Why Does Skiing Need to Search for Its Soul?

Occasionally – okay, once every 20 years – someone will ask me what I’m most proud of from my years


adventure journal soul of skiing

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?


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Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal.
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Showing 28 comments
  • Steve Mallory
    Reply

    Wow, I actually remember that picture. I think it’s a classic. Are there any prints or copies around anywhere that could be purchased?

    • steve casimiro
      Reply

      Not to my knowledge, no.

  • redrocks
    Reply

    maybe she didn’t think of herself as “old”…

    • steve casimiro
      Reply

      And hopefully she still doesn’t.

  • CD
    Reply

    I think our search for something deeper comes from all of the time wasted standing in tram lines and sitting on chairlifts. Which reminds me of this gem…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Db32S0yXoDc

  • Gordon Wright
    Reply

    I was going to chime in with something facile like, “Replace the word ‘surfing’ with skiing and the same sentiment holds true,” but this piece is too good, too finely-wrought, to shoot from the hip. I’ll tell you one element of this that resonates: our family has gone from a skiing family to a surfing family, because of the specific argument you point out here, Steve.

  • Drew Southern
    Reply

    That cover inspired me more than any other photo of skiing. Skiing simply is, for me, and I don’t need any help getting out to do it. That stoic woman, so much life behind her, yet always looking forward, I don’t know. I won’t say it made me shiver, but I still remember it all these years later, and I wasn’t old enough to drive when it came out. Thank you, Steve. For then, for now.

  • RJB
    Reply

    Awesome piece. These essays are consistently fantastic. Have they been collated into a book? It would be a great coffee table addition.

  • Leslie Anthony
    Reply

    Amen.

  • Dean Campbell
    Reply

    When I managed a rental and pro shop, we had a guy come in almost every morning. He was old. One day, I finally got to talking with him and he told me he’d been skiing nearly all his life, and at 82 was planning to keep skiing “until I die on that hill.” At the time, I remember hoping that didn’t happen. Now I hope he gets his wish. He certainly had soul.

  • Peter
    Reply

    Good essay. Amazingly brief for some tough thoughts.

    fwiw, I’d buy the shit out of a magazine with cover images like that. I just let my last ski-related magazine subscription lapse this week (used to have 4), precisely because I couldn’t relate to the images on the pages anymore. I can relate to both the people in that image.

  • Steven Threndyle (@threndyleski)
    Reply

    Solid thoughts, here. The money (and monied) aspect of the sport seems to cause more problems than it does for those other lifestyle activities. Skiing requires – in the beginning – both time and a bit of dough to get to a certain level of competence and enjoyment. I just always liked the pix of guys skiing deep blower and figured, “I want to be that guy — he’s living the life…” I will also say this – that soul feeling doesn’t necessarily last forever, either.

  • Greg Stump
    Reply

    Nice work as usual Steve. Remember the first story you did for Powder? Rad Days Baby…

    • steve casimiro
      Reply

      Barely, Stumpy, barely. But I do remember that day in Venice…

    • Joe Vittengl
      Reply

      Dude, We featured your early ski videos in our resort bar continuously…Blizzard of Ahhhs…
      Midwest!

  • Tim
    Reply

    So good. So true.

    Resort skiing might be the most unnatural sport to take place in the natural environment, but it’s hard to ignore the simple and childlike pleasure of sliding down a frozen hill, and that’s why we all come back.

    What about the sport being pushed by the professionals and elites who stream media while flying around the world in helicopters, championing the fight against climate change and a vowing to “protect our winters”?

    The Soul of skiing? Don’t bother looking for it, it’s right there next to our own – we sold them to pay for the next trip to the top of the mountain.

  • Jay Goodrich
    Reply

    Does anyone ever forget that first perfect turn they dropped into blower pow? Maybe only by future ones that were better. And if we do, I think you are making us remember right now. Thanks Steve.

  • Grant Alexander
    Reply

    Steve I think you really hit the nail on the head with this one. The juxtaposition of a desire to connect with the natural world along with the inherent corporate nature of a ski resort truly is the heart of why we seek the “Soul of Skiing”.

