In the last week of January, 2009 I was able to spend a few days skiing in Little Cottonwood Canyon, which is always cathartic for my ravaged soul. The conditions were all over the map, the mountains having experienced a long, hot spell followed by rain, graupel, wet snow and finally dry snow driven by winds that could flense an adult walrus in a few minutes. Couldn’t have been better.
I had been preparing for the trip for weeks, psychologically. Two back surgeries the previous winter had reduced my training regimen from semi-annual to non-existent. Scheduling conflicts such as work kept me from visiting the areas that abound at home near Lake Tahoe, so I had zero ski days on a body with more fat on it than a French duck. I had as much chance of surviving Snowbird and Alta as a rib roast in a piranha tank.
Fortunately, the Lord is merciful, anti-inflammatory drugs are powerful and there are techniques that allow one to block out pain. There are also many wonderful people in this world with which to ski, kind people who stand quietly by, pretending to be in awe of Nature, while my chest heaves so violently in its futile quest for oxygen that tiny lung particles break lose and make for the exits. One such person is Guru Dave Powers, a man whose passion for the sport hasn’t diminished after thousands of days of riding gravity down the infinitely variable slopes and crannies of Snowbird. The Goo knows this hill, and in knowing it well knows so much more.
On the fifth day of my break-in period the conditions were ideal, with choppy crud that cold temperatures had kept dry and bust-able. In the afternoon, winds that could blow unsecured statuary to Provo intensified, scouring exposed surfaces. In the dappled light surges of snow torn from the ground twisted, buckled and combusted, always moving, as if the ground itself were alive. The Goo, as is his wont, found the center of the storm, the unperturbed eye, and in the unlikeliest of places. He led me down the gut of Mineral Basin, a wide-open expanse where the military could study sensory deprivation. The only information one could depend on, the only truth in this howling, 10-foot universe, was Guru Dave’s feet. Watching the Goo’s feet told all, or all that was knowable, about my place in the universe. As they moved, I moved. And so we progressed downhill, moving in arcs paced like a yogi’s heartbeat, tranquil, peaceful in a world that is otherwise busy ripping itself apart.
We were skiing on wind butter, maybe two inches of compressed cream, like skiing the lapels of a tuxedo. There was no way to miss an edge, a beat, a big-bellied, stack-your-bones arc. How to express the joy in such a moment? The wind is louder than sitting inside a speaker at a Metallica concert, the visibility would be better inside a burlap sack, tiny ice particles are creating new pores in my exposed skin, the surface snow is moving so violently I think I’m in the sandstorm scene in a mummy movie, but I am happy. Very happy. Deliriously effing happy, okay? The question, I hear both you and my inner self ask, is why?
Guru Dave has the answer. Two answers, actually. The first answer may seem a tad oblique, so hang in there. Guru Dave calls this skiing, “40 inches of zero percent.” You see, the denizens of this canyon are obsessed with powder. They can’t help it. They get so darned much of it you can’t ignore it. How much snow there is and how little a cubic centimeter of it weighs are the measures of many lives in this corner of the world. The Goo’s little aphorism pokes fun at the canyon’s vanities while illuminating a larger point: every surface has its charms; anything can impart the feeling of three feet of fresh. To paraphrase a sappy old song, everything is skiable in its own way. Zero percent snow offers no resistance. It can be as deep as you want it be. It offers its own epiphany, imparts its own magic, casts its own spell. “Forty inches of zero percent” pulls us into the moment and holds us there, the pause that Faust sold his soul for, holding us suspended outside ourselves where for some unfathomable reason we are most at home.
As we rode the lift back up Mineral Basin to take another shot at the cream factory being operated by gale-force winds in its mid-section, the Goo shared the second, and I would maintain more trenchant, insight into why this activity, so painful and non-remunerative, should be more addictive than sugar-dipped crack. “It’s about nothing.” (The nod to the seminal Seinfeld episode is explicit and intentional.) It’s about nothing because making skiing about something misses the point.
It’s not about getting to the bottom fastest. I’m not dissing World Cup racers or anyone else who slaps on a numbered bib; I couldn’t have more respect for the discipline, strength and sacrifice endured by these athletes. But they will ski long after the finish area comes down and the cowbell-ringers have gone home. Why ski then, when all the clocks that matter in the world might as well be broken?
It’s not about who got the most freshies. The chosen ones who will not cross a track the morning after a dump are, perforce, few in number. Are they then skiing’s elect and the rest of us mere slag? I love an uncut line as well as the next guy, but if the only validation for a life well lived is snow untrammeled by human passage, then many of us are doomed to impoverished lives.
But if skiing is about nothing, then I don’t need to live through your run, attack your line, co-opt your style or emulate your technique. I am my own arbiter of pleasure, my own judge of what matters. It’s up to me to define the nothing, to invest it with meaning with my movements, letting it fill me as I fill it.
We are but little bits of will in a fragment of inexorable time trying to move with intention through a murky space. Frankly, we don’t know what it’s about. Sometimes our senses are delighted and sometimes they are aghast. And sometimes when we’re skiing, we get to feel both exhilarated and detached, simultaneously here and everywhere, and that’s when we know, down to our bones, that it’s about nothing.