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Skiing from an alien-nation perspective

Imagine an anthropologist from, say, the planet Marengue, secretly visiting Whistler to observe the habits and rituals of the indigenous society.

Imagine an anthropologist from, say, the planet Marengue, secretly visiting Whistler to observe the habits and rituals of the indigenous society. Being a relatively featureless world with no mountains to speak of but with a climate, thanks to its sun star Bokum, not unlike Earth’s, Marengue knows diddly about downhill skiing.

What’s an alien to think?

Surrounded by outsiders that far outnumber natives, the indigenous population appears servile, occasionally obsequious. They labour hard to cater to the whims and wishes of the outsiders who themselves engage in inexplicable rituals. To begin with, many have travelled great distances, some from the other side of the globe. Once here, they seem, as if on cue, to all line up at the base of two mammoth mountains. They carry strange sticks and boards, some more gracefully than others.

After what can be a considerable wait, they enter or sit on a spindly-looking conveyance that takes them far above where they started, into an environment that bears little resemblance to the one they left. Up above, it is often cold, windy, foggy, and snowy. When it’s not, the sun may be burning with an intensity several times greater than it is below. Their day seems to yo-yo between being too cold and being too hot.

At the desired level, the sticks and boards are attached to these bipeds’ feet and gravity – a concept well understood on Marengue – takes over. Some people move downhill slowly and tentatively, unsure of their balance, often falling. Others go like greased lightning, dodging obstacles, seeking out features that force their feet from the ground and send them flying through the air. Sometimes they also fall. Sometimes they have trouble getting up. Sometimes they’re brought down the hill in an uncomfortable-looking, horizontal position.

Then, at what appears to be a predetermined hour, they all line up for sustenance. Some few of them come back outside to find their sticks and boards missing, a case of misidentification or theft. The rest of their day, like the morning, is punctuated by repeated standing in line rituals. Over and over again, they slide downhill separately only to come together at certain transshipment points to join in collective waiting.

And for this, they pay through the nose.

Weird, eh?

You wouldn’t have to be from Marengue to think so. The featureless world of imagination isn’t so different from Saskatchewan, Iowa or much of the rest of the world. What happens here, seen on a National Geographic special, would seem foreign and other-worldly to significant parts of this world’s population.

More’s the pity.

The National Ski Areas Association, this industry’s trade group, figures 85 per cent of the people who try skiing never do it again. If sex were as popular, there would only be a couple of million people on the planet. Ski resorts, our own included, pull their hair out trying to come up with ways to steal market share from other resorts. They empower great brain trusts to look at the biz with fresh eyes to figure out how to keep people hooked on the sport, addict their kids, never let them go.

Question: But what are they doing to help another 5 per cent or so of that 85 per cent who have already shown some passing interest in the sport turn curiosity into raving blood lust?

Answer: Damn little.

Question: Why do untold numbers of relatively affluent and not so affluent 30somethings take up a "sport" as achingly boring as golf but so few take up skiing?

Answer: Skiing – the industry – doesn’t care about those people.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the way skiing is marketed. Look at the images of skiing: Steep runs; deep powder; flying through the air with the greatest of ease. Listen to the language of skiing: Extreme drop; death-defying chutes; forbidding terrain. What part of this appeals to someone who doesn’t ski to begin with?

But this is how skiing is marketed. The popular ski press is littered with pictures of impossible feats and vertiginous topography. Dialing up Ski Magazine’s Web site, we’re assaulted with a cover image of a disembodied torso busting through a blizzard of powder on a bright, sunny day. To lure me inside the cover, there’s this tantalizing teaser: "Rugged peaks and legendary couloirs beckon skiers from all over the globe to Italy's Dolomites."

Searching their photo gallery, I find intimidating images of Tuckerman Ravine on Mt. Washington, a skier making turns on a cirque in Sugar Bowl that reminds me a lot of Don’t Miss on Whistler, perfect powder 8’s at Mike Wiegele’s. Powerful images. Heaven for me; hell for a non-skier.

Clicking on "instruction", I find articles on skiing powder, skiing death cookies, new techniques for new equipment. What part of this appeals to someone new to the sport?

So I search for "Learn to Ski." The entire worldwide web returns seven sites with something to say about learning to ski. Seven. The last time I searched for "nothing" on the web, I got about 300,000 hits. There’s a lot more nothing out there than come-ons to learn to ski.

Closer to home, I visit the Whistler-Blackcomb Web site. Nice looking site... if you’re already a skier. Want to learn to ski? Find the hidden link to ski school. It’s down in the lower right-hand corner, the last stop on the page. Click through your ability – level one – and you’re confronted with Magic Trax and Ski Esprit. Which of those involve learning this sport? Hmmm, let’s see.

Perseverance pays off, if you’ve persevered this far, and you discover Magic Trax has something to do with learning to ski. Exactly what is unclear. The rest of the info is short on detail and even shorter on motivation. We’re not even selling the steak, let alone selling the sizzle. The message is implicit: Trust us; we’ll teach you how to ski.

But God help you once you’re here. We’ll herd you into chaos that makes running the bulls in Pamplona seem orderly. We’ll stuff your feet in questionable boots and send you outside to mill around a scene reminiscent of a feedlot. We’ll put you in groups way too big and throw our least experienced instructors against you. We’ll cut you loose at the end of the day to wonder why you bothered giving this crazy sport a try at all.

And then we’ll wonder why 85 per cent of you never come back.

The future of this town and this business hinges on new blood. The children of skiers are only part of the answer. And while we’re talking about them, answer this riddle: Why do we try so hard to hook them on the sport as children, nurture them through adolescence then ignore them completely – which is to say provide no "reasonably priced" accommodation – until their old enough and rich enough to buy a quarter bag condo and then expect them to come running back in droves?

Tiger Woods makes people want to golf. Hell, Tiger makes people want to be black. Who’s going to make people want to ski? Answer: Apparently not the ski industry.