December 2002   
Fifty years:
Skiing then,
Skiing tomorrow,
Skiing right now...

Like so many of the best things in life skiing didn’t just start from zero, it wasn’t founded, it wasn’t invented. There’s no day one. Skiing just happened, just evolved over centuries, in northern Europe, a Scandinavian thing. A useful way of crossing snowbound landscapes that must have had a pretty large component of fun to it even when survival was the game. Over time, fun dominated. Survival became sport, skiing became recreation, distraction, passion, way of life - take your pick. And here we are, looking at a new century, and looking back.…

Fifty years is a good round number, firfty will do,k and American skiing has feted some important fifties lately. Sun Valley celebrated its fiftieth anniversary a few years ago, then it was Aspen’s turn. Then a couple of years ago SKIING magazine turned fifty. I have a genuine soft spot for SKIING magazine, after so many years of regular writing for that magazine, after so many round-the-world ski adventures for that magaine. So I had an insider's interest in that particular golden anniversay, and used it as basis of the following essay...

Of course, know it’s a stretch to equate SKIING magazine with American skiing, but there’s a pretty good chronicle of American skiing in the Pages of all those back issues:

American skiing as a young, newly imported sport, fresh off the boat, longer on enthusiasm than sophistication. American skiing as innocent adolescent—all those smooth-cheeked young skiers in the 10th Mountain Division training to ski back to the Alps with rifles in their hands. And then, after the War, American skiing (and skiers) coming home full of projects cooked up in fox holes, ready to build, ready to invest, ready to create an industry instead of a college weekend. Ready to build lifts and lodges, bulldoze parking lots, create resorts. Ready to grow up....

A good story, fifty-years long, with a happy ending. We’re still here — except a handful of early heroes and pioneers. Americans are still skiing, even though it was never in the cards that skiing could become anything like a national sport. Our mountain ranges are separated by thousands of miles of flat and rolling lowlands. And skiing, if we want to be honest about it, still looks like an eccentric and slightly mad pursuit to many. “You wouldn’t get me up there! On slippery skis! On a mountaintop!” Skiers laugh. We have a hard enough time coming back down to our Monday morning jobs, to the flat snowless un-mountains of everyday life.

Fifty years is plenty of time to grow up, but maybe the essence of skiing is that skiers don’t grow up. The intangibles of skiing — the wind in your face, the effortless, flowing, accelerating trip down roller-coaster mountain shapes, the sheer physical thrill — is enough to make kids, all kids, smile. We’re no different, even if most skiers are into pretending they’re no longer kids.

Skiing has changed a lot in fifty years. And in some ways has hardly changed at all. Not surprisingly, our sport, the way we do it over here in North America has become more American, more like us. Time was when almost all our ski instructors were European imports, and all the good ones certainly were.… Remember? (It’s okay to date yourself in skiing. More years, more seasons, only add up to more storms, more snow, more turns, more delight.) Nowadays, to be sure, ski pros are as American as the rest of us. No more accents, no more Tyrolian drill sergeants, no more Hans or Helmut or Sigi. As many gals as guys teaching now, the way it should be. And the generational shift toward snowboarding is as American as apple pie — our contribution to the European winter-sports scene, in fact. At lunchtime on the slopes, hamburgers have triumphed over Glühwein. Mountain signage no longer asks us to Fill in Your Sitzmark but suggests instead Caution, Grooming Vehicles at Work. Grooming vehicles are definitely a recent addition to the skiing equation, but the fact that many of the best ones, like the Kässbohrer Piston Bully, are manufactured in Austria reminds us that skiing is still an international sport. Not 100% American not even 50%. And better for it. (Our high-speed lifts, too, are imports.)

Fifty years of SKIING, and of skiing, should makes us reflect. It shouldn’t make us smug.

  timeless skiing, photo © Burnham Arndt

Do we ski any better than skiers did fifty years ago? Maybe.?

Do our skis ski any better than skis did fifty years ago? Definitely.

Is Rocky-Mountain snow any drier, or Sierra Cement any wetter than it was fifty years ago?

Are New England skiers any tougher, or any less proud of being so stoical and long-suffering on freezing January days, than they were fifty years ago?

Are powder mornings any more exciting today than they were fifty years ago?

Are turns that cost less — less effort, less intensity and training, less sheer athletic ability — worth more? Sometimes.…

Are skis that cost more really worth more? Sometimes.…

Is a condo better than a ski lodge?

Is a high-speed lift with no lines better than an old double chair with a long wait? You bet.

Is driving to the mountains for the weekend more fun than taking a ski train?

Are ski films better today than they were ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Were there any ski films at all, fifty years ago? Indeed there were. Have you seen any? I have and they’re awesome. Were we more in awe of yesterday’s ski heroes, when there were still slopes no one dared to ski? cliffs no on dared to jump?

Has anything really changed?

Has everything really changed?

The most interesting, and most puzzling thing about fifty years of skiing history is this: Skiing, real skiing, does not take place in history. Not in 1948, not in 1998. Real skiing, pure skiing takes place in the present, becomes the present, fills the present moment completely.

What matters most about skiing is precisely what has changed the least over time, what might not change next year, or next century, or ever...

Skiing is not the same as packing for a ski trip, or shopping for new skis or ski outfits. Skiing is not putting on chains or parking the car, buckling your boots or buying a lift pass for the day.

Even riding the lift doesn’t count, although we’re getting closer, closer, closer: the snowy scene sliding backward beneath us, the frosted flocked trees, the ribbon runs unrolling toward us, skiers flitting by beneath our feet like extras in a movie, some other movie, not our movie.

You get off the lift. You're moving now, gliding. You’re almost there…but the last few words of a conversation still float along with you as you adjust your pole straps, your goggles. And then from one moment to the next, it’s all gone.

Time stops.

 December 2002  
photo at top:
fresh snow, carved by the wind,
photo © Burnham Arndt
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.