This story originally published in the October 2016 issue of POWDER (Vol. 45 Issue 2). ILLUSTRATION: Will Dinski
Pinning down the exact definition of the only ski-related term that’s the same in at least four languages is impossible—even in the original French. It’s just whatever you do after skiing, usually involving a beverage on a sunny deck or in a warm bar. But après can happen anywhere around the bottom of the Last Run Of The Day when you imbibe socially while still wearing ski clothes.
Skiing is at least several thousand years old, and perhaps much older; indisputable archeological evidence of stone-age shredding is scattered widely across Europe and Asia. Possibly predating writing and the wheel, skiing’s potential seems almost wired into the human organism as a response to life in snow, like surfing was for Polynesian islanders surrounded by a world of waves. Whether skiing developed independently or emerged from the inspiration of one Neolithic genius, it’s a good bet that après skiing was discovered pretty soon après that.
And I would argue that après skiing is as valuable (at least to its practitioners) as any achievement in “civilization.” Sure, there’s science, agriculture, medicine… but what’s all that worth without skiing, without the transcendent joy of magical wings for your feet?
And what would skiing be without après skiing?
Less, I think. Skiing is an experience beyond words or meaning, a way for us to escape the plodding prisons of our bodies’ limits and our lives’ quotidian mediocrity. Imagine those pioneering reindeer hunters returning to a cave or yurt in some ice-age wasteland after accidentally sending the first straightlines down a powdery hill, coming home and trying to express their mystical transformation into creatures capable of low-altitude flight. They must have really wanted a beer.
If you get up, putter around for a bit, and then start drinking in a hot tub, you’re a derelict. But if you ski for a couple of hours first, you’re just living the Good Life.
Like a tree falling in the woods, which no one hears, if you go skiing and don’t après ski, did you even go skiing? Because skiing is like a dream of flying from deep-cycle REM sleep, a vivid alternate reality that starts dissolving seconds after you take your boots off. Drinking a tall glass of suds afterward is a way to delay the process, to keep a foot in the Spirit World and bask in the glow before returning to your regular body that doesn’t fly—your regular clothes, your regular identity as just another clumsy ground-bound monkey scraping after a paycheck. Skiing without a social drink afterward is to immediately wake up instead of letting the dream fade into a shared glow, a spark that you carry with you.
Moreover, if après is simply an adjunct to skiing, why has it become as much of a business as lift tickets themselves? If you get up, putter around for a bit, and then start drinking in a hot tub, you’re a derelict. But if you ski for a couple of hours first, you’re just living the Good Life. A few groomer laps is the only difference between the commonplace—going to a bar—and an idealized vacation for the privileged.
As long as it’s in the context of après ski, sybaritic indulgence and hedonism is tolerated and treated as blameless, even in places like Switzerland, Utah, and New England, where you might expect traditional culture to reject it. Perhaps that’s strictly profit motive, just doing what you need to do to make money off the tourists. I prefer to think that society recognizes the value, even the sacredness, of an ancient ritual.
If I ski enough to want a beer afterward (a pretty low bar to clear), and follow it with some light social après skiing, the looming existential darkness that constitutes adult life vaporizes. That simple two-part routine makes for a day of no regrets—where every step on Maslow’s pyramidal hierarchy of needs has been met. Three runs, two beers, a little flirting with a friendly face, maybe plans to ski tomorrow… and I can go home knowing that the day went into the plus column.
Asked decades later about the après ski singles scene in St. Anton (ground zero for modern après) during the 1920s, Otto Lang, an instructor at Hannes Schneider’s seminal ski school responded, “Let’s just say nobody was hurting.” It’s simple: You go skiing in beautiful mountains all day, and then afterward drink beer and get friendly with someone. The modern ski world’s obsession with athletic progress and media production hardly looks like “progression” in comparison. I’d rather go skiing and bar-hopping with Otto, or do shots of aquavit with Norwegian farmers and see if we can talk Olaf into skiing off the potato barn. If you do it right, you can take it full-length and wake up still in your ski clothes, ready to start the process again without ever touching that vale of tears known as Real Life.
And if nothing else, just do it for the cavemen.