large.
Just as earning your turns lets you experience both the Uphill and the Downhill, so too does following what you love give you the opportunity to be both Together and Alone. There’s nothing quite like stopping halfway through a powder run to trade high-fives with your friends, but there’s also nothing quite like savoring a mountain that is yours and yours alone.
This is what I wish I learned years ago: whether you’re in the middle of a crowd or standing all alone, just keep doing what you love. Everything else will fall into rhythm.
For many, Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer. Families roll out barbecue grills. Co-eds drink beer in folding lawn chairs.
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.)
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?)
In the span of a week, my photostream transformed from this:
Now, my routine has turned to running and long bike rides along the water.
Running-wise, my mileage is low and the pace steady. It’s taking time for my body to re-align after a cold winter spent locked in to stiff ski boots. Monday morning’s brisk 2 mile jog was the first time I really felt myself hitting the perfect stride – forefoot striking with balance and energy.
As to the cycling, I confess. I’m not much of a biker. My dad and elder brothers are pretty into it, so I made a point to not be. But, after a 14 mile spin along the waterfront, I’m starting to see the appeal: the gratifying sensation of speed, the pleasure of exercising in the sun, and, more importantly… a built-in air conditioner! It’s no skiing, but at least it’s cool.
I’m looking forward to getting back to the mountains, though. First for hiking, then trail running, picking up the pace as I train for the Spartan Race. I did the 3 mile version last year, and am looking forward to the long form. Nothing sounds like more fun that running up and down a mountain through mud, under obstacles, over rope ladders… and through a gauntlet of gladiators.
There’s a lot I’m looking forward to this summer, but don’t expect the ski talk to disappear completely. I’ll be writing up a review of my new skis (Head’s Sweet Ones) in a few days, and I’m sure I’ll find some other way to keep the snow alive this summer.
How’s your spring going? Are you keeping the snow alive?
Day 29 and I’m sunburnt, happy, and completely content. I fully intended to tap out at 30 – to hit that magical round number. (This is my first year counting days. Something I picked up from the ever-inspiring Female Ski Bum.)
But, if this is the day I end on, then so be it.
I conned/bribed/begged a friend to come with me to Jay Peak. He’d never been, so it was a extra joy to introduce him to one of my favorite mountains (and the tram – he’d never been on one before!).
It was 63º at the base when we arrived. Then, we skied snow at the sweet spot between the consistency of corn and mashed potatoes. Wide open trails, hardly a crowd… we didn’t even mind that there were really only a few ways from top to base. At the summit, we could see straight to Mt Washington.
Lunch was the Jay Peak meal of champions: two salads, a plate of hot poutine (my favorite food group. I’m mad for poutine.) and a 24oz can of Molson.
A few more runs, and we were both cooked. Back at the car, the thermometer read 73º.
I can think of no better way to end the 2012-2013 ski season than this: sunburnt and happy sipping on a fresh, cold Switchback.
24 years of skiing and this sport still surprises me. Mid-winter coverage all the way into April. Corn snow as light as powder. With every turn, the falling ssshhhhhhh sound of sand downhill. Only… it’s still snow.
Clouds hung on to the summit for dear life – like winter holding out against spring. The sun broke through in the lower elevations, however, baking the corn into wet, soft mush.
We spent the day in the trees. In April.
The next morning, I sat on a porch in a t-shirt sipping coffee watching the grass turn slowly greener.
Two weekends ago, Craig (the snowboarder) met me at the mountain for a few Easter runs. We found still other friends and rode the gondola swapping stories and comments on the overcast sky.
The woods that day were certainly a happy surprise – untracked, empty, heavy with the best snowpack Vermont’s seen all season. After the first run, we were so hot and sweating that we both shed layers and got back out at it, our snowpant vents zipped open.
March is a funny month. Just as people gear up for spring, cabin fever driving them mad, winter delivers. Mid-week snow storms that make me dizzy with envy as I watch from work. Long days on the slopes with smaller crowds. Or even short romps – a few hours, a few runs to justify sitting in the parking lot with a beer and a portable grill.
Now, April. April plays tricks with hearts. Snowing one day, hot sun the next, rain yet another. Sometimes, two or three seasons in a single day. I think I agree with T.S. Eliot:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
But last weekend, riding to Massachusetts for my nephew’s baptism, I saw the earth and just the earth. If nothing else, April in Vermont rubs the world down to its body. It reveals the contours – the rolling hills, the glacial-worn cliffs, the geography – that all other seasons hide. And that’s a beautiful view, too.
“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”
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.
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.