Mike Berard, Sunridge Ski Hill, Edmonton Alberta. PHOTO: Reuben Krabbe
Mike Berard, Sunridge Ski Hill, Edmonton Alberta. PHOTO: Reuben Krabbe

Skiing IS Politics

We cannot escape the world we live in

"There exists in man a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave." 
—Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791

Skiing is politics. That's true unless you're actively in a powder turn with stellar dendrites contrailing behind you as you go subatomic, weightless, effortless, and your entire existence becomes dark matter in the twitch of time between future and past, between a face shot and a track.

Other than that fleeting bliss of escapism, skiing is politics. You can't separate the two.

The gas you buy to get to the hill…politics. The roads you drive…politics. The job you work, the food you eat, the beer you drink (in Utah anyway), the herbs you vaporize, the doctor you see, the air you breathe, the home you sleep in…politics. As a famous congressman who actually worked for the people—all the people—before politics turned tribal once quipped: "All politics is local." It's a cliché that's been beaten into boilerplate, but there's truth to it, especially for skiers. We're all locals to the mountains. And there aren't enough powder days in a year to shield skiers from the politics that, in 2017, are falling like hard rain.

Back in the mid-aughts, I visited old friends and ripped around the local hills in Montana we used to call "little areas with rocks," after the Powder department. One day at Snowbowl, a guy I didn't recognize tagged along with the crew. He had a clear wild streak about him, but something was off. His burly frame was showing signs of atrophy and his teeth and skin were in decay. Turns out he was a meth addict, one of many skiers whose addictive personalities didn't stop with a wake-and-bake and a pinner chute. Today, the opioid epidemic has supplanted meth. It's especially virulent in places like Vermont and Wyoming, where injured skiers are often prescribed "non-addictive" drugs like OxyContin, which, due to its high cost, has become a gateway to heroin. Doctors prescribing opioids for inflamed discs in mountain towns without the resources to help the addicted are political issues.

More political connections to skiing: Out in Lake Tahoe, the High Fives Foundation does teary work helping skiers with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries learn how to walk, talk, and often ski again with the type of exhaustive rehab that health insurance doesn't cover. Nationally, mental health coverage is similarly underfunded, but rates of suicide in the Rocky Mountains—known as the "Suicide Belt"—are higher than any region of the country, other than Alaska. And healthcare only looks to be getting worse. Under the proposals of Trumpcare, that chunk of meniscus floating around in your knee will once again be a preexisting condition, which might put you in a high-risk pool and jack your monthly premiums to the point you can no longer afford any coverage at all. Healthcare for skiers is politics.

It's time to get belligerent. Your fellow skiers need you.

In Utah, resorts with expansion goals have been politically squaring up to backcountry skiers like Andrew McLean for years. The issue? Nearly 6 million annual "visits" to the central Wasatch is overwhelming the landscape. Backcountry skiers overflow parking lots, and resort traffic in the Cottonwood Canyons now approaches Summit County-style delays on big days. Smog, crowded lifts, proposals to connect all the resorts, and skier-versus-skier animus are the result. All of which has led to a political response: A collaboration called Mountain Accord is corralling interested parties—from the resorts to environmentalists to public transportation experts to the Forest Service and backcountry skiers—to figure out a way to preserve Salt Lake City's urban mountain range. They haven't made much headway yet, but politics, the kind where you actually get stuff done, is hard.

Your local hill is rife with politics, too. It used to be cool for resort operators to bury bulldozers and excavators after their life of entombing streams and knocking the top off summits had run out. Environmental laws fought for by politicians changed that, and now we have ski areas like Aspen that legitimately give a shit about acting as stewards of the land. Labor laws and hourly wages are political, too. Resort ski patrol outfits are unionizing and ski instructors may soon follow.

When I managed a ski shop at Jay Peak, Vermont, at the end of winter I was able to collect unemployment for six weeks even though the job was seasonal—politics. Blow a knee on the job at Jackson or Wachusett and worker's compensation laws mean you won't pay a nickel for the repair. That's vital, because money is tight for those that live to ski. Which is why so many skiers working service jobs in Crested Butte are sleeping in their Tacomas all winter. The redistribution of wealth in America to a royal top 10 percent of the population means that affordable housing in mountain towns is a distant memory. Here too, local politicians are trying to find hammer-and-nail solutions. But the larger problem, the decimation of the working class, is a national issue.

Voting helps, and considering that 46 percent of eligible voters sat out the last election, we need more of it. But you can vote with your wallet, too. The ski industry is fat with resorts that preach a good eco story as they recycle burrito foil, but with their second faces (they have two) they fund anti-climate and anti-regulation candidates. Think about that before you plot your next road trip. Just be sure to enjoy your powder turns while you can. Thanks to President Trump's decisions to shutter the Clean Power Plan and withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, snow is political now, too. Which is weird, because the science is concrete. It's the politics that are muddy.

Like you, I'd like to keep politics out of skiing, too. To live as a political denier is to float endlessly in a powder turn. As the writer and humorist P. G. Wodehouse wrote in the run-up to World War II, "I never was interested in politics. I'm quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling." Skiers are naturally like that, prone to tuning out reality. But once again the world will no longer allow it. Ignore local politics and national healthcare at your peril, but climate change is an existential threat to what we hold dear. It's time to get belligerent. Your fellow skiers need you. Don't take your passion to the grave.

Marc Peruzzi is a lifelong skier and founding editor of Mountain Magazine. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

This story originally appeared in the September 2017 (46.1) issue of POWDER. To have great feature stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.