Pretty much every day of the work week I go out during my lunch hour and take a walk. I’m fortunate enough to work in a place where greenbelt paths and trails abound and the horizon is dotted with snowcapped peaks. It’s my midday regimen of flushing away the mental toxins of working in a cube farm for eight hours each day, plus I like breathing in fresh air and seeing things in non-fluorescent hues.
Today, as I was coming back into the building, a coworker strolled up and asked me where all I walked, whereupon I explained the general route and said, “just a stroll ‘round the neighbourhoods and parks”. Barely could I get the words out of my mouth before he started quizzing me about how long it takes for me to make the loop. Whaaaaaat? Regrettably, I told him about forty minutes and that I typically take a minute or two more because I like to sit on a bench and look at the mountains.
Literally, and I do mean literally before I could get those words out, he informed me that he did it seven minutes faster on average. Clearly I was put in my place and I knelt humbly upon one knee in his presence and the virtual blue ribbon of decisive victory he wore so proudly. What a douche.
Seriously, that was the first question he had for me? Not how was my holiday? Did I go skiing? Did I visit family? Man, I hate that competitive mentality.
Over the years I’ve dabbled in lots of outdoor endeavours, some things I still do, some I don’t. Unfortunately there have been things I really enjoyed but getting lured into a competitive mentality totally killed the buzz and I quit doing them, at least as much as I was.
Climbing was one of those things. I love to climb and I especially love the process of climbing. I like all the gear, I like the sounds and especially love the necessary focus. What drove me away though was that regardless of what I climbed or wanted to climb, it had to be measured up and graded against a benchmark or it wasn’t really “climbing”.
Climbing magazines are the worst at perpetuating this competitive buzz kill. You can’t pick up a climbing magazine and find article about people climbing 5.8 or 5.9 trad routes, which are considered pedestrian or warm up routes amongst the “core” boys and girls. It’s either the hardest, or it doesn’t count. Never mind that some people like me just like getting out and climbing stuff for fun. Climbing gyms are infinitely worse than climbing magazines. So much flexing and bravado talk and so little actual climbing. I rapidly grew tired of it and eventually drifted off in another direction (though I still love ice climbing).
Skiing in resorts is unfortunately sort of getting that way too. I honestly can’t go skiing without later being quizzed on how many vertical feet I did, how fast I could ski from top to bottom, how many runs I got in, did I only ski groomers or ski off piste, how many EpciMix virtual pins did I get at Vail, did I get first and last chair and the list goes on and on.
You know that distinct sound a cat makes just as it’s about to hack up a fur ball, that ACK-U-ACK-U-ACK sound? That’s what I start doing when people start asking me all those questions.
First of all I’m a telemark skier. There is nothing fast nor conventionally competitive about it. Many times it’s just survival and attrition. Furthermore, telemark skiing isn’t necessarily conducive to a bell-to-bell day at a resort. It’s hard and exhausting, yet beautiful when done properly.
I picked this sport because it essentially forces me to slow down and by nature, it doesn’t lend itself to a lot of measurements or competitive benchmarks. Oh, and it’s hard, really hard. The unenlightened sometimes say it’s stupid and a dying discipline, yet it’s sort of been around since the 1870s when Sondre Norheim from Morgedal, Norway revolutionized modern ski travel with his radical telemark stylings, so I’m not all that worried about being out of fashion. It may just be me and my silly theories, but I’m pretty comfortable with a 140-year test period.
This past week my good friend Melanie came down from Washington and we called our mutual friend Jesse to coordinate a day of skiing in the backcountry up near Vail. As we were getting sorted out at the trailhead, I realized that this was probably one of the rare times where everyone in my group was on teles. Many times I’m the ONLY one one teles. Realizing the makeup of our little trio gave me high hopes that the day would be one of those special ones, one of those that I’d cherish for a long, long time. Three like minds all together, so how could it not be?
I love skiing in the backcountry. Yes, it’s risky and sometimes scary and yes, it’s way harder than simply turning up at a resort, plunking down hundreds of dollars to ride a lift and ski on prepared slopes. There are no lifts in the backcountry and you have to climb and slog your way to wherever it is you’d like to go. This in itself is a huge deterrent for the vast majority of people who ski — though you can pay hundreds and hundreds or thousands of dollars and have a cat touring company or helicopter transport you. Add on the little detail of telemark skis having a loose and floppy heel and that they’re very hard to control in deep snow and the list of backcountry aspirants grows infinitely smaller.
One of my favourite books of all time is Robert Pirsig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Overall the book is basically about how we define quality. At one point in the book he gives an example of the way people learn or measure themselves. He posits that if you take a classroom of students and declare on day one that there will be no tests or grades for the semester, the people who are typically good academic students and who depend on achieving a “grade” will falter. They will not have a tangible way to measure themselves against others and will be knocked off form. Conversely, and quite likely, the students who don’t typically test well in a restricted and measured environment might actually learn better.
Our overall world definitely falls more in the traditional sense of measurement. Everything we do MUST be measured and MUST be compared to validate ourselves. There MUST be questions and answers so we can validate who we are and what we do. No internal questions mind you, just measurement against the masses. Job titles, salaries, cell phone speed, car acceleration, gas mileage…everything. There are questions surrounding everything we do it seems, except the most important one. Does it make us happy?
When Melanie, Jesse and I got back to the car my hopes of having one of the best ski days I’ve ever had been granted. It wasn’t because we climbed “X” number of vertical feet, skied top to bottom in “X” amount of time or anything measurably conventional that skiers typically base their outings on. However, there were two metrics that I measured this day by and they are the two key things I use to determine any good ski day.
The relevant numbers from our day were 22 and 1. Twenty two was the number of photos I took and one is the number of smiles I had during the day, and that one smile started when we got out of the car and I’ve still got it almost a week later.
You know, I never take photos when I’m at resorts because it seems the point is only to ride up and ski down as much as possible to maximize the lift price/vertical foot ratio or some other such thing. I absolutely hate having to race as fast as I can from the top of the lift right back to the bottom only to stand in line to do it all again. I’ve missed everything I went up there to see in the first place…beautiful mountains, clear blue skies, talking to my friends, etc, etc, etc.
If I’m actually taking the time to take lots of photos of the amazingly beautiful places we often find ourselves in, to talk about the latest book we’ve read, to talk about life, to spend time with the people we care about, well, then skiing becomes infinitely more than just simple comparative statistics, it becomes integrated with life itself. I know my non-telemark friends will cringe (again) with all this hippie talk, but it’s why I chose it as my sport of choice to begin with. It’s hard, it takes patience to learn (lots and lots of patience) and it forces me to slow down and appreciate every step along the way. Even the small steps are appreciated and cherished.
I truly believe that the best moments in life are the ones you share with friends doing the things you love, not frantically amassing meaningless numbers or making meaningless comparisons. When the friends you have share the same philosophy and you can merge all that goodness together, your soul can’t help but overflow with a genuine happiness you can carry over from day to day for the rest of your life. You never have to worry about beating a record or someone else doing more because it’s always the right amount, the perfect amount.
The only question I ever need to ask myself, and it’s the most important one, is whether I’m still smiling. If I am, then it was a successful day.
Travel light, climb high, ski hard, pedal far, live simply, smile a lot.