Alpine Love in the Time of Coronavirus
Part 1 — Report from Åre, Sweden*
by Tobias Liljeroth (20/3)
I shouldn’t even be here. March is usually my travel month. The time of the year when our final issue of the publishing season has been sent to the printers, and I can finally reap the out-of-office rewards of being a ski magazine editor—discovering new places to ski or revisiting familiar stomping grounds.
Today, I was supposed to be in Engelberg, Switzerland, cruising down the mighty Titlis. And next weekend, well, I was supposed to leave for Alyeska Resort in Alaska—the last frontier, a destination I’ve dreamed of since my days of binge-watching ski movies during the early part of the big-mountain freeski revolution in the late ‘90s. But it wasn’t meant to be, as a tiny virus decided on a different fate for skiers—and the rest of the world for that matter. I’m not crying about missing those trips, however, as it is what it is and the world has more pressing problems than me missing out on a few turns on some remote mountain.
But a different kind of fate has left me more-or-less stranded in one of the few places in the alpine world that still offers lift-accessed skiing—my hometown of Åre, Sweden. As ski resorts, sports leagues, schools, workplaces, and entire countries around the globe shut down entirely, the party pretty much still goes on in Åre—much to the shock of the world around us. Hell, even China, of all places, is questioning our government’s decisions at this very moment. Albeit the crowds are smaller than usual, restaurants and bars a bit less crowded, but we’re still skiing. From the lifts. Only history will tell if we made a wise call in a shitty situation, or screwed up royally. We might never know.
The lifts in Åre are still open, but for how long?
As I ride the same chairlift I’ve sat in thousands of times before, looking down through my ski tips to the slushy groomer below I can’t help but feel a sense of shame. Should we really be doing this when entire populations are in quarantine without even being able to leave their own homes?
Friends from other parts of the world would give a lot to be able to do what I’m doing right now. And that can’t help but make you realize how much of a privilege skiing really is, something never to be taken for granted, and truly enjoyed every single time you have the opportunity. We can think what we want of the social hysteria currently washing over society like a tsunami, but we can at least use the situation to think about what really matters and what we cherish most, whether that includes socialising, spending time with families and loved ones, or making turns down a snow-clad mountain.
I’ve had several long breaks from skiing during the past few years due to injuries. Those episodes sting a bit to begin with, but after a while, a determination and drive to get back to full fitness takes over. You know it’s only for a limited period of time, and that soon enough you’ll be back skiing again. Things are a bit different this time as no one knows when this pandemic will be over. The waiting might not be the hardest part after all (sorry, Tom Petty)—it’s the not knowing when it will be over and what will happen to the world as we know it in the meantime.
Social distancing through ski-touring is practiced by many locals.
The sun and the wind greet me as I step out of the gondola at the top of the lift system. I put my skins on and start walking towards the very top of the mountain. The next time I do this, I might very well have to walk all the way from the valley floor as the lifts could shut down at any given moment with only a few hours’ notice. In the meantime, we’ll just have to deal with what’s in front of us while making the best of the current situation.
Right now, that happens to be a northeast-facing slope with cold, slightly wind-buffed snow. This run will still be here whether I can use the lifts for part of the way, or have to walk every step up from the valley. And, regardless of what happens in the world, the mountain will always be here, waiting for us, offering that unique privilege of natural communion we call skiing.
*) Since this story was published, the Swedish Health Ministry has recommended
all ski resorts, including Åre, to close their facilities on April 5th.
Tobias Liljeroth is the editor of esteemed ski magazine Åka Skidor.
He lives in the mountain town of Åre, Sweden.