High above the clouds that pressed low on the valley this weekend, beloved Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was skiing his old stomping grounds on Whistler Mountain and exploring some new frontiers, too.
It was gloomy and glum in the valley; up high it was something else altogether.
"Back on Symphony (which was not developed when Hadfield was last in Whistler) it's like we owned the hill, my buddy and I... It was beautiful," he said in an interview with Pique before taking the stage as the keynote speaker at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference on Monday.
"This is the best ski hill in the world.
"You can always find some place where the conditions are really good. I felt that back in the late '70s when it was just Whistler. Boy, it's really impressive now... It's really nice to be able to come back for four days, and ski, and not to break a hip!"
Hadfield's comments reveal more about the man than the resort. Optimistic. Engaging. Expansive. And pretty much back to normal after losing bone density in his body, particularly his hips, following five months as commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2013.
Hadfield is everything you imagine Canada's famed astronaut to be. He's the astronaut who makes "smart" cool; the astronaut who shows that hard work and a plan can help make your dreams come true; the astronaut who has recaptured the world's imagination about space.
And, if that wasn't enough, he's been an avid skier these past 50 years — when NASA would allow.
Ski racer turned astronaut
Little did he know it back when he was a ski racer in his teenage years, but Hadfield was setting the stage for his career as an astronaut. The skills honed on the hills in southern Ontario, close to where he grew up on a corn farm, would stand him in good stead later in life.
Preparation, hard work, dedication, determination — these are the transferrable skills from ski racer to astronaut.
"No. 1, if you wait until the race begins, you're going to fail," he explained. "It's all about preparation. You have to be skilled. You'll never win a race based on pure luck. It's the skill that matters... And then the direct preparation, walking the course, going and looking at the course, understanding every single curve, what you're going to do when things go wrong, realizing all the failure of it, thinking about how you're going to recover from it. And optimizing all the things you're going to do."
The race itself, he added, is irreversible. There's no do-over.
"You have to execute. You have to do whatever it is. The best you can, given the set of circumstances."
Then, you live with the results. And it's not always fair.
"Just think what happens when you're skiing down Symphony back there," he said. "There's this unspoken contract constantly being made and broken about how you're not going to hit each other all the way down, and when you're going through a slalom course it's very similar. It's this rapid reaction to three dimensions when things are happening fast.
"I hadn't realized back when I was a young racer in my teens in southern Ontario that a lot of the ideas of preparation and physics and execution were preparing me for other things," he said.
It's this idea of preparation, of setting goals and working to achieve them, of working on self-awareness and self-betterment that formed the backbone on his keynote speech Monday.
Planning to launch
Hadfield remembers the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, watching on a neighbour's TV, a feat that was accomplished not because mankind had to do it, but because it was barely possible, he said.
He was just shy of his 10th birthday. That was the day he decided to start turning himself into an astronaut.
"For me it was just like a door opening," he told the packed conference room at the Four Seasons Resort.
Fast forward a few decades, decades of preparation for the slim chance of going to space, and Hadfield was waking up on launch day — he has been to space three times — 1995, 2001 and 2012. Imagine what that would feel like? By the end of the day he'd be effortlessly soaring about the Earth every 92 minutes, or... he'd be dead.
The odds of dying on that first flight? One in 38.
"What do you have for breakfast on a day like that?" he joked with the audience.
The answer: something creamy, with not a lot of chunks. It's destined to come back up.
He described the drive to the launch pad — one lone car going towards the rocket ship, all the others driving away — the elevator ride up, walking towards the entry of his rocket ship, crouching in and getting in place.
Meanwhile, the world sits on edge — oceans cleared for shuttle debris, runaways cleared, at the ready for any problems.
And then it begins: 4.5 million pounds of explosives, channelled into 80 million horsepower, burning fuel at 12 tonnes a second.
"You're shaking so hard you can't even focus," he said.
And then... he was above the clouds.
The world from space
In the video footage of Hadfield climbing out into space for his first space walk in 2001, like a chick hatching from an egg, there is a moment suspended in time when he sees the world for the first time — nothing between him and the Earth save his visor.
Half his body is in, the other half out in space.
He stops. And stares. A long drawn-out "Wooooowwww" the only thing he can say before realizing that he must get to work on installing the Canadarm2 — the Canadian-built robotic arm — on the ISS, making him the first Canadian to ever leave a spacecraft and float freely in space.
It's a view that never gets old despite the 2,597 times he's been around it. His awe and wonder is evidenced by the 45,000 photos he's taken from space; photos like the Cheerio-shaped Aorounga crater in Chad, Africa; the patchwork-quilt farms in Lincolnshire, England; the dinosaur head of the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia.
"You see the enormity of it and the massive, ancient, patience of the whole thing," said Hadfield of the four-and-a-half billion year-old planet.
"The geology is laid bare in so many places. Here, from the top of Whistler, you can look across to that little black volcanic neck and think that's a couple of million of years old. We were a previous version of ourselves starting to walk out of Africa then when that thing was active.
"But you can see the whole world (from space). You go from here to Halifax in ten minutes; so you see the whole planet... you don't get distracted by the minutiae. You start to see the whole thing."
In his latest book You Are Here — a book of photos from the ISS — Hadfield calls the Earth both "durable" and "fragile."
Fragile in that you can see the scars on it — like an old harpoon scar on a whale.
Durable in the sense that you feel as though the Earth can withstand great disasters.
While too much carbon dioxide isn't going to destroy Earth, it will impact millions of people living here — those living on the edge of desserts or oceans.
"It will kill a significant portion of our own population and that's what you start to get a sense of, the tenuous occupation of a lot of the people around the world."
Still, you return to Earth optimistic, not pessimistic.
"It doesn't make you despair. You recognize the age of the world and the adaptability of it and the immense inertia of it... We need to do a better job of taking care of it ourselves. But the Earth is not going anywhere."
As for Hadfield's future?
Was there ever a chance Hadfield was going to be a Whistler ski bum, abandoning his dreams of soaring above Earth for a life of soaring over west coast powder?
"You mean is there still a chance? Potentially. Sure! I don' t see why not. Seems like a reasonable thing," he joked. "Nawww... I skied out here and I taught skiing full time, but I was really interested in the other things that I was doing. And I saw it as a great hobby. It's so personal, so individual; just the ability to get to a place that otherwise you never could and it's both social and very private. And so I really enjoy it. It's a lovely contrast."
And from the audience: What about a run for the Prime Minister's Office?
"I have a different measure of success," he deadpanned to applause.
He's busy in fact, working on a third book, a children's book, teaching at university, speaking to conferences like the ICSC, helping ABC turn his first book Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth into a TV sitcom.
But there's still enough time to ski for four days in Whistler, even when conditions seemed less than ideal on the ground. It was great up there in the mountains, high above the low-lying clouds.
"There's probably a moral there," he said, quietly musing.
"I've spent a lot of my life above the clouds."
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