01 Apr Yo, Dude, Powder!
I must admit I had never really understood the fascination with powder. In the Kootenays, where we live, as autumn turned each year to winter, it was if the locals fell under a sorcerer’s spell, real enough to its victims, but inexplicable to the unaffected. The initiated were still physically present and even capable of conducting simple tasks and holding basic conversation, but you could see that they were no longer really with the rest of us.
“It’s gonna be an awesome season,” otherwise down-to-earth types would enthuse to each other breathlessly, gazing up at the mountain peaks with vacant, dreamy eyes. “The powder… the powder…”
Skiing, I came to realise, is the closest thing we have in our valley to religion. To a point, the fascination is understandable. Within half an hour’s drive of our ranch, we have two of the world’s leading heli- and cat-skiing operations and within two hours a half dozen more.
I have had the occasional ski bum friend from Europe turn green with envy when I mention that I now live in the Selkirk mountains, an area that among the cognoscenti is synonymous with vistas of deep virgin powder. But in the time we have lived here all the snow talk has left me, well, cold. When our friends packed up their winter gear and headed upwards, I would wave them off from my doorstep, quietly grateful to be left behind.
My winter activities were mostly restricted to shovelling snow or trudging through cloying drifts in my wellies to give the dogs some much-needed winter exercise. Even though I professed to like the winter, I found myself slyly sympathising with the snowbirds, those well-off retired Canadians who head to Florida or California at the first sign of frost and don’t return until the sun shines out in May.
But this year, after nearly six years living in this skiing paradise, Kristin finally forced me to give it a try. Despite my grumbles, she booked us two beginner ski lessons at Whitewater, a world-class ski resort a couple of hours down the road.
I had been on skis before, but it had never ended well. When I was a tot, my father once took me skiingThe Making of a Ski Bum – Part 1 in Austria. A macho Hungarian, his attitude was hardly of the modern caring-sharing tactile variety. He dumped me in the morning in a ski school full of older Austrian school kids, each and every one of whom had grown up in the mountains, and disappeared off to cavort alone on the mountainside.
Apparently I sat on the back of my ski boots, which were several sizes too big, ignored the instructions thrown my way in a language I couldn’t comprehend, and wept quietly. When he arrived back at the end of the day with a “Learned to ski yet?” I must have looked at him with glowering hatred because he never took me skiing after that.
For much of my adult life, I managed to avoid the dreaded ski hill. “My knees just aren’t up to it,” I would mutter sadly, if invited, as if there was nothing I would have liked better than to join in.
Marrying an Estonian might have been asking for trouble, but, it turned out that Kristin, though an excellent cross-country skier, had little experience on slopes. Once in a while, when we lived in Russia, we would head off for a circuit or two around Moscow’s Sokolniki park after an outdoor lunch on a Saturday, but the vodka helped calm my nerves and the prospect of a proper Russian sauna at the end of the day made the humiliation and the bruises somehow more palatable.
So when Kristin raised the subject again this winter, at first I resisted. My knees hurt, I whined. It’s just not for me, I wheedled. But finally, one day, I ran out of excuses and she dragged me off to the bunny hill for our first formal lesson. As we pulled into the snowy car park at 5,000 feet, I saw dozens of people hammering down almost vertical slopes at death-defying speed. My stomach churned. My knees wobbled. If Kristin hadn’t been there I would have turned and fled.
But, of course, few things in life are as bad as our fears would have us believe. I was hardly a fast learner, but after a couple of hours I was snow-ploughing well enough with the five-year-olds. Kristin, with genuine Nordic blood coursing through her veins, was, of course, a natural. While I was sadly bereft of any technique and spent much of my time falling over and trying to get up again, she quickly developed a jaunty rhythm that kept her upright and looking good.
The following day, another instructor took us up for our first green run. At one point I was so scared I simply sat down in terror at the prospect of a gently sloping section. At that point Kristin disappeared to Europe and I was left to my own devices. At first I prevaricated, but eventually forced myself back up the mountain. And as the days went by, I slowly improved. First there was skidding, and then carving, tight turns and traverses.
At lunchtime I would hang out in the lodge, surrounded by snowboarders. They were a showy lot with lanky hair and garish lime trousers. They communicated in code.
“Yo, dude, gnarly.”
“Sick, man, supersick.”
I thought about learning the lingo but decided that it was a language too far for me, much more challenging than the Helmandi dialect of Pashto I struggled with last year.
The grown-ups were scarcely better, though they sought to impress with dress rather than vocabulary. Many of them paraded in gear that must have costs in the thousands, every available flap sporting a designer label. For my part, I got a pair of nice though slightly old-fashioned used skis from a friend for a hundred bucks, some old but serviceable boots for a hundred and fifty and a ratty old helmet from a second-hand bicycle shop for about twenty.
There were other bumps on the road of my development, more profound than my linguistic and sartorial setbacks. Several times, after a couple of runs without falling I would get too cocky, speed up and my descent would end with a bone-jarring fall or a nose full of snow. I broke two poles in short succession.
But overall I was on an upward if lowly trajectory. I went out with two friends one day and managed to crack a couple of blue runs. By my last day I was even nibbling at the heels of the black diamonds. I returned for an hour’s lesson with one of my earlier instructors and he professed himself pleased with my progress. During our check-out I had one spectacular when I dug my tips into the powder at the bottom of a steep vertical and flew 12 feet through the air onto my face. A passing snowboarder commented: “Yo, man, buddy just bailed.”
Of course, the winter is departing now and the ski hills are preparing to close for the season. Even at altitude the white stuff is turning to rain. But this year, for the first time, as the chairs grind to a halt and the groomers head into the workshops, I, like the other locals, will be going into collective mourning.
During the summer, if I can find a quiet moment, I may even hang out on some of the snowboarding forums and try and pick up a little of the lingo. And, come next November, I too, with the rest of the Kootenays, will be gazing skyward and muttering in a dreamy voice: “The powder, man, the powder.”