This story is supposed to start with “I remember,” so I’ll just start with that. I remember when we used to wear garbage bags to ski in the rain. I remember when CB Sports made the most waterproof winter jackets on the planet and they weren’t even close to waterproof. I remember skiing in boots way too big and skis too small. And it wasn’t just me. Most everyone on the slope around me had a duct tape patch somewhere on their outfit.
Back then, being uncomfortable was an integral part of skiing. It was something that folks on the hill were proud of: black-and-blue shins, frostbit fingertips, soaking wet clothes. It added to the adventure and the subtle insanity of flying downhill on slippery pieces of wood. (That’s what we do, by the way.) In the current age of altimeter watches, wifi on chairlifts, and apps that tell you if you are skiing or sitting at the bar, some of the adventure of the sport has been lost. Or at least hidden behind a commercial façade. Along with that went some of its spirit.
The only thing more uncomfortable than skiing in sleet these days, is watching young and old skiers preen about a base area with enough gear on their bodies to pay my rent for six months. The layers of color-coordinated fleece and Gore-Tex; goggles with a dozen moving parts; backpacks with pockets for all of the above. In town, it’s worse. Ski pants are replaced with “technical” travel pants with articulated knees and ergonomic pockets; goggles become sunglasses built with NASA technology; ski boots are traded in for waterproof approach shoes that can walk up a sheer cliff.
Don’t get me wrong, advances in outdoor gear have changed the sport for the better in many, many ways. Backcountry skiing on modern A/T gear is a small miracle; skiing in the rain is now civilized. It’s the commercial culture and importance of buying and displaying gear these days that is unsettling. It’s as if wearing new pants and a new jacket makes you a better skier. Or worse, it actually gives you more joy than skiing itself.
Many folks today think the act of skiing would be impossible without a wicking underlayer and appropriately matched, breathable outerwear. Or that they wouldn’t be able to complete a backcountry tour with a hole in their pants. The epidemic has extended to the overall lifestyle of skiers. Where long-bearded ski hippies who pioneered the West on skinny skis wore their unkempt beards—and destitution—with pride, the current generation grooms their facial hair and actually looks in the mirror before heading to the hill—kind of like the folks that most of us moved to the mountains to get away from.
I read an article in Adbusters once that said, 30 years ago, corporate marketing strategy revolved around trying to associate a company with cool culture—like skiing, skateboarding, and surfing. Since then, corporate culture has become the new cool—now people try to associate themselves with a brand to make their cultural statement.
What seems to be left behind is the culture of skiing itself. And within that, powder skiing. Weren’t we the group that turned our backs on careers, racecourses, colleges, money, vanity, and all the trappings of the humdrum life? Aren’t we the offspring of the hypocritical Boomers who scoffed at a workaday life and drove across the country to sling drinks and ski pow? Who left behind the billboard ads, prime time TV, marketing managers, and focus groups to strike out on our own?
Which is to say, shouldn’t your jacket just be a jacket? And not your identity? Same with your skis, boots, sunglasses, underwear? Do you need to grow a new skin every year like a chameleon? Shape your facial hair in just such a way, like everyone else?
Herd mentality works in cities, where great populations swing to and fro with sweet whisperings of the Great New Thing: food trucks, cupcakes, skinny jeans. It has no place in the mountains where most skiers ran like hell to get away from all that. Up there, with a skin track in front of you and 2,000 vertical of powder below, it doesn’t matter what you are wearing or what you look like. As long as you have those slippery boards on your feet. There need not be another distraction—just trees, snow, nature, air and whatever god you believe in between you and the bottom.