    However, let me challenge you and say what if there are also deeper, more personal reasons that people search for the soul of their sport? What if the desire to find meaning comes not from the external world but the internal one…

  • DaveMarkel
    Reply

    My take…. The rise of the energy drink sponsored ski heroes coincides with the plasticization of the ski industry. Take any resort in NA and follow their social media. Most talk more about events at the resort than the real reason the resort is there, skiing. It has become so ego driven that i’ve actually heard a group in the parking lot consider scraping the day because one of them forgot their GoPro mount. Skiing, at least resort skiing, is soul-less.

  • Christie B.
    Reply

    I coach ski racing to a bunch of eager 10 year-old girls who show me every Saturday and Sunday what the “soul of skiing” is all Vermont winter long. Whether it’s -15 degrees and blowing hard, grabbing ONE LAST RUN through the course, or pulling a team mate out of foot deep powder while “training slalom” in the woods, these kids remind me why I LOVE to ski. There is nothing more freeing than bombing down a corduroy groomer laying out GS turns. For us, the mountain is a wonderful playground free of the pressures of school and life. My only job is to instill this love in future skiers. I coach at a big resort, which allows us access to terrific terrain and amazing staff. While a few will succeed to be the best, most will just be bad ass skiers, who enjoying being on the mountain.

  • ccrossen
    Reply

    hence the interest in the backcountry, esp. when some resorts feel the need to shove it in your face (“skiing has a soul” [note use of article]).

    the thing I often wonder about is, yes, for sure the resort focus has definitely changed and while it’s cheaper than ever to buy a pass, it’s cheaper than ever to buy a pass, and that really brings with it a totally different beast, one that changed things drastically, killed the experience, discounts almost everything into a marketing slogan, and does it everything it can to increase skier visits – “you ski? then you have soul and are cooler than everyone else.” but backcountry is in danger as well. when I started backcountry a long, long time ago, we went because that was the funnest place to go for adventure and to explore and to ski untracked . all you really needed to do was figure out how to get out there; scrounge together some inexpensive used gear, e.g. learn how to tele, study up on backcountry travel and avy tech and go. I worry that even that opportunity has changed a great deal, as it is now difficult for young people to afford easily even backcountry setups

  • Flip McCririck
    Reply

    Replace the word skiing with the word golf. Golf is the least natural of all the sports that take place in nature. Ski areas are the golf courses of winter. BC golf anyone?

    Many of us have peddled “the dream” for quite some time. Bottom line, skiing is fun. Sliding on snow is fun. Our backyard has even been known to be good. No fancy gear or hunski’s required. Just a posthole up the hill. More spirit than soul. Cultural insecurity?

    I loved that cover then, and I still do.
    Thanks Steve.

  • joe vittengl
    Reply

    I was pictured in that issue.. and still hold a couple of copies. I remember when powder mag hired 5 writer/photags and had them meet at lax with no idea what part of the country they were going to report on the soul of skiing in that region. The poor guy that was given a boarding pass to Chicago to write about the skiing scene in the Midwest was Christian Schneider. he was shocked to see guys skiing in snowmobile suits or blaze orange hunting cloths “shushing” down the slopes.

    • steve casimiro
      Reply

      Yes, that indeed was Christian. I’m the one who sent him there, but I guess he forgave me — he still agreed to be in my wedding.

  • joe vittengl
    Reply

    I was pictured in that issue.. and still hold a couple of copies. I remember when powder mag hired 5 writer/photags and had them meet at lax with no idea what part of the country they were going to report on the soul of skiing in that region. The poor guy that was given a boarding pass to Chicago to write about the skiing scene in the Midwest was Christian Schneider. he was shocked to see guys skiing in snowmobile suits or blaze orange hunting cloths “shushing” down the slopes.
    I like the facial expression of the kid in the background staring at the ladies old school kneissel 205cm straight sticks!

  • Olof Risberg
    Reply

    Well

    Great thoughts but it makes me sad that the artist/photografer Per Eriksson isn´t mentioned.

    Strange

  • Per Eriksson
    Reply

    I shot the photo an early morning in St Anton after the biggest powder
    dump of the season. The staff lift was 7.30 am and the old lady was keen
    to get in. When we arrived at the top of Valluga she disappeared in the
    fog. I´ve thought about her many times and I regret that I didn´t follow
    her down the mountain.
    Some people get it, some do´nt.
    Thank you Steve, I really appreciate that you did!
    /Per Eriksson

    • steve casimiro
      Reply

      Per…thanks for the back story…wish I’d gotten it from you years ago.

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