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Where is the Romance?

On a Jackson Hole ski day with Olympic gold medalist Pepi Stiegler in 1986, the author ponders the soul of skiing.

By Peter Shelton

Waiting for the photographers, Pepi Stiegler and I had plenty of time to chat. Pepi is a forthright Austrian, taut and youthful at 49, the long-time director of skiing at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We had just met. At the top of the tram we stared off into the early morning distance and with our poles poked deep blue holes in the snow.

We talked about the ski business, about insurance and out-of-bounds, about lift lines and bottom lines. His question was not so much for me as for himself and even, should they care to listen, for the mute, towering Tetons. He asked, “Where is the romance?”

It caught me by surprise. Surely, I thought, a man who skis like water flowing finds romance in every turn. Surely, a man who has earned Olympic gold and silver and bronze, a man who has designed his life so that he can ski every day of the winter at the biggest, steepest mountain in America, a man revered for his skiing prowess, and his companionship—surely this man is sought out by Romance itself.

And yet I understood, too. Something was not right. A metaphorical yawn (Stephen King’s next thriller?) had surrounded skiing for the last few years. Something was conspiring to dull the glow of the most romantic sport I have known. What was it?

It wasn’t long ago that skiing fit to a tee the dictionary definition of a romance: “heroic or marvelous achievements, colorful events or scenes, chivalrous devotion, unusual or even supernatural experiences.” A love affair, in other words. An insatiable fascination. A never-ending adventure heading inevitably toward poetry.

At first I put it off to age, mine and Pepi’s. “Baby Boomers Turn 40!” You read about it everywhere. There is probably a chapter in Passages called “Mid-Life Crisis Number 12: The Tarnished Sheen of Atomic Arcs.” Pepi had said as much when he asked, between pokes, if maybe we had done it all, if perhaps the quiver of anticipation had quieted to a snore.

Maybe he’s done it all, I thought. I certainly haven’t. And yet his point was true.

Experience robs the imagination. I remembered a time when it was almost all imagination. Early in my ski-teaching career my father gave me a book called Ski Fever, published in 1936 when his ski dreams were still only dreams. That year alpine events were introduced in the Munich Winter Olympics. Dick Durrance finished eighth in the slalom for the U.S. — “only 26.7 seconds behind [Germany’s Franz] Pfnür.” Skiing bloomed in exuberant innocence. Author Norman D. Vaughan: “More and more men and women are taking to the winged boards. [Winged boards—I loved it!] Boys and girls are eating it up. Why? Because, as any skier will tell you, the mastery of skis, in whatever degree, brings an exhilaration unsurpassed…There are a thousand grades of skiers from kanonen (top-notch racers) down. Though you may be the humblest of dub-beginners, there are others like you. Plenty of company in this new sport that is taking the country by storm!”

Standing there with Pepi, I remembered the book’s blue-tinted photos, the skiers in baggy pants and pole baskets the size of LPs schussing low and straight through the powder. And I remembered the feeling of being the humblest dub-beginner (in 1956), skidding and crashing and loving it for the miraculous tug of gravity, for the bite of low-oxygen cold, for the heroism in surviving another rope tow up the hill.

I remembered my first taste of real speed, soaring through the wide-mouthed gullies at Mammoth Mountain. I remembered the adrenaline surge as I followed, terrified and trusting my ski school mentors, off the cornice at Bear Valley. I remembered the slow whooooosh of that first deep powder turn at Alta. I remembered those moments as vividly as the starbursts of falling in love. Why didn’t I feel the same way about the turns I made yesterday or the ones I was about to make today? Was that it then? Was it as simple as a love affair grown too familiar?

Or was it something else? Not just my age but the age, the 1980s: baseline market research, a hot tub in every room, accountants at the helm in Aspen, brochure reality (“snowy nights and bluebird days”), bumps in the backcountry, “money for nothin’ and your chicks for free”?

My mind drifted through a litany of Romance Squelchers. Number One: the risk/liability/litigation cycle plaguing American skiing and indeed society as a whole. Ski areas must now do everything in their power to douse ski fever. State law defines what is and isn’t out-of-bounds. Insurance premium dollars match the number of crystals in a cubic meter of Sierra snowpack.

Read the back of your lift ticket. It says skiing is risky, potentially deadly, business and you are legally accepting responsibility. But, in fact, ski companies can leave no twig unpruned. Not since the case of James Sunday v. Stratton Mountain in 1977 decided that a ski area (and that blasted twig) was at fault for a novice skier’s paralyzing fall. The immediate result was a tripling of lift ticket prices. And a regrettable culture shift. “Skier Takes Tumble, Romance Held Liable.”

