Freedom of the hills - Part 4 

Musings on the lure of the mountains and the perfect turn

"Skiing is the closest most of us get to flying," says Ed Pitoniak, a former editor-in-chief of SKI magazine who now works for Intrawest.

The lure of flying down the Coast Mountains on a regular basis brought Pitoniak here in 1996 from SKI 's offices in Manhattan.

"(Skiing) is the combination of a beautiful mountain environment and an 'experience,'" he says.

Pitoniak says the ski industry needs to capitalize on that unique experience that can only be found in the mountains.

Jimmie Spencer, the president and CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, echoes Pitoniak's sentiments.

"What we're trying to do is sell the whole winter resort experience," he says.

Industry marketing experts say that other things – like ease of travel, special events, on-mountain amenities and resort villages – drive the ski business.

But what they're all selling – at the most basic level – is the "experience."

"The whole resort business runs on emotion," says Pitoniak. "Emotion is the fundamental fuel of this business."

Mountaintop philosophers ranging from John Muir to John Baldwin have mused on the lure of the mountains as a remedy to society's misgivings and self-importance. That's where experience and emotion come in.

According to Pitoniak, people attracted to mountain resorts can be divided into two groups: skiers and destination visitors.

Skiers will do almost anything to feed their urges – pay exorbitant rents, eat Kraft Dinner day after day, sleep in their cars.

Skiers will endure all this to have experiences in the mountains, like when the weather finally clears after being socked in for weeks and the mountains slowly reveal their new blanket of white.

"People could be making more money elsewhere, enjoying a better standard of living elsewhere, but they power through it because of the emotion of being here," says Pitoniak.

The destination visitor, on the other hand, travels to the mountains for that experience because it can't be found anywhere else.

"When people get up into the alpine area, it becomes a magical escape," says Christopher Nicolson, Whistler-Blackcomb's public relations manager. "It's that experience, not the real estate, that gets people."

Pitoniak says people's first experience in the mountains is where they can be hooked.

"If they have a great first experience, there's a likelihood that they'll continue with the sport," he says.

My own personal story about that first experience is a good example.

When I was 11 or 12 I took my first ski lesson at Mount Seymour on Vancouver's North Shore.

I was amazed that I could stand on the top of a snow-covered mountain – a mountain, not a hill – so close to home and so close to a city.

Anyway, during the lesson my instructor kept shouting "Snowplow! Snowplow!"

I kept answering "Where? Where?" with thoughts of being run over by a truck or a grooming machine. But I wasn't scared.

I wasn't even scared by these things on my feet called skis or by the nasty rope town that could chew me up and spit me out in the blink of an eye.

All I remember is the sensation of gliding over snow with the wind in my hair.

That was 20 years ago and I've been trying to recreate that Zen-like moment winter after winter in a never-ending search for the perfect turn.

"Start early and hook them while they're young," says Iain MacMillan, the editor of Ski Canada magazine.

Damn, the mountains got me.

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