Ski and Surf in the Arctic
They were days of physical fumbling, uncertain amusement and awkward fraternity. Later, as skiing became a more frequent habit, the worm turned: time on the snow for me became an escape and necessity—something important.
Skiing’s “importance” was a rabbit hole I readily dove down as a ski writer and magazine editor—the central theme of what I proudly called a job. Though its unspoken premise was to sell skiing through celebration, my concept of what that entailed changed almost from the start; when you’re preaching to an eager choir, I found that what’s truly important is quickly and easily distorted. Penning litanies of what I thought mattered about skiing was essentially telling skiers that these things should matter. But who was I to lecture?
While immersion had a flattening effect on my objectivity, self-questioning, at least, continued. A few hundred thousand words later, I decided skiing held no gravity in any larger context but was nonetheless important to me. And that magazines and movies and introspective columns were but tools to figure out what skiing meant to those who either created or consumed them. This cast the act of ripping down a mountain as an open question to which everyone could have their own answer. Some would be similar, others truly unique. And after years spent rolling with an international coterie of ski buddies, photographers, moviemakers, athletes, and aspirants of every stripe, the best answer seemed the simplest: skiing was fun. That was why we skied.
This implied the proper, humbler corollary: something that’s only fun can’t also be important. Perhaps that was why pure joy and playfulness were anathemas to the machinations of an overly-serious ski industry. To state so, as the magazines I worked with did, was a revolution—a de facto act of commercial treason. I wondered why it had taken me so long to figure this out. Rebels like Shane McConkey would make a living holding up that very mirror while simultaneously driving the bus. I got aboard, and it dominated my perceptions for a decade. Then the worm turned again.
If skiing was only fun, I reasoned, then why do so many continue treating it as something of great importance? What I landed on this time felt accurate but also facile: because we do it. We ski not because it’s essential in any existential sense but because it’s personally meaningful. We construct our lives, we do things we enjoy, we imbue them with meaning, and we find meaning important. Skiing is meaningful in being a personal passage and movement, planting seeds of outdoor affinity and winter community, exploring freedom and self-expression, and delivering the much-craved chemistry of thrill. Meaningful, it appears, is an answer to life’s many unformulated questions.
In retrospect, my entire career has comprised investigating the quandary of why it even exists. And after 30 years of thinking, overthinking, rejecting and rethinking, I finally have a summary worth sharing: that skiing is fun makes it more important to us, and that it’s important to us makes it more fun.
If you believe what the Dalai Llama says about laughter and happiness, it’s right there: fun is the highest form of self-affirmation. And that not only makes it significant but the most outstanding teacher of all.