Spring 2001
It's all sliding
Skiing is.…
I’m looking for a very broad definition. Let’s try:
Skiing is sliding downhill on skis.

No, too specific; leaves out crosscountry. How about…
Skiing is moving over snow on skis.

Better, but too prosaic. Why not substitute prejudice for precision and simply say:
Skiing is the best possible way to deal with snow.

That’ll do while I think about the problem from another angle….

Skiing’s just not like other sports. Most sports, you go out, play hard, come in, take a shower, and life goes on…. Skiing works differently. Skiers ski, of course, as much and as often as they can; but they also think about skiing endlessly, daydream about skiing far more than they should.

The season's over now. It's already April as I sit here in the shade of a sandstone boulder in the middle of the high desert of the Colorado plateau, typing on a tiny laptop computer and looking out over a landscape of red stone and ocher sand and - you guessed it - dreaming of snow. It will be months before we can step back onto our skis. But here we are, thinking about skiing. Why not? Skiing works your imagination as much as your muscles. Recently my skiing relections have taken a new turn: What exactly is skiing anyway? No, I'm not kidding.

Time was when skiers formed a small, close-knit fraternity of fanatics and friends. When you saw another car with skis on the roof, you’d honk; and they’d honk back. We knew each other, and we also knew, without ever defining it, just what our shared passion was all about: shared equipment, technique, and aesthetics. It added up, or seemed to add up, to a common vision of winter and skiing. No longer. Today there are more different sorts of skiing out there than most skiers can imagine. Is the simple clear-cut sport of skiing coming apart? Or merely growing richer, more complex?

Consider: Instead of the traditional distinction between alpine and nordic (downhill or crosscountry) skiing, we now have competing varieties of each, plus some close cousins that remind us of skiing but seem hell-bent on escaping the label. It’s not plain crosscountry any more, but skating vs. diagonal striding; there’s even a renaissance of randonée touring out west. In the downhill dimension, alpine competition no longer rules the roost. It’s traditional racing events vs. freestyle events, with specialists on both sides carving out ever narrower niches for themselves. Even recreational downhillers seem almost self-segregated by their exclusive passion for powder or love of bumps, or their earnest desire to avoid anything other than newly groomed “corduroy.”

How about the exotics? Where do we put telemarking? Should we still consider it a form of crosscountry skiing, or are those days long gone, leaving the telemarker only a counter-culture downhiller? What of snowboarding, literally exploding in popularity, changing the face and flavor of the American resort experience with its high-energy youth-oriented image? (The beach boys discover snow…). So the question sneaks up on me today: What is skiing? What is real skiing? And what isn’t?

—Snow is always part of it. Our unlikely crystal playground, for skiing is play if it’s anything, laid on the landscape in careless winter drifts. Snow feathering down in delicate sprinkles of weightless powder, almost too fine to see; or pouring out of leaden skies in a down-home Sierra-style dump, five feet overnight. Snow in its thousand surfaces, virgin or transformed: natural and artificial, machined or moguled, wind sculpted, frost feathered, crusted to ice or soft, sublime. Snow to curse, snow to love.

—Movement too is always a given. The wind in your face, trees blurring at the far edge of vision, vibrations in the soles of your feet as the white earth streams by beneath. Falling through the trapdoor of acceleration, curving, cutting, veering, bending the straight line of momentum into arabesques. Movement, a grace of vectors. But always sliding, slipping smoothly across whiteness. Sliding in long slow-motion skating strides over a fresh machine-set track; sliding off the edge of an abrupt mogul crest; sliding smoothly down the gentle tongue of an easy catwalk; sliding sideways on the desperate frozen corn of a steep spring headwall. Always sliding, always in motion.

—Freedom is the final ingredient. A strange freedom that has has nothing to do with the freedoms of politicians and psychologists. I mean freedom from the physical limits of a gravity-bound existence, the limits of our own muscles. All of us, beginner through expert, ski better than we walk, or run, or do most anything else for that matter. For once, gravity’s our friend, speeding us up rather than slowing us down. Average skiers have far more force at their disposal to accelerate, decelerate, to dart and jump and dance through mountains, than the greatest athletes in more conventional sports. And even on the flat, the complex equations governing friction seem to be on our side. Gliding expands our freedom to move. Our skis are seven league boots.

Now we’re getting closer to a good definition. Skiing: the freedom to slide over snow. The French use a wonderful word, glisse, to sum up the special free sliding spirit of skiing. They talk easily, sometimes poetically, of la fraternité de la glisse, the common spirit of those who glide rather than stumble or trudge or clamber through mountains. True, to young French skiers who are just as hooked on adrenaline as young Americans, la glisse mostly means sliding fast and straight, the antithesis of braking—but I like the wider sense. La glisse underlies my answer to the question: What is real skiing? It’s all real skiing. Because it’s all sliding!

