On February 15, 2017

First tracks

I’ve written here before about the uneasy relationship between my passion for skiing and my longstanding tendency toward early-morning sluggishness. Simply put, skiing is not the sport for lazy people (I think that title may belong to bowling, no offense intended to bowlers)—it is not the sport for those whose bodies, on days off from work, demand a gentle easing into the day; those whose first inclination is to take shelter with a book when the weather is harsh; those who don’t feel their hardy spirits stirred by the friendly challenge of the outside world at each sunrise.
I’m an indoorsman by nature, as much as I cherish the outdoors. Basically, I wasn’t made for this: I mean not my body, which has served me pretty well and without serious injury for 27 ski seasons, but my inner self, which, when I’m not actually skiing, almost can’t fathom the task of hurtling down a slippery mountain or even of driving over there in a car that will take a while to heat up. But we don’t always get to choose what we love, and I love skiing—the act itself, not its occasionally somewhat harsh exigencies—more than just about anything else. It’s an act of will for me to remember this when I wake up on a snowy day. When there’s fresh powder on the mountain, I have to abandon all my natural instincts, forgo my usual lingering in bed, and start gearing up before my actual desire to ski has materialized.
I’ve gotten better at this over time and have missed through lethargy fewer hours of pristine early conditions in my later 20s than I did in my early 20s. Following an accumulation of any significance, I will—if I can—show up before the chairlift has begun loading, but something occurred to me the other day: I have never once gotten the near-mythical “first chair” on any lift on a powder day, by which I mean that I’ve never shown up so early that there was not already at least a small line of more devoted and energetic people in front of me, waiting to be carried up the mountain.
Have you ever gotten the first chair? What does it feel like? I worry that I may never know. What is it like to get “first tracks” in the truest sense, being not just the first skier on a particular trail but the first skier on the hill when its new covering of white is fully intact on all sides, from top to bottom?
When I consider that it might actually be worth it, someday, to rise at so grim an hour as to make possible this Edenic experience, I remind myself that certainly the ski patrol has already touched the terrain before the first chair for the public has made climbed the lift-line: nature’s spell, if there is one, has already been punctured. And does even the ski patrol get to know the magic that I imagine? Before they’ve reported for work, some admirable Brady Crain-type has already skinned up and skied down.
And of course, on the parts of the resort that I usually forget about on powder days, the snowcats have been prowling in the dark, meaning that the mountain perhaps is never left unattended long enough to be restored to a truly virginal state. For those who fetishize the untracked wilderness, it may be necessary to take up the more demanding backcountry sport of ski-touring.
That stuff is a little beyond me, at least for now, but I wonder whether, amid the untouched powder of a more distant mountain that bears none of the marks of civilization, a greedier hunger might assert itself: what might it be like, then, to be not just the first skier on a particular day on a particular untrammeled hill, but the first skier ever to ascend and descend that hill, previously regarded as an unknown, impassable, and perhaps even unfriendly lump of winter by whoever lived nearby? Did the early skiers have it best, when one didn’t have to travel to the remotest Himalayas to find a peak that hadn’t already been conquered—or not “conquered” (which isn’t the right word) but, in any case, embraced by the gentle tickle of a pair of skis?
Obviously not: we have it better today, when relatively lazy people like me can still be skiers. What’s amazing is how well even a very popular ski resort, if it has a fair amount of acreage, can recreate the exploratory thrill and tranquility of finding a new world in the woods. On a powder day, your deeds always feel more heroic than they really are, but it is important to get there kind of early, I think.

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