There is something very masterful about effortlessly carving down a mountainside; past spiky dormant trees, freshly clumped in dry powder, while fingering streamers, millions of tiny white specks, floating in nature’s rhythm, follow your descent. With coordinated force you disturb the mountain’s precious blanket of white, ever panning your view, hunting for yet another perfect patch of untouched snow, only to be engulfed again and again. As you are swallowed into the cool blizzard of airborne, slow motion, fluffy snowflakes, they swirl and encircle you in a phantom haze. Yet, you are totally composed, calm, tranquil, breathing in and out, in time with the carving of each arc, as it twists through the trees. Smiling, yes, you realize, this is Mountain Nirvana.
Delving into the outdoor sport of downhill skiing, in Canada’s western mountains, seems fitting for celebrating another winter Olympic year. People first started utilizing pieces of wood affixed to their feet, to move on top of the snow, thousands of years ago in the northern climes of China, Scandinavia and Russia. Although the Norwegians regularly held competitions, for cross country ski touring and ski jumping in the early 1800s, the first recorded alpine (downhill) race was in Sweden in 1879. It was many years later, not until the winter Olympics held in Germany in 1936, that skiing athletes were first included into the games.
Playing in the snow brings back childhood memories of my walking around our treed gardens in Quebec on one ski, practicing up for the big day, when I could go weekend skiing in the Laurentian Mountains with my three older sisters. I remember falling down and standing up, again and again until I was completely exhausted. I am sure that these sessions gave me my demeanour of resiliency today, to always get up and keep going, no matter the challenge. As a youngster I progressed to taking downhill ski lessons and always dreamed of heading to ski hills. Years later I became a true Snow Professional, a downhill ski instructor.
As Canadians most of us have learned to feel some affection for the frosty season, for its snowy daytime brilliance and its glistening sparkle, bringing us delightful joy. While each will choose their favoured pathway for wintry activity, mine has always been to silently glide and creatively coordinate a dance on skis. I am addicted to the feeling of floating naturally in a wintry wonderland; whether through forested glades, down a lumpy mogul pitch or carving high speed turns the length of a wide open slope, it’s all pure paradise.
I often spend holidays in the Canadian west, skiing with my husband, sisters and close friends. I was even engaged in the moguls on Larch at Lake Louise in the mid 1980s. Our days of skiing exhilaration are usually followed by cozy evenings of fireside dinners and sometimes a visit to the rejuvenating hot springs at Radium, but each time we will end up cosily tucked into a warm chalet for the night. Sore muscles, are our badge of honour, proving that we have strived beyond, with satisfaction of achievement.
Going downhill skiing in major mountains anywhere is not exactly a straight transfer to longer trails on steeper slopes. Higher elevations mean more challenging snow conditions which can test fitness endurance, plus higher altitudes, above 2,500 meters, lungs are less efficient so less oxygen is available in your blood than you are accustomed to back home. After a few days living at a higher altitude, oxygen absorption improves, but initially you have to work harder to get the same performance from your body. It is also hard to fathom distance and size comparisons in the mountains. With grand immensity it takes longer than expected to get to where you can visually see and slopes appear gentler in comparison to the surrounding mountains of avalanche prone slopes.
Skiing at western ski resorts where the skiable vertical is close to or in excess of 1,300 meters and chalet warmth is rarely close by, you need to be prepared with reliable equipment and extra layers of protective body gear for the windy subzero mountain environment. I wear super dark sunglasses under my goggles for eye protection from intense sun exposure on treeless slopes that are closer to the sun, plus a helmet to shield my head. As the years pass and my fitness robustness fluctuates, I plan my daily energy output accordingly. Earlier in the day, when my enthusiasm is greatest, I usually tackle more challenging slopes, those that are steeper and deeper with snow, like the Feuz Bowl and Terminator at Kicking Horse, Roy’s Run onto Schober’s Dream and Taynton Bowl at Panorama, or anywhere at Fernie. All these respectable runs require extended periods of active intensity, quick moving power and enduring strength to push through changing conditions of snow. When skiing in the west, expect maximum challenge; varying snow conditions, cool temperatures, chilling winds and physical demands that will stretch your limits.
Whatever the time of day, I always enjoy high speed carving down open slopes, when all I have to think about is instinctive fluid dynamic movement, perfectly timed and coordinated to effect graceful harmony. If my balance wobbles or my reaction time is not quite perfect, I re-center my stance on the skis and strive for perfection again, as I know the next turn promises to deliver an invigorating shot of adrenaline and an endorphin rush that will keep me encouraged and inspired onwards.
Cautionary is the attitude I demonstrate for mountain exploration, especially with respect to not going beyond boundary warning signs, which are there for survival reasons, not to restrict people’s fun due to private ownership. Outside the mountain playground is an immense and unforgiving wilderness with many life threatening consequences, where venturing beyond patrolled terrain, can end in serious consequences. Fortunately mountain resorts have an endless quantity of trails and snowy terrain to more than satisfy your time and energies.
If you like to hike trails or drive a vehicle, skiing is an ultimate adventure without restriction of pathways or road lines. Open sky ‘Blue Bird’ days in the mountains are so special, where spectacular scenery seems to go on forever. As everything lays asleep under a blanket of white, all I need do is observe where I want to go, which miraculously translates through my legs and into my feet which drive my direction of intension on the slope. Over and over again I seek a deep collection of snow, even sunlight, something that will create a slight friction for just a second, for at that exact point I will alter my stance and begin power steering into yet another turn.
Downhill skiing brings you extraordinary feelings, to float with lack of restraint and experience physical expression with only the enchantment of an invisible gravity that mediates your decent through a frozen hillside, allowing your skis to gracefully carve through the densely packed snowflakes. Even though I am not an Olympic athlete there are so many reasons to be drawn to and tempted back repeatedly to this enchanting world of captivating exhilaration, a glorious mountain paradise.
By wilderness writer & photographer Cynthia Percival.