OK, so I’ve been skiing now for 3 weeks and apart from a brief gripe about snowboarders there has been virtually no evidence on the blog that I have done any skiing. Time to correct that.
But first a brief discourse on snow. It has been debated since the 1980’s whether or not the Eskimos have an unusually large number of words to describe snow, in 1984 an editorial in the New York Times inflating the figure to 100. Some regarded the claim as a hoax and contested it. It seems, however, that it may well be just a matter of semantics, all to do with how different languages are structured and words formed to express concepts1.
Whatever, there is no doubt that the snow in Whistler on the west of the Rockies is very different from that around Banff on the east. Whistler has a maritime climate with warmer temperatures and larger amounts of snow which is typically large flakes, ‘wet’ and heavy, while Banff has a continental climate with significantly lower temperatures and fine, powdery, light snow. Indeed, because Whistler is only about half the altitude of Banff it is not uncommon for it to be raining in the village even though snowing on the mountain half a gondola ride way (that’s a mountain gondola or ‘cable car’ not the sleek black things poled around Venetian canals, and pronounced ‘gondola’ rather than ‘gondola’ by some Canadians to differentiate the two).
There had been heavy falls of snow early in the season in Whistler giving an almost caricature Christmas card look to the town when we arrived with roofs covered in thick overhanging layers of the white stuff. And it was still snowing, although not the large, wet flakes I had been given to expect.
Nevertheless the skiing was very different not only because the snow was heavier and therefore slowed the skis more but also because of the pervading cloud cover. Some days the cloud masked the entire mountain giving a very ‘flat’ light and making it impossible to see the shape of the snow-covered ground, a problem for skiing incompetents like me. Other days the gondola carried us through a cloud band and into bright sunshine towards the peaks. And then a crystal clear day with blue sky everywhere.
Skiing has its origins going back possibly 5 millennia as a means of transport over snow, but as a sport it dates back only to the latter part of the 19th Century. Don’t get me wrong, skiing is very enjoyable but looked at objectively it is a somewhat bizarre sport. The name comes from the Old Norse word “skíð” meaning ‘stick of wood’ and basically that’s what we do, strap modern high-tech, expensive, fashionably decorated planks to our feet and slide downhill trying to achieve a compromise between speed and control. And occasionally stopping to look at the scenery which is breathtaking when it’s not wreathed in cloud.
Strapping planks to our feet is strange enough but in order to keep them there we encase our feet in rigid plastic boots and clamp them tight to prevent any possibility of movement. Typically these days boots each have four metal camming devices which are ratcheted as tight as they will go and then clamped shut, usually accompanied by much grunting with the effort as each clamp is levered into place. It would be regarded as inhumane and cruel if we did it to others, like Mediaeval torture devices or Chinese foot-binding, but somehow it’s OK if we do it to ourselves.
Walking in ski boots is an art, but neither a very pretty nor dignified sight. It is impossible to stand upright. This is because the legs cannot be straightened, the boots holding them in a forward inclination in order to help achieve the best skiing position, tilting the body forward towards the front of the skis. Walking is therefore a series of articulated jerks, going up or down steps more exaggerated jerks. It’s a relief to get them off and put on normal boots or shoes.
The boots are clamped onto the skis and off we go trying not to cross the front of the skis over each other as that way lies discomfort, pain and, worst of all, indignity. As we do so a group of 2 year-olds is likely to ski past like tiny ducklings in neat formation following the mother-duck in a green jacket labelled ’SKI SCHOOL’, zooming downhill in perfect smooth curves. If only ……
But being up in the high mountains in winter conditions makes it all worthwhile and I always go armed with a camera.