It’s all sliding — the effortless aerobic genuflection of the loose-limbed telemarker, scribing perfect circles with archaic instruments.

It’s all sliding — the maxed-out hyperdance of the non-stop bumper in the grip of serious fall-line fever.

It’s all sliding — the patient persistent shuffle of touring skis pointed toward high peaks while the eyes drink in beauty.

It’s all sliding — the weekend escape artist wailing downhill, skidding a kind of personal wide-track poetry down a blue trail

It’s all sliding — the anti-gravity balancing act of a radical front-side turn on a hot board, face inches off the snow, a roostertail of powder in hot pursuit.

It’s all sliding — the impossilby wide, right-angled snowplow of a rubber legged youngster slipping thoughtless down slopes so steep that parents shake their heads.

It’s all sliding — the poetry of powder eights as two skiers lose themselves in non-verbal communication, waist-deep in downy bottomless snow.

It’s all sliding.

RETURN TO TOP Purists, in any number of skiing’s sub-worlds, often make the mistake of insisting that their branch of skiing’s extended family is IT. The real thing. The pure and final form of sliding over snow. I say nonsense. I hate it when telemarkers look down on alpine skiers as spineless fashion victims just because they’re wearing bright one-piece suits; when young slalom specialists in armor-plated stretch pants call snowboarders "knuckle draggers;" when snowboarders think they have a patented monopoly on innovation and creativity; when old-time crosscountry buffs bemoan this newfangled skating craze. I repeat: For me it’s all sliding, and it’s all good. Skiing is the intangible, emotional and kinetic experience of sliding freely over snow, not a sport defined by gear and technique.

"But surely," a voice is liable to protest, "One must at least have skis on one’s feet?" Don’t be so literal, I’d reply. Does it really matter what we call these tools for sliding? If more people had been willing to consider snowboarding as an innovative form of skiing rather than a subversive attack on it, all of us might have been spared a lot of grief while this wonderful new form of sliding was struggling for acceptance (and lift access privileges) in the ski world. Controversy over snowboarding shows us just how much foolishness can result from a simple confusion about the real nature of skiing. Area after area tried to keep board-riders off their lifts and slopes. But actually snowboarding is the perfect answer to one of the ski industry’s perennial problems: how to keep youngsters actively motivated and involved, keep them coming on ski vacations with their folks, keep them in the sport. One by one major ski areas caved in and relented - they had to, or face a loss of families who would go elsewhere where their kids could ride their boards. And finally, I’m delighted to say, Colorado’s last holdout mountain, Aspen’s Ajax, has finally reversed it’s skis-only policy. About time.

My friend John Reveal, former mountain manager at Snowmass, put it like this: "I define skiing, as making semi-circles on tilted frozen water with a smile on your face." And he quickly adds, "You’ll notice that this definition of mine automatically excludes mention of what you happen to have on your feet." Right on. "A whole generation of American kids," he continues, "have grown up standing sideways on skateboards and surfboards... It may be hard for traditionalists to admit that this is just as natural a way to move—but it is. It’s not a bit weird. In the pioneering days of skiing, sliding downhill was considered weird. Skis were utilitarian, and ‘serious’ skiers used them for going up and across mountains, not down."

A good point. I guess certain snow sliders have always made the mistake of considering certain other snow sliders a bit weird. Let’s not keep repeating that mistake. My own ski experience tells me that more, and more diverse, is better. The most challenging and demanding ski experience I’ve had in recent seasons was learning to snowboard (ride yes, shred no). It was both humbling and gratifying to find myself a beginner again instead of an expert. And beyond question, the most pleasurable, graceful and satisfying thing I’ve done on skis in recent years was to take up crosscountry skating. I’m addicted. My skating skis are real winged heels. I never dreamed I could move so fast, so easily, for so long, through a winter landscape. Skating on short fast skis with long light poles gives concrete reality to that corny expression, poetry in motion. But it hasn’t for a moment replaced any of my other skiing passions. I still spend more time in the bumps than is good for my knees. I still think steep, deep powder is the ultimate, and I’m willing to hike for hours to reach untracked snow. I still think that a day on skis, any skis, is probably better than one off. Why not? It’s all sliding.

Personally, I’m not too worried about the balkanization of our once simple sport of skiing into so many competing sub worlds. The fraternité de la glisse, the fraternity of sliding and gliding, really does exist—not the tight-knit ski community of years past, but a wider, more diverse, more interesting one. And in the last analysis, freestyler or snowboarder, slalom specialist or powderhound, telemarker or X-C fanatic, hot shot or wide-eyed novice, we have more in common with each other than we do with devotees of other sports.

I’m still looking for my perfect definition, but perhaps I should end with this one:
skiing is a winter love affair with sliding.

   Spring 2001
photo at top of page:
sliding in powder at Mt Alyeska, Alaska.
photo at center of page:
sliding in the Italian Dolomites
photo © Linde Waidhofer
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.