Attempting to solve skiing’s toughest question: How can I enjoy the sport when it’s the end times?
Several years ago, I was alone trolling around Deer Valley’s Empire Canyon on a Tuesday morning. The night before had delivered eight inches of new snow and by 10 a.m. the clouds had parted to let in some rare, unfiltered Utah February sun.
I was approaching that desired level of not thinking about anything really good days bring. Sitting there like a dog on a warm piece of cement not worrying about where my next meal was coming from or what I had to do to get it, just simply being.
I promised myself I’d be off the mountain at noon, but time began to speed up; the only reminder of it was the occasional glance up at the chairlift clock. Hours ticked by so quickly I thought I had confused the minute hand.
On my purported last lap, I ran into the first pack of skiers of the day. They were a loud bunch, or so it seemed as they broke my chorus of silence, but affable all the same. After watching them nestle into the chairs with one another and a few take their first turns, I could tell it was an experienced and tight-knit crew.
Figuring it was locals (again, Tuesday) I tucked behind a foursome and followed them down an out-of-bounds glade which took us to the boundary of neighboring Park City Mountain Resort. It was a short traverse back to the chair, but the reward, top-of-boot-high weightless powder among a thicket of well-placed and quilted aspens, was beyond compare.
By the time I reached the lift, breathless, I’d recognized a few of the noses and lips of my de facto tour guides as folks who worked for the state’s ski tourism arm, Ski Utah. I’d previously seen them in civilian clothes holding cocktail napkins and stuffed mushrooms at a gathering or two and reintroduced myself. One recognized my byline from a local lifestyle magazine — and we were off.
They were taking a lunch break from a meeting, “We were tired of smelling each other’s coffee-and-muffin farts,” one said. The subject of the morning: How to make (and sell) Utah as an eco-friendly ski destination.
None would ever admit it, but I saw the smile cross several cheeks when the subject du jour came up. I mean, the WHOLE industry has been trying to tackle this thing for more than a decade. How do you take a sport that’s inherently awful for the earth: From the strip-mined raw materials used to make skis, to the thousands of gallons of fuel it takes to ship them here; from the carbon footprint we leave every time we gas up the SUV or the airplane to get to the mountain and, once there, realizing that you’re about to shoosh down the pristine strips of white that used to be old-growth stands of redwood, pine and aspen. Oh, and then there’s the fallacy that snow making isn’t an absolute drain on the most precious resource of all — water…and make it, um, seem eco-friendly?
You can’t. You shouldn’t. You don’t.
And yet, those people cared. Hell, I cared. Or at least I cared enough to admit that I was one of the .0000001 percent of the population lucky enough to enjoy the most obnoxious and perhaps destructive activity 20th Century man could muster on the regular. And would be willing to make sacrifices (career advancement, stable relationships, not hinge’y back and knees) to continue to do it.
But skiing, in fact, is pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world today. It blends elements of: A very present, very real, very permanent environmental collapse, corporate control and greed, development where there should be none, and (for good measure) white entitlement/a big fuck you to everyone else courtesy of the upper one percent.
Sure, there are still dirtbags out there — working three jobs, living in The Shire, hustling on top of hustle to live the duct-taped together dream — but they also know, maybe better than anyone, that winter is shrinking to unrecognizable proportions.
From that Tuesday where there were no answers till now (less than a half-decade), I find myself and my views on the sport completely changed. Whereas giving lip service to being eco-friendly (buying carbon credits, putting solar panels on the resort rooftop, sourcing locally grown heirloom tomatoes for your ski salad) worked for many years as more of a PR move or at least a salve to get us through, there is a now very real, very banging-down-the-door actualization that…well, the industry is a lie and the rest of us are completely fucked.
There is a week in mid-August that is like Christmas for skiers of a certain age. It is the week that Matchstick Productions releases its ski movie trailer and POWDER drops its first issue.
Both are similarly noteworthy for the amount of, for lack of a better phrase, “pump up” they give the skier. All of a sudden he’s on an impossible spine and she’s bouncing off pillows and they’re high-fiving near the helicopter, blades turning in slo-mo and something cool-sounding like it came from Basement Jaxx or LCD is dubbed over. It’s great. It’s the stoke. It’s what keeps us going.
This year, however, Matchstick went a little dark with its trailer for Ruin and Rose (sorta). The first minute fifteen is all Thunderdome sand dunes and somewhat disillusioned little groms. Until, miracle of miracles, someone finds a *gasp* snowglobe and the desert sands turn to a sea of pow.
My hope there for a (literal) minute was Matchstick was on to something. Admitting, for the first time, that the Red Bull chopper isn’t going to deliver us from this mess. It’s not sexy, I know. I want to see my heroes slay — but is that really the point anymore?
When I opened up my POWDER mag, a simple, clean 45th anniversary edition with the word “Grateful” on the front, I was met with similar disappointment. Page after page of stills that put a dad-giving-daughter-away-sized lump in my throat, yet beyond tacit acknowledgement and sometimes sideways mentions of climate change affecting some of skiing’s hinterlands that are only to be explored by the elite, nothing.
Even in the gear guide, I am — as ever — disappointed in the lack of mention of how and where a ski is constructed, including whether there will ever be any use of recycled or repurposed materials. Surely, one day, the ski biz will discover a way to do something besides torch in a toxic company bonfire all of last year’s equipment.
And then there’s Squaw. Reams and reams of documentation filled with legalese and scoping and EIRs so a private equity firm can continue a backward-thinking half-century trend of trampling over sacred wetlands in the name — this time — of an indoor lazy river. Its plans to build a 13-story building to house the world’s largest NEST Thermostat which CEO Andy Wirth himself claims he’ll use to control the atmosphere. The proposal to usher in the direct Disneyfication of the base of the mountain similar to what places like downtown Oakland did with their Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in the early ‘00s by creating corporate-friendly homogenous realms with public spaces nearly identical to every airport Starbucks. The real scrums of the city are then essentially walled off, segregated from the pour-over coffee spots, reclaimed wood wine bars and small-plates restaurants.
It is the ultimate proposal to install needless urban blight at the base of a giant granite sheath that should, frankly, already be protected as a state or national park.
In a sense, the ski business was ahead of downtown redevelopment districts in that it always had this invisible wall to partition itself off from the proles. It literally takes oodles of time, money, desire and discomfort — that most people don’t have or desire — to enter the sport. And it is for so few at such rarified peaks, that answering the questions of why or what does it really do for the environment (especially on a powder day) has only come in platitudes and doesn’t excite nearly as much as a conversation about the re-emergence of Elan skis and how shitty it is that they only have Blue Moon and Shock Top on tap.
So, here we are. Skiing 2016.
The planet is getting warmer and warmer each consecutive year. And it won’t quit. Soon skiing in my beloved Sierra Nevada mountains will be reduced to a four-week window per year, the rest will be marked with Fire Danger, High signs on the roadside.
I am trying to do my part: Getting rid of the stuff to make room for the important things, which aren’t really things. Going down to a single car. Making a promise to myself if I don’t hike it, I can’t ski it. Making do with my old gear. Writing columns like this that state the obvious, but at least help me raise awareness (if for nobody else than myself.) But in the end, as I look at my toddler son, a boy about to step into bindings and slide down a strip of slushee for the first time this winter, I can’t help but think about what I’ve left for him.
Or, more accurately, what I’ve already taken away.