Occasionally – okay, once every 20 years – someone will ask me what I’m most proud of from my years as the editor of Powder, and for that I have a ready answer: It was the photo we selected for the cover of the Soul of Skiing issue, a shot taken inside a tram of an old woman holding a massively tall pair of skis, staring stoically out the fogged glass while a young man marveled at their length. The photo actually hangs on the wall of my office, a birthday present from photo editor David Reddick, and it reminds every day of that issue and the fractious debate that produced its first page.
That cover generated one of the poorest newsstand performances in Powder’s history, and I’m probably lucky I didn’t lose my job over it. Apparently, Barnes and Noble’s shoppers find magazines with Gore-Tex-clad senior citizens on their covers less conducive to impulse purchases than those with half-naked supermodels. Go figure.
Regardless, there were considerations other than newsstand sales. Powder was at a critical moment in the sport and in the larger media environment, too, and I felt strongly that it needed to state precisely what it was and what kind of skiing it believed in: that we weren’t just the kind of magazine that went looking for soul, but that when we found it we put it on the cover, financials be dammed.
It’s been 16 years since I left Powder, and longer since that cover ran, and only recently did I find myself wondering a rather existential question: Why did we feel the need to seek and celebrate the soul of skiing in the first place? What was it about skiing, or us at Powder, that drove such an impulse?
Resort skiing is the least natural of all the sports that take place in nature.
Other sports don’t search for their souls, do they? I can’t recall Surfer sending writers and photographers into the field to find the steady beating heart of wave riding. Or Alpinist. Or Backpacker. Maybe I missed it, but it seems to me that only – or, certainly, mostly – within the world of skiing do people feel the need even to talk about the soul of the sport, let alone search for it. Yes, there are “soul surfers,” but only skiers seem to have this recurring ambition to seek out the pure, the whole, the committed, and the true.
Why such cultural insecurity?
I think it comes down to this: Of all the adventure sports, skiing is the most commercial, the most unified around amusement park-style playgrounds, the most populated by people who do it as a pastime, not a passion. Far more Americans ride bikes than ski, but cycling is fragmented, filled with tribes and sub tribes, with nothing close to a unified soul even to seek. Surfing, despite the fact that the surf industry is comprised mostly of brands that sell fashion, still feels soulful at its essence – searching seems redundant. And climbing, well, one need look no further than trad and alpinism to see the true.
But skiing, skiing is a real, homogenized industry, one that makes everything from the gear you use to the places you use it. Resort skiing is the least natural of all the sports that take place in nature. With other pursuits, once you’ve bought the equipment, everything else is basically free. Only skiing has a nationwide, pay-to-play infrastructure that the majority of its users rely upon. Do core backcountry skiers spend much time talking about soul? None of my friends do. But lift riders do, and I surmise that sitting on a chair generates a certain level of ambient guilt. You get after it day after day, you think of yourself as core, you think of yourself as soulful, and yet you drop a grand or more for a season pass or a hunski for a day ticket for the right to get on an escalator and allow a corporation to do the hard work for you. Ouch.
This tension between conflicting identities creates the need to buttress one’s perception of purity through fables, mythologies, and heroes. But this is not unique to skiing. Life is a constant battle between warring impulses. We want the nice place to live but don’t want to be bourgeois. We want nice stuff but don’t want to be greedy. We want the simplicity of the dirtbag life but don’t want the dirt that comes with it. The scales tip from one side to the other, and we cling to our notion of ideals for security because we believe them to be true, noble, and worth more than the things others pursue, like vanity and money.
And most of all, we cling to these ideals because we believe them to be eternal. We are strivers, we humans, perpetually unsatisfied, always hungry, ever seeking more. The enjoyment of something for its own sake year in and year out over the commitment of a lifetime suggests that the question we’re all asking has been answered. The kind of skiing that we were seeking, and celebrating, implies contentment, and peace, and fulfillment. And isn’t that what the soul wants, finally?