The Soul of Skiing


BY:
BY:
Dave Heath

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Skiing, riding, sliding…they all have soul, right? Does it matter? Bomb Snow asked four industry editor’s what the “soul of skiing” mean’s to them. Each story shines a different perspective on this soulful phrase. We’ll let our reader’s decide where it resides.

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By Sakeus Bankson

After three seasons estranged, I recently fell in love with
skiing again. I give Jesus credit—Jesus, and a silver 2011 Honda Insight.


It happened in early August of 2020, when my wife and I were buying a used car in Lynchburg, Virginia. As we went over the paperwork, I couldn’t stop staring at the white-columned buildings marching up a nearby hillside: Liberty University, the ultra-conservative Christian college founded by pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell, Sr. I idly examined the campus’s $40 million football stadium, 275-foot bell tower, rows of colonial-style brick buildings…and a bare slope blanketed in white.

I whirled back to the salesman and pointed at the complex. “What is that?” I asked. “The big white patch on the mountain over there?”

“That’s the university’s ski hill,” he said, barely looking up from the paperwork. My disbelief quickly turned to feverish curiosity, but the salesman had never been to the hill. We could check it out ourselves, he suggested. It’s open to anyone, and students get a discount.

Ten minutes later, we stepped out of our freshly purchased hybrid and into a caricature of a ski resort—the lodge, the huge trail map, the slopeside après spot (sans booze, of course)—it was all there, but with the gaudy feel of a traveling carnival rollercoaster. The “snow” surface was thick and bristly, like backcountry Astroturf, the artificially curvaceous slope scattered with rails, boxes and angular jumps. A handful of skiers and snowboarders, outfitted in sweatpants, T-shirts and generic rental gear, traversed cautiously towards the magic carpet and another lap.

It was the most hardcore, glorious mountain I’d ever seen. I felt something stir inside me, so buried under shame and self-delusion I’d never noticed its absence. For the first time in a half-decade, I wanted to go skiing.


												 Snowflex

For the past 20 years, that’s all I wanted to do; I’d built my life around it. I moved to Bellingham, Washington in the early 2000s, officially for college…but truthfully for Mt. Baker Ski Area, the snowiest place on earth. With every frenetic, 100-day season, my views on skiing became equally obsessive: it wasn’t a true mountain unless the terrain was jagged, the consequences terrifying, and the snow bottomless; it wasn’t a proper season unless it ended with both your bank account and GPA dangerously close to zero. Skiing was more of a religion than a sport, something to which everything—money, time, energy, safety—must be devoted, all other obligations forgotten.

This zealotry deepened when I became a ski writer and every day, every trip, was a potential story. Cross-country storm-chasing was part of the job, as were complicated travel plans to unusual places. On pow days, I was obligated to be in line for first chair. It was the dream, everything the broke 21-year-old me could have imagined, much less hoped for.

Only one problem: Add losing too many friends to avalanches, and skiing had become profoundly, existentially stressful. I just didn’t want to go anymore.

Then I blew my knee and was out for a season. By the next, I’d switched jobs and my wife’s medical school had pulled us to Whitefish, Montana, where we didn’t know a soul. The following season we’d moved again, and I only skied eight days, the fewest of my life. Then residency brought us east for a three-year stint in Virginia, a place not known for its snowsports. In the darkest, deepest corners of my mind, I was relieved.


The following season we’d moved again, and I only skied eight days, the fewest of my life. Then residency brought us east for a three-year stint in Virginia, a place not known for its snowsports. In the darkest, deepest corners of my mind, I was relieved.

												 Dave heatjh soul ski

Standing below the sheet of albino Astroturf, sweating in the 80-degree Appalachian sunshine, I felt it all drop away. The stress, the fear, the gear envy and pow-day guilt. I was looking at the antithesis of everything I thought skiing needed to be, and seeing what skiing actually is. Stripped of terrain and even snow, people still skied. They still laughed and cheered on complete strangers. I even saw one sneak a sip off a flask.

They had no reason to be here. But they were, drawn by the simple freedom of gravity meeting gradient.

A few days later, I slammed my heels into my boots, tucked a beer in my pocket and sauntered to the magic carpet. The turns were awful, by any measure, and my beer was warm. But every swish of my edges, every foamy sip, every painful jab of my boots was familiar, like coming home. I’d been here, I realized. In fact, maybe I’d never left.

Unloading at the top, the lifty—carpeteer?—declared they’d be closing in 15 minutes. I flipped my buckles closed, grimaced, and crushed my beer can. If I hurried, I could get in a few more laps. I let gravity take over. There was skiing to be done, and no time to waste.

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- Sakeus Bankson is a former editor-in-chief at The Ski Journal
and Freehub Magazine. He currently lives in Roanoke, VA, but calls the PNW home.


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