For the Love of Snow: A skier bears witness to what once was
January 10, 2020
From the pages of Issue 5: Black + White
By Stephanie Maltarich | @steph.malt
Early morning, my dad opens the door to my room, the light from the hallway shines so brightly that I squint. It's still dark outside, but he announces: “It’s time to go skiing.” I roll out of bed with sleepy eyes and tangled hair. I start to dress in the clothes my mom helped me lay out the night before: first long johns, then wool ski socks, smoothing out any wrinkles as I slide them onto my feet. Next, I pull a wool sweater over my head, followed by snow bibs, carefully clicking each buckle below each shoulder. I pack a wool hat, goggles, gloves, and scarf into a bag. I’m ready.
Dad and I hop into the car and pull out of the driveway; it’s just me and him today. Often, we ski as a family, but today is a special day, just us. We drive along empty suburban streets and he turns on our favorite radio station. At the mandatory 7-11 stop, he buys me a Moon Pie, and coffee for himself, which I think smells bad. We navigate our way out of town by way of I-70; it’s the path to the mountains for those who live in Denver. I fall asleep, head nodding to the hum of the Beach Boys or Creedence Clearwater Revival.
We are some of the first people to arrive at the empty parking lot. He helps me organize my things: making sure that I have the hat, goggles, scarf, and gloves that I packed. It’s cold today, so I grab hand warmers to keep in my pocket, just in case. My ski jacket is adorned with a few pins from my favorite ski resorts: Breckenridge, Keystone, and Copper Mountain. I wear them proudly, and I'm able to recite my favorite ski runs at each. Schoolmarm, Carefree, and Silverthorne, to name a few.
Stepping into the rental shop, we are greeted by the familiar smell of hot wax and old boots. Screeching reverberates from the back of the shop, where ski techs grind and sharpen bases and edges. While my dad fills out the paperwork, I am helped by a scruffy-bearded shop employee who helps fit me for my boots and skis. We chit chat; he asks me what I like to ski and tells me how the snow has been lately.
My dad carries both of our skis over his shoulder as I waddle along the sidewalk in ski boots. While he waits in line to purchase our lift tickets, I twirl around in a daydream, sometimes catching snowflakes if and when they fall. Looking back, I know as a twirling little girl, I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I didn’t notice that everyone around me looked the same, like me: white, middle/upper class, outfitted in ski gear, with friends and family. Back then, I never thought about the people who weren’t skiing, or why I rarely saw people of color on the slopes. Or that I was fortunate that my family had both the time and money to spend on an activity that many people didn’t have access to enjoy. It was a privilege beyond my comprehension, one that I often think about today.
Squatting down to my level, my dad feeds the wire wicket through the zipper on my jacket. He removes the paper from the back to expose its sticky side, carefully folding it over the wire while pressing firmly to smooth out the bubbles. He does the same for himself and we are finally ready. “How about a warm-up run?” he asks.
I’m giddy as I click into my skis and glide into the lift line. We always ski bell to bell, skier talk for open to close. We move downhill with ease on the freshly groomed corduroy, each carving our own art into the snow. We finish a run and quickly plan for the next and then the next on the chairlift. On our lunch break, I inhale a cheeseburger and french fries. I drink hot chocolate with whipped cream; in the coming days, the burned spot on my tongue will serve as a happy reminder of a day spent on the mountain.
I don't remember if this was one day or twenty. We weren't a family of extreme skiers, we skied maybe a handful of times each year from the mid-'80s through the mid-'90s until our schedules became too busy and my dad lost his job. As Midwest transplants, we planted our roots out West as a family, through skiing.
I do remember skiing fast and giggling. I remember freezing cold chairlifts. I remember the excitement I felt the night before a ski day. I remember running my finger along the lines on the map: green, blue, and black. I remember the quiet snow on a powder day. I remember freedom from the simple movement and gravity of sliding downhill on the snow. More than any specific moment, I remember that feeling, the feeling of joy.
That feeling is at risk. Climatic changes are shifting the story of winter, shifting the story of skiers. Winter matters to skiers. It matters to who we are, the relationships we have, and the culture and survival of mountain towns. When my family started skiing in 1986, we didn’t think much about climate change. We noticed bizarre weather, but we never worried. Most days today, I notice the weather, and I think about climate change, a lot.
What was once a sure thing, marked by real snow and cold winters, is now unpredictable. It is even more unpredictable for the future. I know a love for skiing isn’t going to solve climate change. This threat leaves me thinking about how skiing is an important part of my life and my identity. I feel lost without the movement of the seasons and my skis beneath my feet. Whether it’s the simple joy of turning on snow downhill, or the memories with friends and family, or the lifestyle in a mountain town, I don’t want to lose this. I can’t. Skiing, I think, keeps something inside of me alive, and for the love of snow, for the love of this planet, for the love of what makes us human. I want to save it.
But I don’t know how, or if it’s possible because I know that trying to save skiing won’t save us from climate change.
I know that I can call my representatives and march in the streets in an attempt to disrupt business as usual. But when I think about how slowly we are responding to a problem that requires our immediate attention and fast action, I worry about the future of skiing and skiers. They say we are running out of time. They’ve said we have 12 years to limit catastrophe. This problem, as we know, is about much more than saving skiing. But skiing is one way I know how to understand the gravity of climate change.
So, I will keep skiing, and I will keep writing, bearing witness to what once was. And I’ll reminisce about what it was like on those long car rides into the mountains and that feeling on a powder day. And I will continue to have some hope in humanity, knowing that complex thinking and ingenious ideas could surely help us avoid the worst-case scenario. If we can, we will still be able to ski, if we can tolerate warmer conditions and fewer powder days.
And that’s the hope that I can hold onto.