I spent a recent weekend driving down the curves of Colorado's Highway 550 with a friend I met the first week I moved to the mountains, a long time ago now. Saturday we dropped out of the desert around Montrose and climbed into the ribby peaks of the San Juans, the season changing as we went higher. We were underdressed for the cold and had been overserved the night before. As the aspens yellowed in front of our eyes, we lined out winter plans and worried about the state of the universe.
We'd spent Friday night telling stories about how we used to be tougher and things used to be cooler, and by the time it turned to morning our plans to go pick off a big peak had evaporated. Instead, we scaled a spiny ridge outside of Ridgeway, sweated out the previous night's choices, and played the "do you think you could ski that line?" game as we traced gullies caked with their first snow of the season.
I had been uncharacteristically dreading the change. Summer blinked by, and every seasonal transition seemed like it brought something bad: fire and flood. The erosion of public land and human decency. Everything felt political, and I felt paralyzed, unsure of how to do anything good.
Even thinking about which ski pass to buy gave me anxiety because climate change and corporate consolidation and FOMO swirled in my head. Fires skimmed the margins of the mountains I tend to ride, and skiing felt a little petty in the grand scheme of things to care about. I'm not sure about the line between joy and selfishness these days, but the mountains gave me a lens through which to channel my anxieties.
This time last year feels like a world away, and whatever I was concerned about then—new bindings or La Niña winters—feels like it was lost to political upheaval, and an unstable sense of normalcy. But if anything, the past 11 or so months have made it clear how much power a single person can have, good or bad, and that seems like a reason to feel empowered instead of overwhelmed.
I don't want to turn a blind eye to acrimony and divisiveness and shit, but I don't want to be overruled by it either. The best solution I can come up with is to think small, local, and actionable. To start with the things I could touch, to make them feel sustainable. That goes for everything, and since the ski world is such a big part of my community and the way I spend my time, that includes skiing.
Skiing hits on the economy, the environment, immigration. Even health care if you take it far enough down the chain. And you can make your priorities known in a lot of different ways. For me, I think that looks like buying skis from local shops instead of Amazon. Skiing little hills that prop up their community. Making sure I know what's happening to the landscapes I use to recreate. Going to the mountains with friends I don't get to see that much and talking about what they think is important right now. On the hike, he tells me about friends running for local office and watershed conservation projects he's working on. Small, maybe, but still moving forward.
I'm not trying to preach and skiing obviously isn't going to save the world from nuclear fallout or narcissism. There are much bigger problems than what pass to buy. But when everything feels political, every choice you make wields power, and you can try to do good with all those choices.
On Sunday, it snowed up high. We were pelted with pellets of graupel as we clambered down the side of Mount Sneffles, the snowy scree like ball bearings under my sneakers. I got the old familiar grip of downhill motion, the feeling that, just like skiing, you have to lean into it, stay forward in your boots. The storm broke the tension in the weather. Monday was the kind of clear blue fall day that makes any other fragment of season feel irrelevant. I felt buoyed by new ideas, less stressed that every coming change was terrible, or that I couldn't do anything if it was. We drove back north through the gold of early aspens, hammering out those winter plans, and I started to feel OK about the seasons changing.
Heather Hansman is a senior contributor to POWDER and a Seattle resident working on a new book about the Green River.