The Joy of a Sufferfest

A skier’s ode to suffering, for fun

Chris Rubens, Mike Douglas, and Josh Daiek perfect the art of the sufferfest at Whakapappa Ski Resort, New Zealand. PHOTO: Bruno Long

My brother, Karl, pushed his poles into the snow, skated forward, and flung himself down on his belly. He spread his arms wide and slid, face first, 50 feet downhill at Stevens Pass, Washington. Heavy, wet snow gathered in his beard and open pit zips. He stood up, shook like a wet dog, and tipped his chin to the dark sky. He was soaking. He already had been. Down to his basest baselayer, pruney fingers and everything. It was 2 p.m. and we had been skiing in the rain for hours. For days, actually.

Our whole family trip to Washington had been soggy, thanks to nearly nonstop rain paired with warm enough temps to add copious sweating to the stew. Add in a few other ingredients for a textbook sufferfest: irritatingly all-time weather immediately before and after our visit. Poor visibility. Touchy, loose wet avalanche conditions. We couldn't shoo or pray the weather away, and with our four-day trip dates set, we couldn't wait it out. Such is life. We were there, we were going to ski, and we were going to have fun, dammit! We were going to have a sufferfest.

If you can suffer for fun, when it doesn't matter—when you can make it stop by going home to your hot shower and drying machine—you can suffer when it really does. In the mountains and the flatlands. If you can suffer for fun, you can fight for yourself and for the people you love and for the planet. And you can keep fighting when thick clouds you think may never clear obscure the objective. Nothing can prepare you for the brutal losses and true tragedies of life, but a regular sufferfest practice prepares you to endure.

Even so, the sufferfest is an end in itself. It's not just an exercise in being tough, nor is there ever enough glory to brag about it at the bar. A sufferfest is proof that David has something on Goliath, a secret power of unquenchable human resolve. It's tangible proof of this. Feel it in the burn of the muscles; see it in the gloves that still wring out water the next day. Even if you cannot find joy in your sufferfest, even if you cannot bring yourself to do a goofy penguin slide, sufferfests remind us that we can prevail.

And at least you're not at work.

Happiness is the grin you grin in spite of it all, in spite of the miserable slog, in spite of visibility that makes the sights un-seeable, in spite of the layer of damp wool clinging to clammy skin. Maybe the rosy cheeks, crazy eyes, and wild grin shining through the fog point are evidence of madness, instead. Yet, when Karl belly-slid down the snow and when we decided to go up for another, we claimed a happiness from a place so deep within that nothing could touch it.

The Buddha taught that life is suffering. He chalked it up to our eternal selves blindly holding tight onto attachments to impermanent things that invariably decay and die. One way out is to reject attachment. But I enjoy these hedonistic pursuits of impermanence on Earth. The only path then, is to confront suffering. Zen and the art of the sufferfest.

"Anyone can go skiing when it's sunny," we'd said on day one, as we held up our palms to feel the rain coming down at the old Yodelin parking lot east of the ski area. "It's a special few who go when it's lousy."

The mud in the parking lot had the consistency of a thin soup. A warm front had come in the night before, and a dewy pitter-patter hung in the air. The snow felt goopy and grabby under our skins. We found the best times we could under the gray sky. We had lunch picnics in the cover of mighty ponderosas, tucking into hearty sandwiches and chocolate. A lot of the turns weren't half decent. But there were really good ones, more than we expected, through soft corn on playful, open, 30-degree pitches. There were no crowds. We packed hard snowballs and took dumb photos of each other.

And at the culmination of four days of self-inflicted misery, Karl laughed in the face of the sufferfest. Then we slid sloppy, silly turns in snow that skied like sorbet, and went up for one more. The trick is to not be dampened by dampness. If you loosen and lighten when you want most to tighten, you can bend instead of break.

"If it doesn't kill you, at least it makes you really unhappy," Dad joked on the last day, as he drove the rental van back the airport. "I've enjoyed way worse things than that."

You can't go under it, you can't go around it, and you can't go over it. You go through it. You inhabit the suffering; you get comfortable. A skier's meditation is the sufferfest. Along the way, you look for beauty. Maybe you don't find any today, but you looked. The art is simple. You go. Forward. And you keep going, until you get there.