14 Jan The Making of a Ski Bum – Part 2
As insular as our little world is in this idyllic corner of British Columbia, I realise, of course, that my great backcountry skiing venture – largely a retail event so far – is not exactly headline news. That accolade probably goes to Putin’s homophobic extravaganza on the Black Sea, which will kick off in a few weeks.
The ex-KGB strongman has, I hear, put several hundred Cossacks on the Kremlin’s payroll to ensure that the entire Olympic venue resembles a multi-billion dollar Potemkin village. Russia’s finest have long since traded in their horses for white panel vans. But their state-sanctioned mission is still the same: to clear the south of Muslims and other undesirables.
Ironically that mostly means rounding up and deporting the very workmen who have build the stadia and other facilities that are designed to wow the world. I can’t help but chuckle as western democracies, meanwhile, outdo each other in sending as many gay and lesbian high-level ambassadors as they can muster to the games. If Putin greets them in his holiday outfit, perched on a horse, stripped to the waist, with tight leather trousers on, we could be in for quite a spectacle.
Several years ago, when a Russian Olympics was first mooted, I travelled as a Moscow-based correspondent to Krasnaya Polyana, setting of many of this year’s ski events. Back then there were only rusting chairlifts and a few mud roads. I hear that has now changed and that the little mountain valley has been transformed into a veritable nirvana for the skiing glitterati.
So why all the fuss about skiing? What is its unique allure? And – back in BC now – what is it about the backcountry variant that makes it so special?
In my days as a new Canadian I thought that skiing is skiing is skiing and about as interesting as that other national obsession in the Great White North, ice hockey. I still think that hockey is a bit dull (I offer my heartfelt apologies to my Canuck friends reading this) but with a decade in Canada now creeping up on me, I have changed my mind about skiing.
There is, of course, not one type of skiing but several, each with its own hard-line following. First off, there is downhill skiing. Also known as alpine. You get a ride to the top of a slope on a chair lift and then either howl (or whimper) down a run until you reach the bottom. Do this three, four, five or six times and then its off the bar for a few drinks and a bit of boasting with your with mates. Good honest skiing with a strong social, and sometimes alcoholic, component.
Then there is its slightly nerdier cousin, cross-country skiing (sometimes also known as Nordic). This is what Kristin grew up doing and is still irritatingly and effortlessly good at. A firm favourite among flat-landers, it is considered a little safer than its more mountainous cousin sports. (Though I hear that Angela Merkel recently broke her pelvis doing exactly this.)
During our early days in Canada, Kristin and I would sometimes head out on a frigid prairie Sunday mornings, occasionally a little fuzzy after a heavy night, for a bit of Mr-and-Mrs Cross-country. But watching my Nordette slither her way towards the horizon as I puffed and panted in the rear did nothing to endear the sport to me. (There was one particular little bottom shimmy that Kristin used to throw in which seemed to gain her several yards and was especially infuriatingly.)
And then, proud and alone, marooned like Noah’s ark at the pinnacle of winter sports, is the black sheep of the family: backcountry skiing. It may not sound like much. It is sometimes even known by the rather mundane (and therefore misleading) sobriquet of ski-touring.
But the reality of it is this: Pick a mountain, glue skins on your skis and then beast yourself upwards through thick virgin powder snow for hour after hour after hour until civilisation and people are but distant memories. Then, when you finally summit the mountain, wrung out like a wet rag, lock your heels into the bindings, chose a tract of powder never before touched by man and launch yourself off the ridge line. Floating through several feet of feather-like powder, trees rushing at you left and right, you hunch forward, push your skis skywards and twist and swivel like a hyperactive rockabilly.
This past weekend, thanks to Kjell, a friend I met at the ranch and a talented and sympathetic ski guide, who agreed to baby me through my first run, it all finally came together for me. The uphill slog was certainly punishing. But the downhill, a kaleidoscope of fresh powder, looming trees and heart-stopping vistas, was, as the younger aficionados say, sick, man, rad. I fell a dozen or more times, got snow down my neck, up my back and behind my ears, but made it down, in no small measure thanks to my excellent guide, without injury.
So, I hear you ask, is it all worth it? The endless boot-fitting, the hours spent fiddling with the bindings, straps and bleepers, the outlandishly awkward skins, not to mention the outrageous capital outlay. Dude! Are you a mountain man or a flatland mouse? A trailblazer or a born follower? A player or an also-ran? Own those hills! Shred that pow! I might not be with Putin on the Botox, the ecdysiastic horsemanship or the homophobia, but emptying out the piggy bank for a few weeks of skiing, I can see eye-to-eye with him on that.