Skiing is Skiing is Skiing…Or is It?

A potent cocktail of exercise, fresh air, and snow, skiing is a lot more than just going downhill

Marquee Photo: Jay Goodrich

The skiing wasn’t bad, at least for November 1. Mid-40-degree rain from the previous week solidified or ate the base that had hung on in the run-up to Halloween, but a system rolled in the day before plumped my options with five fresh inches. Grass in the base area of Whitefish Mountain Resort gave no hint to the short, 500-foot laps possible if you carried gear to the snow, switched runners to boots, and skinned on.

Visibility on the summit was maybe 50 feet or two chairs, take your pick. It was mostly soft skiing, with only the occasional crunch of base to remind me that it was barely November. In the first three hours of the walk up and the laps I made, the only human I saw was a lift mechanic buzzing past on his sled en route to work on the top terminal. Silence was the just the sort of thing to revel in through each transition and disappearance down into the murk; the world was drawn close in the blanket of fog.

The week before, when I headed up with even less snow, a guy called out from the back of a camper as I strapping on my pack in the parking lot. “It’s really patchy up there, man—hard to link more than a few turns. Not worth it.” Maybe he expected me to turn around, to walk back to my car, load up my stuff and drive home. He wasn’t entirely wrong, either: I got up there, put on my skins, and it wasn’t spectacular. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t even decent.

But I wasn’t there for the skiing.

On the summit in the fog, I was thinking that happiness doesn’t need to be anything more than a dry baselayer in mountain winds. Something hot from the thermos made it better as I sat on the bench of my skis, thoroughly marinating in every ounce of the cold and the wind and the solitude. Later, on the walk back down, I popped out beneath the clouds and the satisfaction I’d been feeling doubled: Lakes on the valley floor reflected glare back into sunbeams scattered across the hillsides above them, little dots in fields indicating the golden, autumn eruptions of larch.

Call it a working vacation for the noggin. Call it play. Call it escape. Call it light therapy or active meditation. Better still, call it the sound of graupel bouncing off the hood of my shell or knowing that for the next few hours I’m a person less the weight of my frustrations.

Skiing can look and feel a whole lot like escapism: Monday morning back in the office offers plenty of evidence that what goes up must, inevitably, come clumsily back to Earth. Being in the snow is entirely a way to exit our lives and the problems constantly poking at us, and if that’s your way of functioning or stepping into a parallel yet separate corridor of your existence, I don’t question it. However, I’m certain that there’s more going on when I check out and click in.

A potent cocktail is made of exercise, fresh air, and snow. It flicks a switch that I struggle to access otherwise, and the parts of my brain that do thinking are offered a break. The bits of me that nag away at worries and ‘what ifs’ have less volume. The mental hands that keep turning over the puzzle pieces and wondering about them hold still; at least it feels that way in the crystalline moments of the mental postcards I carry, the moments that saturate the jaunts up to the snow in the early season.

That I’m taking a break isn’t right, though. I’m a better, quieter person when I’m the right amount of tired. Taking the energy down a level helps to bring focus. Problems with disjointed connections have a way of being mentally mended when I leave them alone and think elsewhere for hours and hours. There’s a lot happening upstairs while I’m skiing that I don’t know or understand, yet still depend on. Just as I trust the weight of a turn or judge whether I can head straight through a patch of moguls, I’ve grown to rely on the ability to skin away from my problems and find them different when I come back from the fog.

Call it a working vacation for the noggin. Call it play. Call it escape. Call it light therapy or active meditation. Better still, call it the sound of graupel bouncing off the hood of my shell or knowing that for the next few hours I’m a person less the weight of my frustrations—that they have nothing to do with what pulls me back downhill. Perhaps the reflex toward self-care as a skier can’t connect to anyone who doesn’t feel it. For me, and maybe for you, when the world closes down and the only way forward is to gain some elevation for a while, it’s certainly easier to simply say, “I’m going skiing.”

Which, if you were wondering, was what I told the guy in the parking lot.