January 2001
Ski it new!
Snow and desire.? Snow and movement.? Snow and memory?. In a word — skiing — a lifetime of skiing.

But what keeps one skiing for a lifetime? Why don’t skiers, more skiers, start singing “the thrill is gone,” and try to follow it elsewhere, far from the slopes? I can only speculate about skiers in general, but I know what keeps me skiing. I know exactly why I’m still just as crazy about skiing now, or crazier, than when I first discovered this slippery, spectacular sport in 1964.

Most sports, like most love affairs, are at their best when brand new. But skiing - like true love and unlike so many conventional sports - can be self renewing. It is for me. Ezra Pounds advice to writers was simple: Make it new! My advice to skiers at risk of burnout or boredom is just as simple: Ski it new! Novice skiers do this all the time, constantly expanding their repertoire of runs as they expand their repertoire of skills. But for experienced skiers, skiing it new means skiing new mountains. Always new mountains. Which in turn translates into new views, new runs, new snow conditions, new responses, new emotions.…

I’m lucky, I’ve traveled farther in search of new mountains than most skiers can or usually do; I’ve mixed my passion for skiing with a globetrotter’s restlessness and a writer’s job that helps me turn time off into time on, work that’s sometimes embarrassingly close to play. I confess it doesn’t seem fair to ski Switzerland one year, Italy the next, to wander up and down the Rockies for months and then take a break in the French Alps for some R & R. But really, I’ve figured out something else: you don’t need an open airline ticket to the ends of the earth. There are almost always new mountains next door.

In pre-socratic Greece the philosopher Heraclitus is supposed to have said "You never go down twice to the same river." Meaning, according to my college philosophy prof, that each time you went down to the river it had changed and that you too had become a different person. But I’m not just indulging in the sophistry that all ski mountains change from day to day (which they do) or that each season, each day or each run we become different skiers (which we probably do).

Rather I’ve learned that skiers are creatures of habit, and that our skiing habits can keep us from exploring new mountains within easy reach. Too many skiers ski the same area, or the same few areas, over and over again. One hears it over and over: My favorite area. My local area. Our favorite resort. All right, sure it’s a pleasure to find an area the kids like, where the lift lines are never too long; where the slopes are just right for your ability. It’s natural to go back often, weekend after weekend, year after year. And if you spring for a pied à terre near the slopes, a condo or (gasp) a ski house, it becomes even tougher to “ski around.” But are you missing something? A lot. Try this experiment. Make a mental catalog of your great days, your greatest days on skis. Aren’t they all days of discovery? Mine are.

Today I am remembering four great days on skis:

Llaima, the big volcano in southern Chile: spiky umbrella shaped Araucaria trees lifting their arms to catch slow-motion, half-dollar flakes, a couple of wire cable tows and hours of walking up a triangular peak belching sulfurous smoke, long fields of corn snow cut here and there by crevasses, long lazy turns.…

Cragiburne, a rope-tow-only “club field” or ski-club ski area near Arthur’s Pass on New Zealand’s south island. Lift tickets less than $5 a day. Snow parrots nibbling the leather straps of my rucksack, ungroomed couloirs leading down into native beech forests, each turn a test.…

But not just the exotics. There was my first day on Buttermilk Mountain outside Aspen, not exactly your killer mountain — but these were all new shapes, spillways of gentle groomed waves, gentle ridge runs with sudden views out over Castle Creek, mysterious sideways glances through the Japanese screens of aspen stands. New, everything new.?

Or my first day at Loveland Basin above Denver, hardly a heavyweight contender for Colorado’s resort title but still new, all new. Slaloming through the krumholz, scrubby dwarf trees at timber line, finding my way around a corner, out of sight of the lifts into Zip Basin; threading the first-time-ever needle through hourglass narrows in the middle of steep mogul pitches.…

The common thread? Four great days but definitely not at great ski resorts; great days because they were first days. Ski it new!

First days on any new mountain are precious, magic. You come to every fork in every trail full of questions; only one question will be answered this run. Experientially, you are building a new mountain in your mind, run by run. If the mountain is really good this sense of newness, this unfolding discovery of lines, views, runs, can stretch out for days. If the mountain is great, you can ski it new for a long time.

You are not just exploring a physical shape or a pattern of slopes and trails, dotted lines down a trail map. You are also exploring yourself as a skier, your reflexes, your smarts, your experience. Improvising new tactics to handle new slopes. (Even easy slopes and winding catwalks ask you to adapt your movements and turns to a new pattern). Learning a new trail system. Figuring out where the best snow is and why. Where the long flats and level spots are and how to avoid them. Where the awkward pitches are and how to avoid them. And of course, where the most delicious runs are and how to spend most of your time on them.

Don’t forget the surprise aesthetics of a new mountain. Skiing is one of the most aesthetic sports going; but familiarity breeds indifference, if not contempt. I’ve taught at some pretty beautiful ski resorts, but somehow, on the hundredth day of the season, that view of the Gore Range or the Mount of the Holy Cross from Vail doesn’t exactly take your breath away any more. Yet the first time you look over a ridge you’ve never looked over before, something happens. It always does.

Am I talking about all skiers or only myself? It’s hard to say for sure. I know my enthusiasm for skiing new mountains, every year, is a very big part of my on-going passion for skiing, a big reason skiing is still a passion not just a pastime. And why not you? You can find out easily enough, this season. Ski it new!

    January 2001
photo above:
dreams of a brand new mountain to ski, this one in New Zealand.
photo © Linde Waidhofer
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.