Alta, Utah — I’ve never enjoyed practicing yoga. I would hate to think I’m not calm enough (probably true), that I’m not committed enough (false), that I’m not sufficiently interested in “centering my mind and my energy,” or that I don’t have the physical capacity for downward dog, pigeon position, or even the simplicity of child’s pose. The last time I attempted yoga in the summer of 2009, my aggression and inability to “start slow” earned me a severely inflamed right gluteus maximu (thanks, pigeon pose). I don’t think this bears further explanation. I’m fascinated by the Oprah-driven obsession with spirituality, cosmic energy, and finding a sense of personal balance in the confines of our high-pressure, overwhelming society. So rather than follow the vogue and continue to attempt yoga (and thus further strain sensitive muscles that deserve nothing more than tender loving care), I have found my own outlet. Earning the outlet, in itself, has been a valuable and significant growth experience for me. Just a few years ago, I would have scoffed at the notion that I would one day consider skiing in full-fledged, chaotic, “nuclear” storm conditions to be a calming, centering, and instructive experience.
The People. It’s a Sunday morning in mid-November in one of the United States’ most famed ski areas, and the slopes are desolate. I’m flying solo, and grapple to find company for each successive chairlift ride. But I revel in the company and conversation that I do find. First: loads of powder falling from the heavens, whipping winds (take a look at my face), and barely bearable wind chill factors on high-altitude ridgelines test commitment to this wild and wonderful sport. Stated simply: those willing to brave the elements on a day like this really love the sport. I’m heartened, even overjoyed, by the simplest of conversations: “What a beautiful day!” “It doesn’t get much better than this…” “Where is everyone?!” And second: in addition to the solid chairlift company, I’m intrigued by the demographic of the group out on the slopes, which, in reality, doesn’t represent such a variation from the fair-weather skiing crowd. After a few runs, I estimate the male:female ratio at approximately 8:1, prompting me to be “tougher” and more matter-of-fact as I tear down the slopes, chat about the nature of the storm or my après-ski plans (inevitably a few cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the bubbly nectar of ski country), and lick my wounds from some mild wind burn (wearing a balaclava would be a clear sign of weakness). The Christmas-red, gnarled face spells out commitment.
The Place. I know this place like the back of my dry hands, and it certainly occupies significant spaces in my heart and imagination. Every day–snow or shine–is a beautiful day on the mountain; but a storm of nuclear proportions intensifies the sublime beauty of each dramatic contour: steep, open faces, rocky outcroppings, and sanctuary-like shots through the humbling fir and spruce trees. I am reverent. The place is quiet and empty, save for the soft purr of the chairlift whisking the daring few to 10,500 feet, the whipping wind (the “force” that inspired the few and startled the many), and the occasional yelp of a fellow devotee stumbling upon a powder stash enhanced since the last run, a mere fifteen minutes ago. Free refills: what more to be grateful for? Free refills on familiar slopes with new cover for the day: emblazoned with fluffy mounds of the greatest snow on Earth, glazed with hazy, gray light (“flat” light, in more negative terms). The world is neither white nor black; rather, storm skiing at its best (or, I suppose, at its worst for some) is a suspension between the two, a propulsion into another quiet, transcendent world, fit only for free-form turns, the embrace of Mother Nature’s unstoppable elements (that which is), and boundless exploration of the familiar shrouded in fresh cover. It’s fresh, but fleeting; tomorrow will be different, as our fair-weather friends turn and traverse, etching dynamic lines upon today’s veil that will serve as our surface for daily play until the next reckoning. Today, however, is mine for the taking and the making.
The Thing. I spend my day gracing and respecting the slopes in solitude, with the exception of a brief trip into the mid-mountain lodge for a cup of piping hot fries. My legs have done more than their part for my mind today; they deserve low-quality ketchup, mayonnaise, and a healthy dose of grease. But I’m scarcely content to disregard the actually healthy alternatives that I have toted around in my backpack during the course of the morning. It’s a storm day, and all bets are off: without a care in the snow-covered world, I dip my fries into a container of homemade guacamole.
And then the “thing” begins in earnest. The clock strikes 3:00 p.m., and the slopes grow ever more desolate. I find myself among the same weathered faces on successive chairlift rides, but the vibes aren’t exactly friendly. With the snow piling up, the light growing dimmer, and the visibility succumbing to flakes falling sideways, we are each content to guard our hard-earned secrets and to return to our holy grail, each to his/her own. Mine, a secret shot in the trees that begins underneath a sanctuary of boulders with a stealthy view of the chairlift whizzing by only 150 feet away. This is my child’s pose: I can see them, but to the rest of the world, I’m invisible, blending into my surroundings in my “bomber” ski outfit, color on the tag labeled “basmati rice.” The winds have mellowed, as if on cue, for the cohort of afternoon aficionados, and I revel in the sound of penetrating silence before I’m off again, uplifted as I float downhill, surrounded by the fluffy powder pillows of a storm kept in good company. Me, myself, the mountains, and the perfectly cloudy sky.
The walls of Annie’s compact dorm room speak volumes. They tell the tales of high-alpine trekking (and trudging) in Bhutan, Nepal, Corsica, and beyond, of endurance running through the Hoh Rainforest in the United States’ westernmost reaches, of conversing in multiple tongues, and of farming–and eating–Icelandic vegetables pulsing with health and life. While Annie is apt to name red rock as her preferred terrain feature, her ample days spent on Alta, Utah’s powder-clad slopes have cultivated in her a deep love for all things snow-covered.