Skiing down a mountain

My friend’s recent death showed me once again how dangerous skiing can be. But maybe that’s why I like it

My family is a fearful one. We were people who never really took to amusement park rides, never went scuba diving, parasailing or hang-gliding, never smiled upon a spider or a bee. Some of us now self-medicate before boarding a plane; others just grip the armrests.

Our father is a doctor, which might have something to do with it. We were not allowed to eat peanuts until we were seven, no doubt because of the anaphylaxis and choking he'd witnessed in emergency rooms. Of course, my father also saw the innocents who'd been lacerated, abraded  and contused for the cardinal sin of having left their houses that day: consequently, he forbade us from hanging out at the Jolly Mart or disappearing into the ravine. He waited up during all my teenage dates, nervously thumbing through his New England Journal, and would conduct detours around the temptation of street drugs by telling tales of what could happen if we dropped LSD—likely a life-altering psychotic break, much later in life, when we weren’t expecting it, when we were in our forties and in the middle of the Big Presentation that would otherwise have led to certain millionairehood.

We listened to him. About most things, except maybe the drugs. We became fearful people too. It didn't stop us from skiing.

Once you get over the inevitable difficulty of your first few runs, skiing seems like a sensible way to pass the time. When the sun is shining, and your padded chairlift deposits you at the top of a gentle skate called "Easy Street" or "Green Meadows," when the air is fresh and the friends are nice and the glühwein is on the boil, this is when skiing most resembles a leisure activity, more exciting than canasta but just as calming. You can stay inside this picture for years, of course, never graduating from green runs to blue. But the likelihood is you won't. Skiers (and snowboarders—for the purposes of this article, the two are interchangeable) are perforce thrill-seekers. The longer you do it and the better you get, the more danger you'll be in. Blue runs will give way to black; black to double-black; and before long, you are in the backcountry, with nobody around you, taking chances that might not pay off.

This is how my friend Adam died, last year at the age of 44. Unaccompanied, he gambled on the promise of a gorgeous, sun-dappled run outside the boundaries of the resort at which he'd been skiing. It was a lousy spring for snow and he was determined to find some. But the vast expanse he eventually found gave onto a sudden cliff face, from which he could not pull back.

In the wake of this tragedy, it is tempting to reframe all my best ski memories—a number of which involved Adam—as nothing more than kinderspiel: all those stupid dares, those petty injuries that made me so proud. All that venturing beyond where the ski patrol might find me. All that joking about death, an abstract and improbable visitor.

Newspaper cartoons featuring mummified skiers in traction have suddenly lost their savour. So too the T-shirts and posters aimed at teenage boys, the ones that say If you can read this I'm not high enough and Cliff Jumper and Black Ice/White Knuckles/Nowhere to Go But Down.

I used to have posters like that in my room. I’m sure Adam did as well.

Has skiing gotten safer?

Some say that skiing has actually gotten safer over the years. They point out that helmets are taking the place of toques, and that bindings are infinitely better—for one thing, fallen skiers are no longer imperilled by "safety" straps, which used to cause our skis to helicopter wildly overhead before sending them to crash-land on our faces.

I think they are wrong. Helmets give us false confidence, and the new bindings just break different bones. High-speed chairs put far more people on the hill, giving rise to more collisions; many of these are between snowboarders and skiers, who travel differently down the hill.

Given that I am naturally fearful, don't believe skiing is a safe activity, and have seen it kill—well, why is it that I don't just quit? After all, before Adam there was Tommy, a childhood friend and fantastic athlete, paralyzed after accelerating on a patch of ice 20 years ago. What could possibly bring me back, year after year? Why do I buy equipment for my own, vulnerable children? And why do I look forward to it, above all other things one might profitably do, when I’ve seen how high the cost can be?

Maybe it's because while skiing takes—hideously—it also gives. I honestly believe that if you ski, you become a more brave, raucous, sexy and vital person than you otherwise would have been.

What makes a skier?

Are skiers that way from the start? I know I wasn't. On the mountain I have always liked myself a lot more. At school I was bookish, myopic, scrawny; but once my skis were on I became a figure of daring and allure, the sort of rosy-cheeked girl with a blond ponytail who gets talked to by cute guys on chairlifts. It is only now that I think of how much danger I courted in my desire for bunnydom. How, on a trip to France, I left my boy-repelling spectacles at home and accidentally skied into Italy, with no vocabulary, money or eyesight. How I would routinely cultivate a "facial tan" on ski trips, only to return home with a mug full of sun blisters. How I once remembered to wear contact lenses but not goggles, and seared my eyeballs so badly it hurt to blink.

