And a Mile Climb Back Up
chapter 19 from the book,
The Perfect Turn, by Dick Dorworth
"…the modern mind…has yielded to the inferior magic of facts, numbers, statistics, and to that sort of empiricism which, in its passion for concreteness, paradoxically reduces experience to a purely abstract notion of measurable data, having cast aside the 'immeasurable wealth' of authentic experiences of the spirit and imagination."
In the Warm Springs Lodge at the base of Sun Valley's Bald Mountain is a bronze plaque commemorating the large number of vertical feet skied by a nice old man in one day. The number is less noteworthy than the fact that he spent his entire day riding Sun Valley's high speed lifts up and then skiing down Baldy as fast as he could go, all for the sake of the experience of a number. It epitomizes modern alpine skiing.
There is no way to cast in bronze the immeasurable wealth of authentic experience.
"…the mountains speak in wholly different accents to those who have paid in the service of toil for the right of entry to their inner shrines."
Sir Arnold Lunn
When I was a boy and had just started to ski I read somewhere what was called 'an Indian definition of skiing:' "Wheeeeeee, and a mile climb back up."
As a boy developing my own modern mind of the early 1950s, I interpreted this as praise and thanks for the modern ski lift and an end to the toilsome (and, largely wasted) hours of the climb back up, contemporary triumph over stone-age adversity. Though we always did some backcountry skiing, some cross country skiing and plenty of climbing to get up jump hills, slalom hills without ski lifts and to the starts of some downhills, my skiing friends and I grew up primarily as alpine ski racers who rode lifts in pursuit of good race results. That is, numbers, "a purely abstract notion of measurable data."
Number one, of course, was always best, abstract or not, and, without denigrating or missing the point of Heller's assertion, we had lots of authentic experiences of the spirit and imagination (and body) in its pursuit. Alpine ski racing, especially downhill, provided a lot of wheeeeeee without the mile climb back up and I loved it. At the time, the effort and focus of ski racing brought me higher and deeper into the mountain experience than could any other vehicle I knew.
After competition was done I continued to alpine ski. Even now, nearly 60 years after it started, I ski and ride the lifts on Bald Mountain most winter days. Like a junkie, I still love it. However, among a (small) circle of my old alpine skiing friends I have noticed that we are spending more days each year skiing the back country, savoring the climb back up as much as the wheeeeeee down, away from lifts, far from crowds, seeking the mountain's inner shrines. Many life-long skiers mark the success of their skiing season by the number of days skied at which resorts, not by the quality of their experience, and it occurs to me that passion is best experienced fluid and hot, not concretized by the number. While the back-country snob waving the banner of "earn your turns" in the face of alpine skiers is as big a turn-off as an over-crowded ski hill, it must be admitted that his pretentious passion has some heat and can't be cast in bronze unless, of course, he keeps track of vertical feet skied in a day.
My expanding appreciation and practice of backcountry skiing of the past few years feels like a return to roots, though I rode lifts whenever possible as a boy. Climbing back up does not get easier with each year, so the coin of toil required needs budgeting, but the inner shrines of mountains in winter are no longer accessible through alpine ski resorts. I think they once were until the merchandising of mountains, too many people, and the corporate world that defines today's alpine skiing clogged the entrances.
A few summers past I visited an old friend, Pepi Stiegler, in his Montana home. Pepi has spent his life alpine skiing, directing the ski school at Jackson Hole for more than 30 years. Before that he won three Olympic medals in alpine skiing, including gold in slalom, but we did not talk much about racing or alpine skiing except for his daughter's budding slalom potential. We talked about literature, about the path in life that led an Austrian Olympic gold medal skier with a high school education to pursue a degree in English literature late in life at Montana State University in Bozeman. We talked about his growing appreciation of the 'beats,' particularly Kerouac, and how reading them gave him a better understanding of me. We talked about his admiration for America's southern writers, the horrors of slavery and its shameful legacy, and about the difficulties of reading Faulkner when English is a second language. I assured him that Faulkner is difficult if worth the effort for the most erudite native speaker of English. But mostly Pepi wanted to talk about the backcountry tours he has been doing in the Tetons the past few years, showing me 8 x 10 photos of some of his favorite spots, inviting me to join him this winter for some tours. He leaves the ski area and heads to the backcountry at every opportunity, and there is passion in his voice and eyes when he talks about it. He clearly is not jaded about the authentic experience of skiing.
I commented that it was interesting that lifetime alpine skiers like he and I are turning to the backcountry for their skiing highs. What did he think about that? "Ahhh, Dick," he said, "It's like it was in the beginning. It's pure. Skiing in the backcountry is like going home."
We evolve in circles like snowflakes returning to the sea. The back country in winter feels like home to an old skier.