PHOTO: Chip Kalback
PHOTO: Chip Kalback

A Ski Season, In Six Scenes

Six essays that capture why we ski

These six essays originally appeared as the intros to the six issues of our 45th volume. Our first issue of volume 46 prints soon. To receive future intros in their original print, sign up here.

PHOTO: Chip Kalback

I: Welcome Back

Fall is the hardest season. The days are shorter and darker, cold and wet, but not quite cold and wet enough. It's little more than pre-winter. We placate ourselves by getting caught up in fantasy football, soccer, school, work. One fall I thought I'd teach myself a new language. Another, I tried to get in shape for skiing. Neither worked. They were only distractions.

This was a long fall. New job, late nights, compromised relationships, lost perspective. Signs of stress were obvious, but I ignored them. My health and friends were something I'd come back to when I had time.

The season culminated with a death. I made last-minute travel plans to attend the funeral, where I was consumed by the devastating reality of our mortality. It was a reminder of all the clichés I know but love to forget: slow down, be kinder, get the hell off Instagram (that awful bastion of vainglory), and live more freely. That's what the woman who died did while she was alive. She was an unselfconscious, strange goofball who overflowed with compassion until the end.

For me, living with more joy meant one thing: I needed to spend more time in the mountains, with my people. Two days after the funeral, I was napping alone at our family cabin in the woods. The 1930s wooden bunker is a layered cave. The trees are so big, thick, and mossy, they wrap the place up like a blanket. The only sound is the river roaring past. I made a fire and fell back asleep. I was out for the better part of the day.

When I woke, fall was over. It was snowing outside. A steady stream of white flakes fell through the forest. The first snow. Is anything more beautiful? The labyrinth of greens turned white.

I was thankful I brought my skis. I was thankful to be alive. Tomorrow would be a good day.

PHOTO: Garrett Grove

II: Here We Go

The morning was silent. I looked outside the cabin: the muted navy blue of dawn and a coat of overflowing white. It was the first powder day of the season. But I don't like to be in a hurry. I fried an egg. I pressed coffee. I slowly put on my ski pants, my jacket, my snowboots. I grabbed my pack, my gloves, my Langes, and closed the front door behind me.

The trail to the car was untouched, the road through the forest was untouched, the edges of the ski hill were untouched.

The storm persisted. On the chairlift, with an old ski friend—someone I see throughout the winter, but rarely any other time—the snow came in horizontally, the wind spitting little white flecks. The only exposed part of my face, the space from my lips to my nostrils, burned. The ancient lift groaned its way up the mountain. We just laughed. Riding this slow chair, getting pounded by winter—this is the most comfortable place we know.

There are days when you worry. About rocks, avalanches, tree wells, aging joints, the immeasurable expenses of this lifestyle. This was not one of those days. This was a homecoming. The mountain was nothing but welcoming. Winter had just started. The snow was here. We had everything to look forward to.

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We lapped that lift a dozen times. We took turns following one another—through tight trees, off rocks, across open meadows. We took hilarious spills and made turns that we'd remember when trying to fall asleep that night.

Once, I pushed down a ridge, farther than normal. I've skied this mountain my entire life. My parents have skied here their entire lives. Still, surprises. I stood atop a couloir I had never seen before, off the backside. It was steep and narrow. Beautiful. Frightening. I admired it, then turned around and sped through a sprawling bowl filled with fresh snow, trying to catch my friend.

It came time for a break. We pushed open the heavy door with the steel latch to the hut. The stone fireplace was blazing. I tore off layers. My face was dripping, thawing. The thick wooden tables were full of soups, beers, and familiar faces. I realized I had missed even the ones whose names I didn't know.

PHOTO: Cam McLeod

III: Just Go

It hadn't snowed in weeks. The routine—the runs, the bars, the buffoonery—felt redundant. It was time to go somewhere new. To explore beyond comfort zones—the unknown places where growth and perspective await. And, let's be honest, to get the hell out of town and find some snow.

I bought a ticket late one night. Liquid courage is still courage. The morning of the trip, I left my house at 4 a.m. The world was asleep; my world was headed somewhere else. Walking through an airport full of strangers, I went through the motions. The relief of dropping my ski bag at ticketing. The fear it would be lost. The conformity of the security line. Triple checking my pocket for my passport. The woman behind me, upon seeing my ski boots, explained that her son snowboards, too. I got through and ordered a beer. Time-zone confusion means it's always socially acceptable to saddle up.

