More Than Pow Turns: The Value of Skiing Uphill
A friend recently said to me, “You love skiing more than anybody else I know.” I laughed and replied that I probably just talk about skiing more than anybody else he knows, which is likely true. It’s easily my favorite activity, and it seems I can’t shut up about it. Maybe this is in part due to my late-in-life adoption of the sport—I’ve only been skiing for three seasons after all. But why am I so obsessed with a pair of planks that I attach to my feet? Skiing, more specifically ski touring, has profoundly changed my life. I credit the sport with more than entertainment and enjoyment: it has been a huge balancer of my mental health.
It’s easy to get lost in the idea that skiing is an adrenaline sport, available only to the fortunate. Through the lenses of energy drinks and giant ski resorts, we see helicopter drops, shiny gear, and brightly-clad twenty-somethings bobbing around in endless powder; a row of shiny, smiling Skittles spraying their way from the summit to the bar. But the sport isn’t all adrenaline, smiles, and blower pow. Skis are, after all, a tool. The utilitarian nature of our rockered or cambered planks can often be overlooked, forgotten amidst the radness of modern ski culture. But before skis were redesigned for downhill use, they were a major mode of transportation for in Nordic cultures. Evidence of early skis age back at least 5000 years. They allowed ancient society to follow herds of migratory animals through winter conditions for survival.
This is my main attraction to the sport of skiing. It isn’t just entertainment; it isn’t just for fun. Skiing is a tool. And, in my personal experience, it is medicine. With a pair of skins and AT bindings, our skis allow us to access terrain that we couldn’t otherwise. They allow us to push our limits as humans, both physically and mentally. The practice of ski touring teaches us about ourselves as it heightens our senses to our own limitations in the mountains. It deepens our relationship with the natural world. Whether racing up peaks in a skin suit on a pair of gram-less toothpicks or breathlessly breaking trail on heavy powder planks, skiing uphill always forces humility and demands respect for nature.
A city kid who grew up on the East Coast, I didn’t spend time in the mountains until my twenties. With a long history of depression and severe anxiety, my mental health greatly improved when I moved to Alaska and prioritized time in the outdoors, disconnecting from society and computer screens, pursuing my interests as a photographer, and growing into myself as an outdoorswoman. Of course I was not completely healed of my troubles: there are always, and will always be, times of pain and struggle. But they are now less than they once were. For a number of years, winters were particularly hard. My time in Wilderness has become a necessary medicine for me, but the harshness of the colder months held me at bay, having no skills for winter navigation of the mountains.
After spending one winter in Montana, I desperately wanted to learn to ski in order to gain access to the mountains in winter. But I feared that at 27, I was too old to start. Luckily, I had smart and supportive loved ones who pushed me in the right direction. A friend loaned me her old skis, boots, and skins in the early part of 2016. My partner taught me to skin. Unmotivated in any other realm of my life and previously unable to get myself off the couch due to a familiar bout of seasonal depression, I began to skin up our local mountain a few days a week, sweating and struggling with the new sensation of hiking with twenty pounds of metal and plastic attached to my lower extremities. A friend and I enrolled in a women’s ski clinic that elevated our skills from the pizza wedge to parallel turns. I began to skin regularly up Snowbowl to safely practice my skiing and to seek out the endorphins that course through one’s body on top of a mountain at sunset. Addicted, and deliriously in love with moving through the mountains in winter, I made it my personal goal to learn this endlessly valuable skill as quickly as I could.
Learning a new sport as an adult has of course been challenging and frightening, but the benefits on my mental state have seriously out-shined any fear or frustration that has accompanied the task. They say that learning a new motor skill as an adult has undeniable impacts on the brain, creating new gray matter in the motor cortex in addition to the obvious benefits of regular exercise and the pursuit of fitness. Though I still have a lot of learning to do, I can now ski lines that once terrified me, and thanks in large part to our local Randonee Race series, I’ve developed a technical skinning skill set that allows me to access steep and challenging terrain. This has allowed me me to reach winter summits and deepen my relationship with the mountains. Following the avalanche reports, discussing conditions with other members of the community, and learning about snow science has greatly heightened my respect for nature and its radical forces. For me, it's not just about those few powder turns we experience after tracking down untracked snow. It's about moving through the mountains, being in the cold, taking in the high of adventure and accomplishment in the outdoors.
Through relentless practice, while embracing tears and panic attacks skiing wind-buffed ridges or skinning alongside cornices, I have made skiing my own. I may not make effortless or beautiful turns on my way down, but I sure as hell hold my own on the way up. And if I’ll allow myself to be for a second, I’m pretty damn proud of that. A few years ago, I was celebrating with unadulterated joy when I linked my first three turns on a gradual slope during a mountaineering trip in the Alaska Range. Three seasons later, I’m celebrating podiums in the Rec division of our local Randonee Races. Skiing in all of its enjoyability has given me a goal that I will never walk away from. And, of course, I enjoy the heart-swelling feeling of floating in powder as much as the next person. So, coming from a thirty year old woman who is not particularly brave or super athletic, if you think it’s too late to strap on some planks and head into the mountains, I’d encourage you to think again. I got to see some adult friends take lessons and step into ski bindings for the first time recently, and their joy at the end of the day was contagious. It reminded me of my first time linking turns on skis, which I invite you to laugh at below: