There seems to be a palpable difference in the air this year. Or is that just an abundance of sunshine and a lack of snow?
People—which is to say, the few who are left in town instead of ducking the shoulder season in Hawaii or Costa Rica or the desert—don’t seem particularly excited by the prospect of another ski season. Let me take this opportunity to say, unequivocally, I am not among them. Notwithstanding the thin dusting of snow creeping down the slopes outside my window, I still feel like a kid caught up in an endless wait for Christmas Eve that feels like it will never come. Santa, Schmanta, I just want to go skiing.
So, what’s different? Partly it’s the reality of a fixed opening day. Back in the before time, opening day was whenever there was enough snow on the ground to go skiing and boarding. It was a race. A race against nature and a race against other ski resorts, notably Vail Resorts. No, this isn’t a Vail bash. Far from it.
One of the side effects of growth, of success, of acreage, and of increasingly complex machinery, is the time it takes to get the mountains open. Of course, we also aren’t in a race with other ski resorts anymore. So a fixed opening date is a reality and, in some ways, a blessing. We know when it’s going to happen. We’re increasingly certain it’s going to happen on machine-made snow, for the most part. Fair enough. At least I will never again have to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to scrape storage wax off skis because early opening was announced the afternoon before.
There used to be a manic energy around the village, fuelled by the tsunami of newbies who’d drifted into town over the past six or eight weeks. They were always pumped at the prospect of bumming through their first season in a place they’d either visited, had blown out of proportion by older siblings, or simply dreamed about. Easily identifiable by their newly-acquired, not quite comfortably fitting phatpunk, instant locals’ attitude, they’d wander the village sneaking quick looks up the slopes, judging for themselves the depth and quality of virgin snow, nearly busting just beneath their skins to get up there and slide back down.
Shoulder season weather teased them. Endless foreplay; no pop. Some snow, some rain and, to underscore the irony in their lives, a bit of sunshine, something otherwise treasured but wholly unwelcome this time of year. Walking slump-shouldered and toqued, they’d become supplicants to pagan gods and goddesses of precipitation. Let the heavens open up and unleash their manna. Pray to Ullr. Find a virgin to sacrifice. Let it be me.
That was then; this is now. So many fewer of them they’re almost invisible, lost in the continuing numbers of wandering day-trippers and conference-goers.
Longtime locals, especially business owners and managers, wonder whether there’ll be enough of them to fill the job openings, make the beds, serve the food, sell the logowear. They wonder how many of them will actually show up for jobs they’ve been offered, how many will stay through the holiday crush and how much longer than that they’ll stick around.
We remember wistfully, or maybe not at all, what it was like before the pandemic shuttered things. Before, when the “economy” was a barely noticeable landscape instead of a threatening boogeyman. When finding a place to live was burdensome, not impossible. When taking a year off to be a ski bum was a blast, a rite of passage, not a career-threatening mistake. When more of the world wasn’t trying to kill each other.
Get back to normal? Or this is the new normal?
Hell, I don’t know. I just wanna go skiin’.
Maybe that’s the answer to the contagion gripping our country, the strife enveloping the rest of the world. Go skiing. Live life. Let your face freeze in the winter’s wind. Feel the snow float up your nostrils and choke your breath away in its icy grip. Lose your sense of up and down as you tumble ass over teakettle down Whistler Bowl, laughing your brains out like a looneytune all the way down. Climb the career ladder in reverse or, better yet, jump off entirely. Not like it really goes anywhere you want to go.
Surrounded by a town full of snow junkies, of unrepentant winter lovers and adrenaline-fuelled thrill seekers, I wonder why more people—everyone—and especially Canadians whose very definition of self rests on a foundation of winter, don’t ski? Or board? I don’t wonder about it for the same reasons skico execs wonder about it; it’s not a monetary, bottom-line, grow-like-a-cancer-or-die sort of thing. I just wonder how they can know there’s something out there, something they can do in an otherwise dreary, endless, dark season, that’s better than sex, better than food, better than drugs, better than driving a fast car on a twisty road, better than a technicolour sunset on a deserted beach, better than clipping along at 20 knots on a sailing yacht with the leeward rail under water and the keel threatening to come out. Better than... chocolate.
Is it the expense? The cold? The fear of falling? The stories of friends and friends of friends injured and broken after a skiing holiday? The learning curve and the visible foolishness felt struggling with something those surrounding you do with such grace and simplicity while you feel like Gumby in zero gravity? Not knowing anyone among your circle of friends who has caught the fever? Fear of the uncaring vastness of mountainous landscapes? Fear of trying something so powerful it can suck the soul out of who you thought you were and send you careening on a new life path? Fear of fear?
Interviewing Warren Miller once long ago, he mused, apropos of nothing we’d been talking about, “How different would the world be if Osama bin Laden’s parents had taken him skiing?” Maybe not at all. Maybe profoundly. I only know how different my world is because my sister and wife made me go skiing one day decades ago. It’s a debt incapable of repayment.
Less than a week to go. I can’t wait.