On Self-Expression

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: March 10, 2020

Last week I spent four glorious days seeking paths to self-expression in the white world of Snowbird. To honor this annual ritual, I’m reprising here the final chapter of Snowbird Secrets, in which I expound upon the myriad ways skiing allows for self-expression. – JH

At some point in every skier’s life we reach a tipping point when we stop making turns and start making music. We migrate from being students whose highest achievement is perfect imitation, to masters who are elusively inimitable. When we make this passage, we acquire a signature style, a posture, an approach, an irreducible movement within a movement that is as unique as our fingerprints. Each run presents another opportunity for self-expression, a chance to use any crayon in the 48-color box, illustrating outside the lines all the way down the mountain.

What distinguishes this indulgence in self-celebration from any other form of hedonism? Because in this silly pursuit we seasonally redefine what is humanly possible. Not all of us, of course. The tip of the arrow is a space few can occupy at any one time. But the power propelling the sport forward moves us all, carrying everyone on its arc into the future. When Mike Lund threw the first Mobius flip in the 1970’s, who could foresee the intricate aerial origami of a Bobby Brown four decades later? While the answer is no one, we can still trace a continuum from Lund to Brown, following a line that marks the boundary between the imagined and the achieved.

 Oakley White-Allen scoping opportunities for self-expression, circa 2012. (Photo courtesy of Freeride World Tour and photographer Jeremy Bernard)

While only a handful of skiers in each generation will contribute to changing what is conceived as possible, all skiers can change what is possible for them. Just as with this little book of meditations, making the unseen manifest begins with the idea, the visualization of what lies just ahead. Skiing at the level of self-discovery is impossible without this ability to see what is invisible, not just in space, but in time, the moment as yet unlived. This is as true for the X Games aerialist who rotates like a gyroscope as it is for the World Cup downhiller running 85mph on injected ice. The future is a present we experience before the next heartbeat. Pulling ourselves artfully into the future is what self-expression is all about.

Self-expression always operates on three levels. The most basic self acts overly important, running the show at the conscious level, choosing what trick to throw where, which line to attack through the trees, etc. This is the level we normally think of as driving the bus, the fellow in charge, our loudmouth tour director. He picks the run, adjusts the speed, makes the linchpin move. But this primary level isn’t what makes us unique, our self-expression separate from all others. That’s more a function of level two, the unconscious, sympathetic nerve connections that define our style. The way we hold our poles. The forward curvature of our shoulders. The degree to which we commit our center to the turn. Our posture. These are habits that exist beyond conscious choice, free from critique and examination, a preset pattern as programmed as our DNA

The level-two behaviors are telltale signs of what is operating below them and guiding their peculiarities, but they aren’t themselves the undercurrent, the cause of causes, the impetus that fuels all expression. The power of self-expression emanates from a communion of our life force and that of the mountain. Level three is the awareness that the mountain has motives, that we are the agents of its self-expression as well as our own. Indeed, the mountain’s voice is ours, the two as intertwined as a double helix, as inseparable as faith and hope.

When we make that first dive of intention, the post-trigger plunge into gravity’s stream, we stop choosing a style. We do that which we do in the manner that we do it, an awkward definition for style, but we are beyond choosing one. Style is us, it’s how we do what we find necessary to match the cadence of the mountain within the limits of our capabilities. When we disappear into our sensations, when we are our movements, when doing and being can no longer be pried apart, we stop controlling the idiosyncrasies that make us as unique as snowflakes; self-consciousness dissolves in a sea of ultra-consciousness, and in that transition identity emerges with more energy than it would ever have possessed by itself. Every contradiction is resolved in the moment when we disappear, the clock loses its stodgy grip on time and in the instant we evanesce we are never more ourselves.

No one can live forever on this edge. That’s why it has been treated as sacred for thousands of years, longer than recorded time, longer than we could give expression to such awareness. The knowledge that we are both the anonymous water and the one-of-a-kind crystal, two opposite forms of perfection separated only by temperature, is just a transparent membrane away. We can no longer survive in this moment than shamans can live in the fire, but once we know it is there, we can never live without it.

Contrast this with the regular world where social convention keeps a tight rein on self-expression. We move only in approved ways and are only allowed to move with more abandon at sanctioned venues and events. If we moved through the everyday world the way a young jibber cavorts down Silver Fox, we’d be locked up. Whereas in the White World, we belong to a domain where personalized, idiosyncratic movement is intrinsic to the activity. It’s dance or go home. There is still a need for etiquette and at least one law, that of gravity, but otherwise the only constraint on behavior is what the mountain will allow.

Riding in the flow of the vortex opens a channel to the inner self that allows it to surface. How we give voice to that expression is entirely up to us; there is no one else to filter it or judge it.   We can express our communion with the flow of gravity, the curve of the mountain, the intoxication of speed and the medium of snow that facilitates this sublime activity any way that we want.  This uncommon outpouring of soul is so intense that we can feel it even when we are removed from the White World. It can revisit us in our dreams and roll around in our imagination, allowing us to visualize the next time that we can be there, standing on the edge of gravity’s stream.

And when we step into that stream, it’s just us, baby. No one else is doing this but the buckaroo behind our eyeballs, the energy that wears our bodies like a space suit designed just so we can interface with the delicious dynamics of the gravity field. When we focus our energy on the immediate future we move into it, seeing ourselves joining the quantum field of possibilities, clarifying an image of our future selves so that when our movements blossom into the present, they are as perfect as our vision.

Technology is how humans augment their capacity for self-expression, which is how we have skiing in the first place. In the late 1800’s, miners would slide on 15-foot pine slabs, controlling their speed with a single pole between the legs.  As technique and equipment improved, movements became more supple and skilled, letting sliders explore more interesting forms of self-expression. The efficiency with which we now transport ourselves both uphill and down has exploded the limits of possibility. Super-fat skis, twin tips and snowboards have pushed the previous parameters of self-expression into new realms, enabling wild, exquisite assaults on Alaskan faces so steep they shouldn’t be able to hold snow.

The same tools that enable elite athletes to execute the impossible also assist those less adventurous to find their own highest expression. We can fire at fall lines that used to intimidate, ride backwards on a whim, pirouette on the head of a pin or carve flawless arcs anywhere. We can use our new freedom of movement to be aggressive or delicate, hug the fall line or swoop across it. We toy with the power of the vortex, match our movements to contours of the mountain, allow its energy to be ours.

Nothing moves the entire art of self-expression forward quite like the addition of new selves to the mix. Here’s to Stein Eriksen, Wayne Wong, Scot Schmidt, Doug Coombs, Shane McConkey, Johnny Moseley, Seth Morrison and all the other geniuses who wouldn’t settle for the status quo. Here’s to the kids building a kicker in a Midwestern hayfield, honing their vision and their skills without fanfare or applause, just for the bliss of it. When all that enthusiasm finally finds its way to a big mountain like Snowbird, fresh eyes see launch platforms off every terrain feature. As they revel in a world of new possibilities, the mountain must feel like a fine, old instrument in the hands of young prodigies.

For as all who come here must confess, it was the mountain who called them here, who enlisted their energy and self-expression to feed its battery and enhance its energy flow. Just as the mountain imports skiers for its purposes, in return it buries within each of its acolytes the invitation to take its energy home. If we only remember to unwrap the gift, we will find within it, within ourselves, the meaning of a life well lived.

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