Pepi told me about a man who came raving into his ski school office. “He was so pissed off. The weather had been bad, and he was just screaming at me: ‘Look, I saved all this money for a week’s vacation!” It pisses me off. How have people become so conditioned to expect what they do?”

Americans and their lawyers and their insurance companies want no-risk skiing. Or perhaps more accurately, they want their skiing and someone to blame should anything go wrong. To the extent they are getting what they want, the essence of skiing, of being on your own on a mountain in winter, is diminished. I rest my case.

Number Two: supermarket ticket sales. Buying your discounted lift ticket at King Soopers is about as romantic as a night watching “The Love Boat” on the tube. Alone. Call me an elitist, but I want my ski day to be as far removed from the everyday washday miracle as possible. How far we have come from the elegance of early Sun Valley!

“Romance Discounted, Your Price: Cheap.”

This is just one example of desperate commercialism born of a flat market. Skiing isn’t growing. So existing areas are competing like mad for a bigger share of a static pie. Come-ons like “guaranteed skiing” months ahead of natural winter may be good for Thanksgiving reservations, but they’re not good at creating life-long skiers. The product is not a good one. While important, snowmaking and grooming have downsides: when you bulldoze all the interesting shapes out of the way so you can lay down your computerized snow and run the cats over it, you risk reducing the experience to homogenized, lowest common denominator skiing. Adventure-free skiing. The best-surprise-is-no-surprise skiing.

Number Three: music piped onto lodge decks, and worse, out onto the slopes. Puhleaze! Must we mall the mountains, too? Give me credit for the tunes in my head. Or leave me the silence to tune into the music of the spheres. “Romance Wants to Dance, Jilted By Punk.”

Number Four: real estate. And this one could maybe jump up a notch or two on the charts. The cold, modern truth is this: real estate, not your lift ticket, pays for mountain development. One insider at a Colorado resort told me recently, “Skiing has become a by-product of what we do.” Skiing is not the raison d’être it once was. Today it is an amenity. Like hot tubs. And cable TV.

Last spring I met a young professional who told me about his first day skiing at an up-and-coming resort. Aglow from the exercise and the mountain air, he sat down for a beer at a local tavern. But before he could touch lips to cold foam, a stranger sidled up to him and said, “Hey, let me buy ya that beer,” handed him a card, and proceeded to barrage him with condo listings. “Realtor Mugs Romance, Sells Dream.”

Number Five: ski area food. Most ski area food is bad. Overpriced and bad. By contrast the food on Swiss mountains is reason enough to book an Alpine vacation. Why can’t we do better at home? Could it have anything to do with the fact that an American ski area is a monopoly granted by the U.S. Forest Service (at least in the West)? That a single corporate entity provides the uphill transportation, snowmaking, ski patrol, ski school, food service, day care, parking, and so on? How much does an oil company, or a film studio, or a dog chow conglomerate know about exquisite food? Or the ambience necessary to enjoy it? How badly do they want to know? “Romance Coughs Up $7.50, Bites Burger.”

Increasingly, big corporations are diversifying into the ski business. The Ernie Blakes (Taos) and Dave McCoys (Mammoth), and the feisty one-man/one-mountain pioneer era they represent, are vanishing. No less an authority than Vail’s new owner, George Gillett, whose holdings include 17 newspapers, nine TV stations, and the nation’s largest lean beef packaging firm, is worried about corporate bigness at the helm in skiing. “Frankly, I’m concerned,” he told the Vail Daily. “The bigger, the more corporate, the more formal the infrastructure, the farther we get from the needs of the customer.” “Romance Takeover Bid, Fun Merger Rumored.”

Vail is banking on nine new high-speed quad chairs to provide what they believe the customer wants: efficiency, perceived value for the dollar, the elimination of lift lines, a faster ride to the top. Early indications are that they are right, and other areas will follow suit. But this only exacerbates a condition described to me by Alta’s Alf Engen: too many ski edges scraping a finite swath of snow. “Roons the skiing,” Alf said. In his mind, the quality of the experience “underfoot” was paramount.

The quads are also a symptom of an anti-romance plague my wife, Ellen, delicately refers to as “pumping vertical.” These days people seem to want experiences they can count, check off, balance out. Quantity in a world where quality’s gone fuzzy. The concrete (biggest, best, most) as opposed to the enlightening (so ‘60s) or the ethereal (seriously unmanly). As skiing accelerates into a whirlpool of numbers (41 minutes from airport to slopes, 2,640 skiers per hour at 995 feet per minute rising 1,829 vertical feet in 540 seconds to our 736 acres of new terrain!), Romance’s life jacket may not be big enough.

