Heart of Darkness

Skiing powder in a blackout reveals primordial instincts

Skier: Kami Johansson. PHOTO: Colin Samuels

Words: Leslie Anthony

The flakes fall down and the forest lights up, our headlamp beams swing through the hardwoods like swords. We cut trees in half, machete their branches, and make the flakes look like swarming insects. When I illuminate a slope, my friends fall through the light like high-speed phantoms: exploding comets—there one second, gone the next. You can do this any night in the eternal snows of the Japanese Alps. The idea is nothing new.

There's a guy, it's rumored, who only skis Lake Louise, Alberta, by night. He goes out wearing a headlamp with powder beneath a moonlit quilt, cocooned in an arctic chill. It is his rapture. And why not? Cave-dwelling animals live their entire lives ensconced in a black void. Blind, their entire world is chemosensory and tactile. They find what they need by blundering into it. Bats, also creatures of the dark, don't blunder into anything. Their eyesight might be poor, but sophisticated echo-location radar makes them aware of even the tiniest objects around them. Comparatively speaking, humans appear hopelessly diurnal, with an inherent fear of the dark and only the most rudimentary adaptations to low light. Except when it comes to night skiing.

When it's clear out at night, light swims in the snow and your skis stir it into liquid. Colors are fleeting and tonal, as if snatched from a palette of costume jewelry: onyx, alabaster, and mercury when moonlight bathes the snow; amber, ruby, and gold when the waning sun eddies over drifts; chartreuse, turquoise, and topaz under incandescence. Skiing in this stuff is like painting. Yet night skiing in a snowstorm is more about blending molecules—yours, the flakes', the trees'. When you slash a deep turn in pounding snow, it's like tearing a fabric that goes from ground to sky.

In the mountains, we're accustomed to trying to beat the dark. Get home before the whale of night swallows us whole. But skiing in the dark offers its own home. Fight the mental inadequacies (primal instincts anticipate pursuit; even static shadows feel sinister) and the sensation is transcendent. Your body is astral projected. Out of context and not your own.

Which makes you wonder whether humans are ill-equipped after all, and whether maybe we'd learn something by struggling toward the dark instead of away from it. Like skiing at midnight in a snowstorm in Japan, a good idea doesn't always require a light bulb to go off.