I wonder now if Adam underwent an equivalent sort of transformation in late childhood. He'd always struck me as a consummately relaxed, broad-shouldered Adonis. It was not until his funeral that I learned of his perfect report cards and devout work ethic, the fact that he was always at his desk by 6:30 in the morning. I didn't know it, but he wore glasses too.

If he was ever a nerd, I didn't see it. I just saw a guy who always laughed in the face of danger, dark humour being universal currency on the slopes, where you laugh at pretty much anything that leaves you intact. If you make it down a run called "Compound Fracture" or "Charnel House" it strikes you as incredibly funny; you collapse in giggles, especially if there was a bad wipeout in the middle and you got right back up again.
Right now I am sitting safely at a desk and all this gaiety in the face of pain strikes me as sort of sick. The last time I was in B.C., I went up a T-bar with one of the locals. He told me his daughter had recently fallen while boarding then gone for a 2,000-foot slide down an icy slope, much of it on her bare belly, which was left raw and bleeding. Holding his hands about nine inches apart, he demonstrated the awful width of her epidermal loss.

"Ouch," I breathed.
"She hasn't been to school in three months. I guess she'll go back soon."
"How long did she spend in hospital?"
"Hospital?" he chortled. "No hospital."

It seems that mountain laughter always takes death or pain as its subject, even long after the lifts are closed. I remember snuggling in a bed at Whistler one night with five other people, in a room that would have been small for two. We were young and trying to economize. Adam was there. We watched televised wrestling into the short hours, ill with mirth, Adam's chesty laugh like a drawer opening and shutting, opening and shutting. We surfed the channels for rodeo, stock car racing—any stupid and dangerous sport that might serve as a moguldisiac for the next day. "Crash!" we yelled at the screen. "Crash!!


Like I said, we were young.

You are never hungrier than you are after skiing. You are never thirstier, either—only the truly thirsty drink glühwein—or more generally impassioned. Skiers are comfortable scions of the professional class, and they yearn for that kind of passion. Comfort is much better than the alternative, of course, but it can make for a dull life that stretches endlessly on, offering little in the way of fear or threat. Rich folks always know when supper is, and what DVD they might like to rent next, and who to call if the dehumidifier is squeaking. They get bored, which is why dangerous sports were invented: to galvanize nerves that money has put to sleep. To lure us, for a short moment, into the bright curtain of flame that precedes extinction.

So we go for the thrills, which in no time become indivisible from the sport itself. Especially if you grew up, as Adam and I did, in the seventies. It was the era of the Crazy Canuck ski team, of outlaw hot-doggers. I know I'm not the only one who never cared how well a freestyler executed a jump, who only cared how close he or she came to dying. I remember travelling to the backyard of George's Ski Shop in Edmonton to watch the great Wayne Wong as he climbed a sort of giant portable catapult—the kind of thing that donkeys used to "dive" off at state fairs—in order to showcase his signature moves (wong turns, wongbangers) in a bell-bottomed pantsuit. Grinning behind mirrored aviators, he later signed the only autographed celebrity picture I have ever owned, which shows him spread-eagled in silhouette. It says: "More Air, Cindy!"
It was a great day, until my brother David ("More Air, Dave!") insisted that after I'd left, Wong had bungled an aerial during a demo and almost impaled himself on one of his K2s. I was beyond jealous. Bloodthirsty as it sounds, that was what I'd come to see.

I'm ashamed of that now, but I thought then as children always do: that death was an illusion anyway. That clouds are deep and soft, and will catch us when we fall.

Adam was alone when he died. He had separated from his companions, presumably—we will never know for sure—in search of a decent snowfield for them. It was a beautiful day on the lip of spring, the kind where the sun glints off the snow and draws you into its embrace. It was a temptation worthy of Icarus, and one every experienced skier understands.

On my last trip, I met a man who told me that he dislocated his shoulder in a fall last year.

"What's worse," his young son interrupted, "dislocated or separated?"
"Well then," asked the boy, "why didn't you choose separated?"

His father couldn't really explain that fate does the choosing, whether you like it or not; that was something the boy would have to discover for himself, later on. Maybe he'd discover, too, that if he elected to live in constant fear of fate's cruelty, he'd end up with a life that was grey and small, and nothing like my friend Adam's. Maybe he'd reason that the laughter, romance, hunger and thrills were all worth it, in spite of everything.

And maybe he would keep on skiing.