The first time I stood in a starting gate with a pair of skis on my feet and looked down the hill at a course of blue and red gates I felt eerily calm. Truth be told, I felt virtually nothing at all. In fact, I was more or less taking someone else's word there were gates further down the hill. If there were, they were beyond my limited range of double vision.
This probably had less to do with the fact my day had started with a strong cup of black coffee, and more to do with the fact that that was the last liquid that passed my lips the live-long day not containing alcohol in some greater or lesser strength. It was followed by a second cup of coffee dosed with Tia Maria, several mimosas, endless bottles of imported beer chilled in snow caves conveniently placed around the mountain like rehydration carts every third hole on a golf course, pre-après shots of schnapps that tasted vaguely of cherry cough syrup, eucalyptus, slippery elm and rum-raisin ice cream, and enough brandy from a wineskin to cause a major mechanical breakdown of the only bathroom on the bus ride back to Toronto later that evening.
I was an honoured guest at a corporate "appreciation" day thrown by a rapacious land developer at a private ski hill a few hours north of Toronto. Devil's Elbow or Devil's Wrist or Devil's Spawn or something vaguely demonic if unmemorable, was a typical Ontario ski hill — 488 feet (149 metres) of ice-encrusted vertical drop, hewn out of pasture land along the Niagara Escarpment. What it lacked in vertical excitement, it tried to make up for in horizontal sprawl and, rare among Ontario ski hills, varied and occasionally rambling terrain.
Gathered this day was a cocktail-party mix of architects, city planners, civil engineers, drywall, plumbing, framing and roofing contractors, county clerks, small-town permit granters, lawyers, a mayor or two, the developers themselves, and the money men, of which I was one, and for which I shall no doubt burn in Hell if it turns out there is such a place after all. Notably absent were skiers, unless you count a gaggle of Air Canada flight attendants who were trying to enjoy a day off and doing their utmost not to be trapped on the same chair as any of us.
Like any influence-peddling/favour-rewarding junket, the appreciation was trowelled on thickly. There were cute toques with the developer's dorky logo on them, free demo skis, sports bags to put our shoes and loot-of-the-day in, scarves, gloves, goggles, assorted prizes — some of which came in bulging unmarked envelopes passed discretely on chairlift rides — and bottles of commemorative scotch labelled to immortalize the day.
Sometime between the many beers and pre-après schnapps, we were expected to take part in a "fun" race. By the time I found myself standing in the start gate — a generous description of my state of balance, no doubt — I was, in the words of Lord Buckley, God's own drunk and a fearless man. With boundless energy, and no grace whatsoever, I launched myself onto the course and rushed headlong toward bamboo oblivion.
Miraculously, I somehow managed to clear the first gate, the second gate and every other gate, in order... and on the correct side. In a rush of jubilation, I glanced over my shoulder at the receding finish line, let out a celebratory whoop, raised my right hand in victory, and managed to embed the pole in my left hand between my legs and into the snow. The ensuing, epic double-ejection endo/protological exam became a favoured topic of the afternoon's conversation, "Never seen anything like it." and "Wow! I thought you was gonna fly, little buddy." was how many of the witless comments began.
Admittedly, I'd only been skiing about a year or two at the time of my first brush with racing disaster, but the warning signs were obvious. I came to the sport way too late in life to ever be any good at it, I failed to grasp even the basics of what was involved, and, to be honest, I didn't see the point. The sad fact is, ski racing completely eluded me then and continues to elude me today. Yet, occasionally, I still try, apparently running low on self-induced humiliation.
Let's be honest, as a spectator sport, ski racing is only marginally more riveting than curling. Except in curling you can see the entire drama, such as it is, unfold before your eyes — assuming you stay awake — and in ski racing you get to see about 1/80th of the action as it blurs past your field of view. Like curling, in between the fleeting moments of excitement, you have to wait around in an inhospitable environment stamping your feet and wiping snot from your upper lip.
There are, to be sure, several orders of magnitude more athleticism needed to ski a race course than to gently and accurately slide a rock down a sheet of ice. But therein lies one of ski racing's conundrums. No one seems to understand this and no one really cares. Except, of course, for other ski racers.
For the vast majority of recreational skiers — out of whom one would expect the audience for ski racing to come — the inertial forces that have to be overcome by ski racers to avoid becoming part of the course's netting are inconceivable. They never experience those forces when they ski. They're still struggling with basic gravity and the unending desire of their feet to arrive someplace long before the rest of their body gets there. Ski racing's off their radar screens, with the possible exception of feigned interest every four years.
Ironically, where ski racing still lives and breathes the same oxygen shared by ordinary mortals, was exemplified this past weekend on Whistler Mountain. For the 31st time in as many years, diehard skiers — those you hear at après every day even this year exclaiming how great it was up on the mountain — threw themselves whole-heartedly into the yearly local spectacle we call the Peak to Valley Race. Despite this season's parsimonious snow and the race's shortened course, spirits were high. As usual, it was a sold-out, celebratory, two days of citizen ski racing in the spirit of times past and a far cry from the ego-driven drama of the World Cup. It was sports car club versus Formula 1 — all the fun, little of the drama.
Sometimes it's difficult to remember who we are, as opposed to what our brand is. Last weekend, the spirit of this place shone once again. It's still why we're here.
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