Why I Ski
I have never had a ski lesson. I have learned my ski style from watching great skiers and being inspired. I do remember watching Steve Kaiser, a kid in my class who, at the earliest age, mastered the art of cool. Steve wore a long, camelhair jacket, granny glasses (before John Lennon did), and skied slow, clean and stylish—nothing fancy. Steve Kaiser is why I ski.
We all had piled in the school bus and gone up to Davos Ski Area in the New York Catskills. We lined up beside a Fiat automobile with a very thick hemp rope wrapped around an axle, and it was held taut by another axle at the top of the slope—you just grabbed on and were dragged up. I went around either side of a bunch of poles and won the slalom race on my very first day out there. It felt natural to me from the start. But I knew nothing of style.
Style is not the whole deal, anyway. Much of what gets me onto to the slopes is not just the mechanics of skiing, but the contours of the mountain and the whole ecosystem, the sky, the land. Skiing all day, you are navigating not just the slope, but the weather conditions, the wind exposure, the slope aspect in relation to the sun which softens the snow enough, the steepness, and the gracefulness of the path as it is laid out. Being at the right aspect, altitude, slope, air temperature, and visibility are all things you constantly are computing in your mind, usually subconsciously and sometimes at 50 or 55 miles an hour, other times much more slowly, maybe through the gladed aspens, with their knotty eyes peeking at us passing through. Skiing, as John Denver, who was a good skier, might describe it—it “fills up my senses.” But that’s not exactly why I ski.
And I have learned a lot about carving from watching giant slalom skiers accelerate out of turns as though they are shot out of a cannon. And watching the wild Jean-Claude Killy and the smooth Austrian style of Stein Eriksen has had an undeniable impact on me. But that’s not why I ski.
And I have studied with the wilderness skiers in the high alps, climbing all day, peeling off the skins, and floating and picking our way down the alpine meadows, faces and cirques in snow up to the waist, sometimes like dropping down an elevator shaft, but that’s not why I ski—though that’s getting warm.
I know there are a lot of strong skiers who muscle their way through the toughest conditions, so that skiing becomes an act of man over nature, and I’ve done this plenty, too. That’s all engaging and valuable, but that’s not why I ski, and did not teach me more than Steve Kaiser did as I was following him, at the youngest age.
As I say, he was not even going fast, or using any particular muscles; he was completely unhurried and upright, and curved towards a mogul on the side of the hill. But he did not go around the mogul, as a million ski instructors will tell you to do. What he did was head straight into the mogul until it lifted him just from the momentum, and his skis and body caromed up into the air. It was just this perfect little lift, and it stunned me. And there, suspended like the arc of a diver, mid-air, as though it were all in slow motion, he easily swung his heels around to the right, so that the skis landed on the other side of the mogul and he curved right out below the mogul, going the other direction.
He wasn’t skiing the skis—he was skiing the mountain.
Eventually I became aware of what I sensed that day without any conscious processing: skiing is not beating or wrestling the mountain, it is synchrony with the mountain. Skiing is the free inquiry of the mountain, just as surfing is the study of the wave, and just as I would one day realize that teaching is the study of the student. These are the forces of nature we can channel.
We are all forces of nature, at least if this is not educated out of us. Steve Kaiser, probably an 8th grader at the time, did not appear to use a muscle in his body. He used only the momentum gravity gave him, the natural forces that give every one of us all the speed and lift and serotonin we need.
And that is why I ski. I ski so that I might go into a little mogul, catch that little curvy lift, be suspended in space for a moment, and then, from the sheer curves of the mountain, carom out of that turn, again and again, the most natural thing in the world and a miracle.
(Enjoy Grauer School expeditions week, everyone. Who wants to help organize some ski trips next school year?)
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