The ski world evolves, but some things don’t change
Ski movies these days all seem to have their token avalanche scene: Skier standing on a beautiful summit in the heart of a vast mountain range, helicopter hovering overhead. Skier launches off a cornice, making beautiful arcs down the face in deep powder, but then the fracture line suddenly cuts right above him; snow breaks into hundreds of huge chunks, it catches him quickly, and just when it looks like he is doomed, they always cut to another scene.This generation has pushed the limits physically and mentally more so than others past. What used to be considered “badass” is now just routine. We skiers are a reflection of what’s happening throughout society, where in every aspect of life we are seeing this dichotomy grow – there is much more love in the world, yet also deeper hate. More wealth, more poverty. More people living their life to the fullest, more people depressed.The same is true in our little ski world where compared to the past, the sport has taken one step further from center. As we all improve, and our skis get fatter, we crave deeper powder, steeper terrain, longer runs. “Extreme” ski competitions have taken off. Steep ski camps are offered at most big-mountain backcountry ski destinations, where you are taught how to rappel into a couloir or how to ski attached to a rope, ice axe in hand. Whereas 10 years ago you knew of one person who skied Chile, now everyone is heading to South America, Japan or the Himalayas for their ski vacation. More and more folks are claiming first descents, like Kit Deslauriers who a few months ago became the first woman to ski Everest. Or how about Chris Davenport’s descent off of Pyramid Peak, a Fourteener near Aspen – check out his website to get a great look at this one. Crazy.Even in my own lessextreme life, I push the limits more and more. The other day, skiing the same run I’ve done a thousand times in Pennsylvania Gulch, I dove right into a section of trees that I used to avoid for fear of avalanche. But today, with quite a few years under my belt of skiing in avalanche terrain, I realized that this has never been that dangerous of a line.It’s addicting. Once you see the benefits from being strong, and the great results from being brave and tasting that sweet joy of feeling invincible, you always want more. Whenever I ski a scary steep line in the backcountry, I always want to go do it again.But in this new world of extremes, there is, of course, the down side. Never before has a generation seen more people die from doing something they love. Last spring’s death of the invincible Doug Coombs came as a shock to his friends. Doug was known for how safe and comfortable he was in his sport of extreme skiing, yet he died a hero, probably feeling invincible when he tried to save his buddy, Chad VanderHam, who also slid to his death halfway down an extreme couloir descent. A few weeks ago the death of an Aspen extreme skier, who was killed in an avalanche at Snowmass, shocked the local community because he had experience and was familiar with the terrain where he died. At least they died doing something they loved, which I think would be a pretty good way to die.The recurring avalanche shots in ski movies still make me cringe. This marketing to the extreme junkie might be taking it a bit too far, almost as if they have glamorized an avalanche. I worry about the image it’s selling – that as long as you are brave, and a good skier, you can always ski out of a slide. The innocent viewer doesn’t realize that the skier has an earpiece on, that he has two helicopters telling him where to go, that if he is buried, help is right there. The background music softens the whole scene; we can’t hear the skier’s terrified voice or the fear in the helicopter pilot as he yells out directions. You might see the skier swept off his feet, but only briefly, and you never see what happens next. No scenes of digging him out, never a mention of digging out a dead body, which my husband has had to do, or a dead dog, which my good friend just did. No one ever dies in ski movies.There is a profound beauty in pursuing your passion, and I would never suggest anyone give up the things they love. But I also contend that real life is not a ski movie, and while in the movies every step is taken to be safe – helicopters overhead, skiers with years of experience – in the backcountry all responsibility lies on the shoulder of you and your ski buddies. When the conditions are perfect, the snow is light, the bowl untracked, the sun beaming down from above, it’s easy to feel invincible. This is just a gentle reminder to do what you love, but do it as safely as possible.
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