Skiing isn’t an inherently sensible thing to do. Think about it. From the time we realize, as infants, that standing up seems like a cool thing to do, we spend nearly every moment from that day forward trying to avoid the pitfall of that decision. Namely, we try not to fall flat on our faces. Gravity, it turns out, is an effective teacher.
Now picture that rather than standing upright with feet firmly planted to the ground on a flat surface, each of your feet is instead encased—intentionally!—in a hard plastic shell meant to mimic the feeling of being confined in a cast. Attached to these newly foreign plasticized feet of yours are a pair of long and stiff planks, made of wood, metal, and fiberglass. Underneath them, a smooth coating of wax, honed to a nearly frictionless polish.
This all might be well and good if your imagination still placed you, in this admittedly bizarre attire, standing peacefully somewhere benign—say, your front lawn. But that’s not where you are. Instead, you’re standing atop this system in the bitter cold, with nothing but a blanket of crystalline frozen water beneath you. And in front of you is not the inviting grass of your flat front lawn, but a slope more closely resembling the pitch of your average stepladder.
An entire system designed not to minimize the forces of gravity and momentum, but to amplify them. Dramatically. It’s about now you might be questioning your life choices. Gravity, is a masterful and unforgiving teacher, and class is about to be in session.
Truth be told, I have no memory of the first time I was on a pair of skis, any more than I have memory of the time I took my first steps. So conflated are the two in my early childhood that it’s almost as if I can’t tell which came first—walking or skiing. What I do remember is the feeling that came with growing up on a pair of skis, a feeling that I was learning how to dance. Not a dance with my two left feet, mind you, but a dance with something powerful, yet unseen. A dance with gravity.
Decades later, little has changed about my love of skiing, aside from the amount of time I now dedicate to it. My answer to those who might wonder why anyone of sound mind would intentionally play games with gravity in such a way is probably the same as the one the daredevils of the sky—skydivers and BASE jumpers—might give: because it’s fun. The question I’d never really asked myself was: why is that? What makes it fun?
It wasn’t until I read Laurence Gonzales’ fantastic book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, that I began to understand the answer to that question. And it’s probably not the answer you’d expect: survival.
To survive, we constantly integrate our knowledge of the complex and powerful systems of energy that surround us—gravity, current, temperature, tides, speed, etc.—and update our mental models of how things behave based on that knowledge. It’s how we intuitively know how quickly we need to cross a street when we judge the distance and speed of an oncoming car. And if we don’t? Well, meet William Huskisson.
Before the day of September 15, 1830, Huskisson had probably crossed the street countless times, relying on the same innate mental math about the risk presented—in his case—by an approaching horse-drawn carriage. It’s also likely that prior to that day, he’d never seen a machine that harnessed the type of raw energy he was about to receive an abject lesson in. A lesson that would be his last.
A member of British Parliament, Huskisson found himself taking part in the grand opening of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway on that fateful day in 1830. Exercising the same unconscious calculation he had thousands of times before without incident, there was one thing his mind was wholly unprepared to adjust for: the size and speed of an oncoming train. If he realized at all that his mental model was in desperate need of an update to account for the power of this new force that came charging into his reality, it came too late. The oncoming train was the last image he’d ever see.
I may not live in fear of oncoming locomotives, but one thing I absolutely do fear is the ocean. Maybe I watched Jaws one too many times as a kid, or maybe it’s because I lack my own mental model for its vast, seemingly infinite expanse that harbors forces I can scarcely grasp.
I grew up far from any ocean, and I imagine that many kids who grow up in places where the ocean laps the shoreline with its beckoning of rhythmic waves don’t share this fear. Why? Because through time and perhaps bitter experience, they learn to respect and live in harmony with the energy that the ocean surrounds them with.
In Deep Survival, Gonzales describes the dance that surfers in Kaua’i must perform to strike the tenuous balance between their love of the ocean and their survival of it. They must learn to take what the massive power of the ocean gives, while simultaneously gaining knowledge of how not to be crushed unceremoniously by those same forces. Quoting a local surf instructor at one point:
If you’re not afraid, then you don’t appreciate the situation.
And that simple wisdom pretty well sums up how I feel on a pair of skis just before putting gravity firmly in the driver’s seat. Afraid. Nearly 40 years of experience, including two as a ski instructor, have changed that feeling not one bit. You’d think that seventeen shoulder dislocations might have something to do with it, but even that’s not quite true. They’re just small reminders of the energy you’re playing with when you willfully send yourself hurtling down a mountainside. Energy that we serially underestimate at our peril.
No, the fear is a humility, a recognition of the complex and powerful system you’re about to be a part of. Huskisson might have intellectually understood the incredible forces of energy that a speeding locomotive might hold, but understanding them in a way that influences our behavior in relation to them is another thing entirely. It’s why I do little more than wade into an ocean I don’t truly understand in that visceral sort of way.
Wondering why we do what we do, and what we can learn from the answer, is a question that spends a lot of time ricocheting around those vast empty places in my brain. Which brings us full circle back to the question of why I ski, why is it fun, and what in god’s name does any of this have to do with Hawaiian surfers and dodging speeding locomotives?
Because joy is the most fundamental survival mechanism of all. It is the reward for realizing, quite simply, that we are alive. And the things that bring us that sensation are the ones we are destined to repeat again and again and again. For what is a better definition of being alive than to seek the things that bring us happiness.
The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.
What do skydiving, surfing, and skiing all have in common? They’re all activities that put us in touch with the raw forces of nature. Like mainlining lessons directly from nature about how to be in tune with and work with those forces, a survival task that our brains are poorly equipped for. Ask William Huskisson. His brain may well have perfectly understood the danger that he was about to collide (literally) with, but even that wasn’t enough for it to move his body out of harm’s way.
In that way, skydiving, surfing, skiing, and many others like them are all really the same activity. They are practicing survival. And to survive is to be happy.
Those lessons don’t come for free, and nature can be a cruel and unforgiving instructor. But there is no reward without risk.
That is why I ski. Why, when snow covers the trails I ramble down in the spring, summer, and fall, I go looking for trails of a different kind. The nostalgia of all the winters past, colliding with raw curiosity. The curiosity of seeing where this snowy trail might lead, and what I might learn along the way.