Sitting on the tarmac, I felt the lonely, insecure apprehension that comes with travel. Was I running from something? What was the point of this trip, anyway? Staying home with friends and the girl who feigns interest in me would have been easier.

The plane accelerated. The wheels lifted. The anxiety fell away. The sun was beginning to rise. We flew beyond the streaks of orange and into a deep, dark navy sky. In seat 21A, I settled in to my usual routine: wine and a rom-com; sentimentality and a turkey sandwich.

After one beer, two wines, three half-assed meals, four restless hours of sleep, and some weird amount of time since I left my house, I had arrived. While my body was a confused mess, my mind was fully awake.

It was a small airport. The baggage claim had just two conveyor belts. I didn't see the one thing essential to my trip. Eventually, a large man in a blue jumpsuit missing a great many teeth tapped me on the shoulder. I followed him through a door and he showed me my prize: my ski bag.

I wheeled it past the customs guy who couldn't have given less of a damn. The exit doors opened. Outside, men in orange vests picked at ice while others shoveled snow.

It was morning. But it looked different. It smelled different and sounded different. I felt energized by a vague recollection of why we travel. I remembered that the only thing I was running from was the ordinary. I was ready to let go of good sense and practicality in the name of some indescribable urge to open myself up and let the good forces of the planet take over. To satisfy my cultural curiosity and a healthy appetite for adventure, and to feel the freedom of having no certain plans—only a desire to connect with foreign skiers while exploring the unknown.

A man who didn't speak my language opened the door of his taxi for me. I got in and we tried to find the quickest route to the mountains.

Raffaele Cusini in Costaccia Livigno. PHOTO: Oskar Enander

IV: In Deep

I was a mess on the flight home—always have been. My hair was unbelievably greasy. A patchwork of pubescent facial hair had spread across my face. I was not wearing underwear. My shirt smelled like stale beer. Like me, my shoes were frayed. You can tell a lot about someone by their shoes. An Italian man sat next to me. His boots cost more than I make in a month. I am not proud of this.

The airplane landed in a whiteout. I turned on my phone. In came a barrage of texts. The skiing was, as they say, ON.

It had been a blur since. I don't know how many days and it doesn't really matter; it's difficult to discern one from another when they are, for all intents and purposes, completely identical. There was the day we got up super early to get first chair. The day we went for a long tour. The day patrol finally opened all the gates. The day we skied in jeans. Every day started by putting ski boots on and ended by realizing I was kind of drunk again.

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The routine took over: ski all day, après, post-après, eat something greasy, wake up feeling exhausted, tell myself it will be a rest day, that I'll eat a salad. Coffee. Boots. Get sucked right back into it.

I recognized that various things in my life—both tangible and not—were broken. I dismissed the pile of dishes, laundry, bills, emails. They weren't going anywhere. I knew reality would catch up with me at some point, that it would hurt, but the mountains had snow and I decided to let go and let winter take over. I could figure out the rest when the snow melted.

It was pure indulgence. After another day on the hill, I found myself in my brother's kitchen with friends, drinking a cocktail while making a dinner that included five varieties of cheese. It had been a good day, just like all the rest. I thought about our older sister. She's a high school principal, living in the city with two small children. We existed in different worlds. She takes care of people; I can barely take care of myself. Goddamn right my life was selfish. And damn fun.

Earlier, I skied a tight, half-mile-long couloir. I eased into it, careful of the fresh snow in the narrow entrance. My confidence grew, as did the size of my turns, the deeper into it I went. I emerged flying beyond the rock walls, ululating like some kind of hedonistic warrior. It felt primal. When I came to a stop, my body shook with the adrenaline and ecstasy of skiing a near-vertical mountainside coated with powder. It was life on the fringe, and I wanted more.

Back in the kitchen, I noticed it was snowing again. I started to wonder if I should just give in and let skiing completely take over my life. Could I even go back to a normal life? Did I want to? I questioned whether actual jobs, things like career advancement, marriage, kids, were even a viable possibility. Maybe it was too late. I couldn't remember the last day I didn't ski, the last day I didn't go to bed spinning.

