November 2001   
The Way it is...
12 reflections on the romance of skiing
IT BEGINS IN THE SKY, falls to earth. Sometimes it really falls, blind and straight, heavy flakes laminating into heavier drifts, the dead white weight of the dead of winter— and sometimes it dances, dances downward out of clouds that have swallowed the whole of the winter sky, dances a hundred detours, white-on-white quilting in mid-air, arabesques in the arms of the wind: snowflakes out for a stroll, giddy with gravity, unwilling to settle down, blowing loose and low and forever out of control across the winter landscape, a swirling anarchy of windborn flakes.

IT BEGINS IN THE AIR, the cold and crystal air condensing into frozen crystals, air that you can taste suddenly becoming air you can touch, orphaned flakes clinging to eyelashes, piling up on pine needles, rooftops, ski runs, secret hollows and stand-alone summits, these out-of-focus dotted lines of snow, millions of them, tying sky to earth, earth to sky. Snow falling to earth like a blessing or a curse, raw material of a new world, a white planet, a skier’s planet. Snow doesn’t just accompany winter, it is winter. Snow is the matrix in which the magic lodges and grows. It begins in the sky. It begins with snow.

IT OFTEN BEGINS AT NIGHT: a whisper of invisible flakes among pines, falling muffled through dark forest shadow. It begins in the middle of a midnight dream of winter finally arriving on time, just this once. It starts to snow and no one is watching. Hour after hour, invisible accumulations pile up, falling on tiptoe through the sleeping forest; disembodied drifts slowly reassembling themselves while the world sleeps. Winter’s deaf and dumb construction crew laboring toward dawn.

IT EXPANDS WITH THE LIGHT - winter light, snow light, summit light. First rays fire up glowing embers along pale ridges, light up ranks of receding peaks high overhead already deep into winter, long gone into the country of silence and frost, cornice and drift. An alpenglow in reverse, salmon pink sunrise slopes fading to white, to pure white, to purer white. White mountains mirroring white clouds. Mountain light magnified by snow turns into a force that pushes against you like wind, tugs at you like gravity, tricks you and burns you and enchants you with its rainbow spectrum of special effects.

IT'S ABOUT SNOWY PEAKS on fire against a painted backdrop of charcoal gray storm clouds. It’s about the diamond sparkles of early-morning surface hoar; frost-feather jewels scattered among aspens, waiting for snow miners with skis on their feet. About the lacy scallops of cornice shadow slanting deep blue across white bowls above timberline. About the raking sidelight that exposes every wind-etched contour in in the whipped-cream sastrugi formations left behind by careless storms. Light that seems to pour out of, as well as onto, winter mountains. White mountains, lit for a play with no script, a wild, pure improvisation on the high register of non-stop motion, the low register of primal beauty. It’s about light, about winter, about skiing.

IT'S A CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE between you and the mountain, a plot you wouldn’t find realistic in a third-rate thriller where your skis play the role of double agents, serving two masters, you and gravity. It’s an unasked-for bonus in a sweepstakes you never really entered. A free pass, a ticket to ride, a waver that says you no longer have to obey the speed limits you were born to, the limits of movement, of size, of strength, the limits of your species and your genes.

IT THRIVES ON MOVEMENT, and still more movement, endless nearly effortless movement, skiers flowing downhill like water, skiers pretending to be dancers and suddenly realizing they are dancers. Movement in the third person, skier as actor and observer, feeling yourself ski, watching yourself ski, applauding a great turn, catching your breath at sudden acceleration, waltzing into a double helix of interlocked curves; weaving three-dimensional patterns through four-dimensional time: right, left, up, down, right, left. Syncopating the rhythm: right, right, left, pause, rightleft, rightleft. Jazzing the run, romancing the snow. Listening to the different rhythms of each slope, giving in to them one by one, finally moving with the mountain. But always moving. Dancing the mountain’s dance. But always dancing.

IT ALTERS THE CURVATURE of space and time: the clock slows, almost stops. In deep snow turns last forever (almost), skiers are weightless (almost), the mountain infinite (almost), and life for a suspended instant is perfect (almost). You tell yourself nothing is perfect, but skiing comes close enough. It takes you into a hyperspace of strange geometry: the dreamlike arcs of perfect carved turns, the non-euclidean straight lines between two points, schusses that are straight only in the mind, flowing up and down over myriad bumps, both macro- and microscopic, white discontinuities in a skier’s universe. Tracks through trees, tracks playing hide and seek, tracks in formation for no special reason. It tempts you deeper into the forest, tempts you off bigger cornices, tempts you onto new slopes in search of new emotions. It leads you up and up, further and farther, and then some. Inexplicably you always think that the snow on the top of the topmost lift will be better; it seldom is, but the views, the feeling, the spirit of high places never disappoints.

IT SURPRISES YOU when you least expect it, the strange beauty of this marriage of mountains and skis. You discover new Images of an old passion. It catches you daydreaming in the chairlift as the rollercoaster slopes roll backwards beneath you, ridgelines sliding in and out of view, dots of color below your skis braiding together in slow-motion choreography, then resolving into skiers shredding the last powder at Mach 1. The muscle fibers in your own legs subtly twitching to join them. From across the valley distant slopes are telegraphing you VIP invitations, the snow is always whiter.... It's crazy, but in the middle of a day of skiing you take time out to day-dream about skiing.

IT'S MADE OF MEMORIES: white memories. Your first run in waist deep-powder, how did waist-deep suddenly get to be over your head? how did you make it all the way down without falling? how did you leave such a beautiful set of tracks when you’ve never done anything like that before? Your first trip to the Alps, or to Utah, your first race, your first black run. A certain spring afternoon carving velvet corn into impossible abstractions under a benevolent indifferent Sierra sun. A tiny hut in Austria where nick-of-time schnapps helped fight off frostbite. A love affair that started with light powder, survived an interlude of ice, that moved on to frozen corn, that finally got beyond fear and anxiety, that’s still going strong.

IT AMBUSHES YOU in tiny towns, nestled like tabletop toys under giant peaks. Walking down snowy streets in search of the perfect apres-ski hideaway, you stumble on the notion that its all a hideaway, a neutral Switzerland of the heart, that skiing has taken you away from the evening news and the GNP, from office politics and global politics, from profit and loss and pressure - and given you instead something like poetry. The perfect hideaway from the twentieth century. Reality has suddenly become just another option. It pulls you around the world like a magnet. It’s filled with siren voices saying, singing: ski me next, ski us next, ski us now, and though life is too short, and you know you can’t possibly, you try to anyway, to ski them all

IT FEELS LIKE FALLING IN LOVE. The emotion, the sensual shiver, the nervous excitement, the irrational sense of well being, the suspicion that it's too good to last. Which it is. Which is why great ski runs always end, great days, great ski trips all end. But like true love, skiing is a self renewing passion. The romance of skiing is most intense when it's most literal, when you're skiing with someone you love. I know: I ski better with you, less well alone. Of course the sky is bluer, the snow lighter when we ski together. Naturally I ski a braver line in front of you, more gracefully, lighter on my feet, following just behind you. Wherever we ski there is always room for two tracks. It’s something one has to share. It gets better and better. It never ends.

 November 2001  
Photo at top of page:
San Juan powder, Telluride,
© Linde Waidhofer
All contents of this web site
© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.