Connections

Connections

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Mike England

The shared psyche of skiers.

I could tell she was a skier by her legs. Sleek and muscular, they looked like they’d spent plenty of time fighting the pull of gravity. The party was small and formal; eventually we were introduced. After the usual small-talk came the standard lull-buster: “So, what do you do?”

Normally, my response would have been just as formulaic—state and describe current occupation, offer reciprocal inquiry, proceed to other superficial topics. Try not to seem bored.

But today had been a powder day—I’d been up to my armpits in fresh snowfall, carving wide, effortless arcs down countless vertical feet of fresh Montana snow. Face flushed from the sun, my entire body awash in post-powder euphoria, the source of my weekly paycheck was about as distant as a cocktail waitress at closing time. I verbalized the entire contents of my brain: “Well, today I skied. Bridger was incredible.”

And with that, all conversational decorum vanished. Her eyes lit up and a wide grin usurped her face. “Holy shit,” she said, loud enough to draw glances from nearby partygoers, “was it amazing today or what?” For the next two hours, we swapped stories about our favorite resorts, backcountry haunts, and heli-ski fantasies. That bland, lifeless talk of careers and college degrees was cast aside like yesterday’s newspaper. It wouldn’t have mattered if she were a doctor from the Hamptons and I’d been raised by wolves—at that moment, we were both simply skiers. And that was enough.

All shared passions can ignite connections—those singular moments of pure, uninhibited engagement—but skiing is one of the rare few, like music or fly-fishing, that can instantly create bonds between two otherwise indifferent people. From the surreal stillness of the backcountry to a resort bar’s bustling après scene, skiing threads its way through an astonishing breadth of human experience. Where else can an Obermeyer-clad yuppie share recreational real estate with a mullet-bearer in blue jeans? The mountain does not discriminate. Monstrous moguls and ice-covered chutes chew us up equally; weightless powder runs yield the same bounty to all. When the lifts open, the sun rising above white-crowned ridgelines, personal differences disappear amid the intoxicating influence of smiling faces and crisp mountain air.

As skiers, we’re united by a unique arrangement of commonalities. What we do for a living does not define us; rather, work is a barely tolerable exercise we abide only to fund our alpine avocations. We endure considerable adversity when cashing in this stored currency—burning thighs, frozen fingers, and piercing wipe-outs seem perfectly reasonable tariffs for such a favorable rate of exchange. Golfers may sprint for the lodge at the first sign of rain, but when Mother Nature unloads in the mountains, we grab our gear and head out. All the while, we spurn continued efforts to subdue our merrily masochistic pursuits. As modern life becomes more sedentary and comfortable, we continue to train intensely. You can’t be a Web-surfing couch potato all summer and expect to harvest the goods when the snow flies.

Perhaps most importantly, we understand the inherent irony of our chosen sport—that bizarre combination of ambition and decadence, effort and indulgence, labor and leisure. The bitter cold of first chair leads to an infinite freedom, screaming down the fall line, a magnificent white wake billowing behind. Trudging up a steep, seemingly endless boot-pack, our burning lungs are exchanged for a buoyant glide through the heart of winter. Paralyzing pangs of fear give way to the heart-pumping silence of hang-time off a cornice. Each run ends in exhaustion, beginning anew as we load the chair or strap on skins for another round of tortured hedonism. The physics, at least, are simple: for every pain there’s an equal and opposite pleasure.

Given such a spectrum of shared experience, discussing jobs with a fellow skier seems akin to tracking Florida weather patterns in January. But maybe this is all part of something larger. Maybe what we really want is to share our individual triumphs, our own sources of excitement and meaning, and by so doing assimilate them into the collective, into that vast and diverse assemblage of skiers that spans so much of the human population. We offer our cold-weather comrades a glimpse inside us, past the surface layers of careers, hometowns, and other meaningless measures of character. Beneath that veneer is who we are—how we live, what we live for, what we do when time is ours. We hope that our reflection returns slightly improved by recognition—and that we get a glimpse of theirs in return. Whether it’s sharing turns, a chairlift ride, or a beer at lunchtime, this mutual exposure brings us together, allows us to see each other unmasked and unashamed. So maybe it’s not really about the skiing at all—it’s about making a connection. And the beauty of it is, as skiers we need only one.

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