I woke up late the next morning. I was exhausted. My body ached. I could see my breath in the cold, empty house. I thought about taking the day off, catching up on things. I drank some lukewarm coffee. God I love coffee. I got a text from a friend, "Where are you?!" I stared at my phone for a minute, looked outside. Then I grabbed my skis, walked to the highway, put my thumb out, and did it all over again.

PHOTO: Oskar Enander

V: Our Own Sense of Time

Midwinter, mid-mania, mid-bacchanal, at the top of my favorite run, I met someone. Time slowed and started to mean something else.

Not long after we were introduced, I went to visit her. On a Monday night after work, we skinned up a groomer by headlamp. We were the only ones for miles. The stars overhead and the city below added a glow to the dark sky.

We had started at the base of the ski area, at 8,000 feet. My lungs burned. I struggled to hold a conversation while she floated effortlessly up the mountain—all smiles and banter. I pretended to be cool.

A couple thousand vertical feet later, we reached the top. It was windy and somehow darker. We went into an empty, cold warming hut. It was covered in carvings and dust. I split kindling with a rusty hatchet. She nursed the fire. It lit and warmed the shack.

We sat on a wooden bench and leaned against the wall. For dinner we split a Snickers and a flask. At some point, we realized it was almost midnight. We figured we should ski back down. We bundled up, stepped outside into the eerie night, and looked down at our run. Headlamps on. It was a steep, rolling, untouched 2,000-vertical-foot groomer.

I went first. She skied close behind. We couldn't see ahead of us. We could only feel what was under our skis, bodies nimble, loose, and in the backseat, rolling with whatever the mountain gave us. I couldn't help but yell out—feeling the freedom of letting go, in blind trust. We were skiing way too fast. I heard her laughing uncontrollably, which made me laugh.

We weren't going to slow down. We laughed all the way to the bottom, and even after we came to a stop, standing in the middle of the dark forest near the empty parking lot, we just kept laughing.

Nothing else mattered. Everything was on the table—my weak-ass lungs, our personal histories, blind backseat turns. We packed up and drove out of the parking lot. We were both quiet on the slow drive down the curvy highway, the mountain rising behind us as we approached the city, another moment on skis indelibly etched into our lives.

PHOTO: Mark Fisher

VI: The Good Life

The temperatures warmed. The season was ending. As I sat around drinking coffee with the crew, I felt a mixture of pride, contentment, and relief—for all the snow we skied, the places we'd been, the lines we conquered, the laughable amount of partying we did—and, frankly, gratitude we all came out the other side unscathed.

How can one person be so lucky? Be exposed to so much love and beauty in one lifetime? Let alone one ski season. One thing I knew: to be thankful. To cherish these fleeting days and do everything in my power to hold on to them for as long as I possibly could.

In the dimly lit café that morning, our season of working and skiing together coming to a close, my ski buddies all vowed to get back together the following winter. Nobody said anything then, but we all knew it was a lie. We'd be back, sure, but as old men on an annual trip together, with a far less impressive appetite for beer and chronic heartburn.

Everybody in the group will always ski, and ski well, but it would never be the same as it was that morning. The hierarchy of their lives would shift. They would soon become other things first. Doctors and lawyers and engineers and fathers. The skiing we would do together would never look the same. We would never ski—or live—so brazenly again.

That is probably a good thing. But I plan to hold out, though not without my doubts. As my friends' lives evolve to include homes and babies, I've wondered if I'm missing something. For now, I've avoided the choice, and I dismiss the binary narrative between skiing and stability, stubbornly and selfishly believing that I don't have to choose between the things I love.

But enough of the self-reflection. We finished our coffees and buckled our boots. It was the last day of the season. And we still had some skiing to do, though skiing is a pretty loose term here. It was more performance art—a circus on skis.

And my god if we weren't the biggest bunch of freaks anyone on that mountain had ever seen. A parade of maniacs on skis overflowing with energy. To be within that orb was to feel true freedom. We all skied completely recklessly, a madhouse of 20 skiers wearing god-knows-what trying to ski faster than everybody else, howling and jumping and snake-skiing and generally losing our minds.

One day I might grow out of this, but it was not that day.

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