Standing there with Pepi, I concluded that people just didn’t fall in love with skiing the way they used to, not with all the messy responsibilities and commitments that falling in love entails. People want their skiing guaranteed, packaged, neat and clean—no storms, no tears—just like the brochure promises. I hand you the money; you provide the thrill.

I was bummed, my reverie dark and limitless. Then the photographers, locals Wade McKoy and Bob Woodall, stepped off the tram, and we were off toward an early morning place they hoped would still harbor some untracked snow. We walked, traversed out through a huge porcelain bowl, walked some more. The sun grew warm. We stopped to shed layers. Silence washed over our movements, while inside heartbeats pumped strongly and our breathing came deep and full.

Angling up a steep ravine, our track intersected a line of cliff shadow. On one side it was too bright to look at without glasses; on the other side it was as blue and secretive as an ice cave. Tracks of a snowshoe hare, like a zipper, dashed across the blue-white fabric. Off to our right the striated, layer-cake cliffs of Cody Peak showed slivers of uninterrupted snow: Four Shadows Chute, No Shadows, Once Is Enough. Couloirs of the imagination, they were not for us this day, but maybe one day when everything is right for the walking and for the controlled elevator ride back down.

Walking. This place was farther away than I had thought. But it didn’t matter; I had reached that fine space where the track ahead, the breathing and the sliding of one foot in front of the other, combine in a kind of ecstatic soup. The worlds within and without are the same. I remembered a time I’d struggled to describe to Ellen about a particularly good walk on skis. She interrupted and said, “I understand. I know why you do it. It’s a ritual. It’s a monk’s high, one where you understand everything and where there’s no need to ask the question why.”

At last, we were there. McKoy and Woodall slipped ahead over a rounded knoll cut in half by that same sharp-edged shadow. The sunny half sparkled like a sequined dress over a shapely hip.

The camera guys called up that they were ready. They wanted us to ski side-by-side then split around Wade, as close as we could make it. Pepi and I looked at each other and decided that we would start left, pole plant, and swing right.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

We eased into the pitch. Snow crystals, sucked dry by the night old, hissed at our passing.

“Hup!” Pepi signaled our direction change, and the metronome was set: plant, hup; plant, hup. Snow flew to the sides like diaphanous curtains. Snow underfoot turned us, cushioned our landings, sent us off again as if from a trampoline. I didn’t see Pepi as much as feel him, his momentum and mine springing from side to side in unison. We swept in on McKoy like birds of prey, covered him with cold mist—just what he wanted —and stopped two more turns down the hill.

“YESSSS!” came the photographer’s animalian hoot.

“Untracked snow,” said Pepi, grinning, reaffirming the obvious. “There is romance there.”

Yes. Untracked. Romance requires possibility, anticipation, followed by the rush of action, the filling of that eager void.

We skied on, brothers in exploration, poking into little forest bowers for a spotlit jump here, a banked cutback there. Pepi was a marvel to watch: economy of motion born of so much time on skis, the gyro-like balance, the touch. He was soft when he needed to be but also revealed a penchant for exploding deep snow pillows so that a slow-arcing shower seemed always to hang about his descent.

I not only wanted to ski like that when I was 49, I wanted powerfully to still be skiing at 79, like the smooth old geezers I’d seen at Mount Bachelor, in Oregon, dressed in timeless woolens Ralph Lauren would kill for, wrapping their big slow turns around a love of movement, and the home mountain. For some reason, this thought was entwined with a potent desire to ski with my own kids, to spark them and warm myself in the light of their uncomplicated enthusiasm.

Nearing the traverse that would take us back to the groomed runs, we ducked under one last set of spruce branches and into a surprise meadow. Even McKoy and Woodall hadn’t known it was there. It gleamed in the sun like an apparition, like a reward, like one of William Blake’s shining etchings of heaven. No cameras this time. To each his own unencumbered bounding.

Pepi said, “I guess it’s the attitude. It’s as romantic as you make it. We’re blessed to be able to lead people into this enjoyment. We should appreciate it, too.”

Amen, Pepi. And with that we let our tips slip into the pull, as if it were 1936, as if it were the very first time, and left all earthly worries behind.

This article was originally published in Powder Magazine (September 1986) and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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