Outside magazine, December 1995
I can't remember when I started to ski powder--when I had to, probably. Like all hard lessons it left its imprint, a word that is a symbol, since the track of skis in untouched snow, their pure, solitary signature, is not the least of pleasures.
Among innumerable times, one that stands out in memory was when a doctor I knew from New York came out for a week to ski and said, Why don't we meet on the top in the morning? That night it snowed. In the morning there was at least a foot and a half of fresh powder covering everything. The ride up was cold. Snow was blowing from the crest.
The doctor had an instructor, Dennis, lean and good-natured. The three of us stood on the Shoulder of Bell in Aspen. The run dropped like a stone through the trees below. Dennis smiled. It looked great, he said. He offered some advice, "Always start with your skis pointing straight down," and pushed off.
They say that all men are subject to feelings of doubt at one time or another, but I remember thinking, Is he? He was going down like a leaf in a stream, bouncing from side to side over bumps, stumps, who knew what, snow flying from his legs. There's no choice: He goes, you go. It was one of the runs of my life.
That was with regular skis, of course. In those days expert opinion was that black Heads were the best for powder if you happened to own a pair, but if you were good you could ski on anything. I once heard of a hero in Jackson Hole who skied in a race on a pair of seven-foot two-by-fours straight from the lumberyard with the front ends shaved up and bindings mounted on them.
Times change. There arrives a long box with nothing on the outside to indicate New Era. Within is a strange pair of skis, unnaturally wide, almost five inches, and looking like a softball does when you are used to a baseball. They are Atomics, Powder Plus, and in a yellow slash near the middle is written "Fat Boy." They've been around for several years, I know, and I also know they make a huge difference--you stay right on the surface of the powder, float on it. The idea makes sense.
As I look at these broad, round-tipped skis there rises in me the familiar conflict, complexity versus simplicity. The fully outfitted skier now possesses, besides expensive clothes, two kinds of cross-country skis, downhill and slalom skis, telemarks, randonnées, and now powder skis, and there are at least three types of those, fats, chubbs, and bow ties, never mind the distinction. This is not to mention snowshoes and snowboard. It used to be easier.
I think of a story Mike Burns, a producer I know, told me of going out to play golf with his stepfather. At the first tee a stranger came up wearing old pants and work shoes and carrying a canvas golf bag with three clubs in it. Would they mind if he joined them for a round, he asked?
Mike's stepfather teed off, sliced one across the road, and then topped his second drive, which bounced down the fairway. Mike stepped up and did about the same. The fellow with the canvas bag took out a worn three wood and hit a ball 200 yards or more, straight as a city block. I liked him in the story and in life as well--it was Ned Vare, a wonderful golfer who used to live in Aspen years ago.
Be with me, beauty, for the fire is dying...
I don't know if I'll be on the Shoulder of Bell after a storm anymore, but you never lose the taste for powder. I would like to ski it and cut through the crud the way Ned Vare played golf, but I'm probably going to have to use a pair of Fat Boys to do it. I have plenty of company, and not many people have ever heard about the guy on the two-by-fours.
Novelist James Salter wrote the screenplay for Downhill Racer and skiing has never been the same.
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