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Keeping the Culture Alive

It was a Saturday, and brutally cold: minus 15 before the wind chill and gusts over 30 mph. The sky was overcast and it was forbidding in the way only Vermont in February can be. The bumps at Mad River Glen were rock hard. Despite the kind of chill that gets into your bones and stays with you long after you’ve quit for the day, we kept skiing. I remember that this was right before the K2 KVC came on the market, because one of the guys I was skiing with had a test pair and we marveled at how the pink bases glowed on the snow in that eerie light. No one had ever made pink bases before (this was the first wave of neon) and it as really quite amazing, seeing that glow for the first time.

I remember many things about that day seven or eight years ago, but one of the most vivid is that it was the last day I skied at Mad River that it gave out blankets for the ride on the single chairlift. The blankets were made of heavy scratchy wool—Army style—and you’d wrap them around you as best you could. I don’t think they made much difference against the cold, but the gesture on Mad River’s part warmed you from the inside.

The ski area stopped putting out blankets on cold days not long after that. I figured it was because it lost so many when the wind blew them halfway to Sugarbush North, but it turns out that it was for insurance reasons: Mad River’s carrier was worried that skier and blanket would blow into the cable, or some other such knotty disaster.

When we were putting together this month’s lead story,
“Things that Matter,” I called photographer Gary Brettnacher for his thoughts. As an observer of ski culture, Brettnacher seemed perfect: He’s lived in Sun Valley for more than 20 years and remains passionate about skiing. His response, however, was depressing: All the cultural icons he could think of were already gone. Even after 20 minutes of picking his brain, we came up with nothing. The things that had the most resonance to him had disappeared, which says a lot about the changes in skiing over the last two decades.

The culture of skiing is rich and varied and heavy with tradition, but it is rapidly being eroded. No, not eroded: lost. With every year that passes, another tradition dies, another classic chairlift is dismantled for replacement by a quad, another trail is widened, another boundary closed. As we rush and stumble for faster lifts, perfect grooming, and more amenities, some of our most precious culture is slipping away like blankets in the winter wind.

An important distinction: Skiing will always have culture. The culture is simply the fabric of the sport at any given time. What is changing in our culture is the concept that the skiing itself comes first—not the clothes or the lodging or the lifts. I believe the most important thing is that the skiing should come first and I think most of you believe the skiing should come first, but, sadly, that’s exactly what we’re losing.

It is easy to criticize. It is easy to point to condos and say skiing has lost its romance, to well-groomed slopes and say skiing has lost its edge. The fact is, however, that in many, many places the skiing is just as wild and ragged and pure as it ever was. The fact is, there is much in our ski culture to celebrate, as you’ll see in “Things that Matter.” It’s simply that so much of it is in the minority and often hard to find and most people don’t even try. What’s so scary is that, being hidden to begin with, these things slip away so easily.

My hope is that you can help. How? First let us know what elements you think are important. Our list is by no means complete. Second, support ski culture in whatever way seems appropriate. This may mean only patronizing areas you respect (voting with your wallet) or writing in support of a given policy, like open boundaries. Or it could be mobilizing your fellow skiers against changing something, like the reduction of glades or the widening of trails.

Whatever you do, do it quick. It’s so easy to let something slip away, and nearly impossible to bring it back once it’s gone.

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 22.2, October 1993. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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