Anything for First Chair

How skiing teaches us to be utterly consumed

POWDER columnist David Steele is based in Whitefish, Montana. His column, Graupel, appears here every month. | PHOTO: Re Wikstrom

A yellowish light from the parking-lot bathrooms scattered on the frosted windows, diffusing over the deep blues of pre-dawn clouds. I’d pulled the two backseats out of the ’99 Dodge Caravan the night before to make the space I was lying in, next to my skis and the boots as cold as the windows. A shadow blocked the light for a minute; Ben, my buddy from high school, had made his exit to stretch as only a six-foot-two teen can when he’s been folded into the back of a Subaru.

It had been his idea to car camp in anticipation of being first in line for Chair One as it spun to life for the season. Whitefish Mountain Resort announced it would open a day early, a Friday, which meant that our high school classmates were still asleep or starting their morning routines. We’d managed not only to convince our parents to excuse us, but to use our car camp to snag that coveted spot up front. It also meant that our photo wound up front page of the Saturday local newspaper, which several teachers were kind enough to show me when I returned to school on Monday.

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A friend of my uncle’s recently told a story of the same car-camping program, in the same parking lot, in my grandparents’ station wagon their sophomore year. The current crop of Whitefish youngsters have taken to sleeping directly in the lift line, or even on the chair itself. They arrive 12 hours before we did, fidgety high schoolers content to form a line a full day before to secure their spot on the chair and in local memory. They’re more committed than we were, but they represent the same spirit of maniacal fascination that fuels anyone who cares truly, deeply, perhaps excessively, for their cause. We know this as passion.

They’re more committed than we were, but they represent the same spirit of maniacal fascination that fuels anyone who cares truly, deeply, perhaps excessively, for their cause. We know this as passion.

I wouldn’t know about people who find their excitement in soccer, baking bread, or collecting stamps. But with the first season pass under the Christmas tree in sixth grade, I felt a reverential hum around going skiing. I knew that there was something I wanted to do. A dream of cold and white to while away teenage angst as the summers slogged on. A reason to sit in the Seattle traffic to and from Stevens Pass while in college. Skiing taught me how to be utterly consumed.

A hitchhiker I picked up on I-90 once told me, when asked about his favorite thing to do, “I don’t know.” Even with prompting, nothing stood out for him. He had loyalty to the family he was returning to, to finding a job with his brother, but there wasn’t one thing that pulled up the corners of his mouth unconsciously when he spoke. I think he understood duty as well as anyone: to work, to pay his bills, to put in his time. We all do that. Yet the difference between getting up in the morning with a sense of duty and lying awake, unable to sleep for the excitement of the flakes pelting down outside is only something the passionate skier can see.

And of everything I’ve learned, and the mountains of things I know I don’t know, that understanding of passion from skiing set the bar to judge the rest of life. Writing picked up a special luster when it began it mimic the focus and difficulty of threading down mogul fields. Climbing rocks was just a hobby until I realized that, heading up on my end of the rope, the sphere between my arms and legs and what they held onto felt so much like the circumscribed bubble that happens on skis. School taught me about history and grammar. It showed how to understand a different culture via the codes of a language I wasn’t born with. I gained so much from the time I spent in the classroom, yet it was outside those walls that I found the charged voltage of the ski experience.

Cresting the summit on that first chair next to Ben still stands out: the mad skate across the top, diving into the Black Bear trees, nailing turns polished by years of knowing that same glade. I remember digging tips under a drift and flipping headlong to reemerge gasping, somehow back on my feet, spitting out snow with the yell that defines excitement in every category I find. This remains my current to measure against: an electricity that emerged cold and sleepy from the back of a car, parked close to the lift in the mud.