When my cousin Wally first described the glories of spring skiing, I didn’t initially believe him.
It seemed too good to be true. I was 6 and he was 15. He lived in Colorado and I lived in Canada, and he described sunny skies and crisp snow and skiing in a short-sleeved shirt and cutoff shorts and getting a tan.
At that tender age, I’d never been snow skiing, but for me any outside play on a mountain had always involved gray skies and a wooly survival parka. Could the utopia of spring skiing really exist?
The Long Road to the Perfect Spring Day
Opportunities to test the existence of spring skiing abounded. Canada is crammed shoulder to shoulder with mountains, and while growing up I had three world-class ski hills within an hour and a half of my house — Big White, Apex Alpine, and Silver Star. Only twenty minutes away was a small bunny-hill of a family slope called Last Mountain (named for Scottish pioneers, the Last family, not because it was the last place you’d ever go to ski).
My parents didn’t ski, but when I was about 10 some schoolyard chums took me skiing for the first time at Last Mountain. It was January and snowing heavily and I slid all over the place, my legs askew, my arms clutching hard to the rope tow.
I tried snow skiing again when I was about 12. It was late November and the wind blew cruelly. I found the sport similarly painful, difficult, and cold. Spring skiing would need to wait.
It wasn’t until I was 14 when I got involved in a youth group that I really started to apply myself to skiing with faithfulness. Snowboarding didn’t exist back then to any widespread degree. If you wanted to be cool on the slopes in the early 1980s, you opted for the longest skis you could find — measured in centimeters; 190s were all right; 210s were the epitome of cool.
VCRs had barely been invented, but one weekend some enterprising tech friend rented a Betamax and we watched Warren Miller’s Steep & Deep, our jaws hanging open at the smooth aerials and effortless alpine freestyle. We knew we had a long way to go but were confident we were in the right sport, for sure.
My friend Kurt Zimmerman’s dad bought a brand new Toyota Land Cruiser in 1985 — the original classy beast. Kurt could drive the truck to take us skiing if he asked his dad nicely enough, and Kurt and I discovered together powder skiing and night skiing and powder babes and quad chairlifts.
Later that December we drove across the border to The Firs Chalet, a winter camp at Mt. Baker near Bellingham, Washington. The snow dumped in record depth that year, with the sides of the road climbing up the mountain plowed higher than our vehicle.
We weren’t much good at the sport yet, Kurt and me. When you only ski four to six times a year, snow skiing takes years to perfect.
But I remember looking down from the Mt. Baker chairlift and watching an older kid named Rod Janz slice through the black diamond moguls of the North Face run like a hot knife through butter.
Rod was a Phys. Ed. major at the University of British Columbia and built like a young Schwarzenegger. A week earlier he’d bent in half one of his ski poles while duking it out against Whistler’s steep backcountry, so he needed to pick up some new poles quick but was strapped for cash. At a yard sale he found a pair of girl’s poles for ten bucks — colored a frilly pink — and laughed with craggy panache when he showed us. He didn’t care.
That attitude summed up the approach to the sport back then. As far as gear went, only your skis, bindings, and boots mattered. Beyond that, the best skiers didn’t care what their poles or ski clothes looked like.
It wasn’t uncommon to see a really good skier dressed in raggedy old rain pants and a dorky slicker he’d borrowed from his dad. Dressing poorly on the ski slopes was perhaps a stance of rebellion against the 1980s trend of consumerism. Only Yuppies and posers wore fashionable ski clothes. For the rest of us, only the skiing itself mattered. You showed off by your moves.
The next year I bought my first pair of skis. Before then I’d always rented or borrowed from friends. I splurged on my dream skis: 195 centimeters in length, a pair of red Olin 870s, just a step away from the black Olin Mark IVs James Bond had worn so deftly in For Your Eyes Only. I had them mounted with Look RX 89 turntable bindings with the red sensor toe release in case you crashed head on.
I don’t remember the brand of my boots. A few seasons later my boots were thrashed and useless, but those Olin skis I still have 29 years later, scarred and beautiful and no longer used, hung as a portrait of honor on my garage wall.
The Perfect Day Dawns Bright
With my Olins still brand new, that was the year I discovered spring skiing.
I was a senior in high school. It was a Monday in early April and for some reason we had no school. I borrowed my dad’s four-door Pontiac Grand LeMans and drove up to Big White with my two snow compadres, Mark and Dan.
The sky stretched out overhead, one solid mass of golden blue.
The air was summer warm. Beach-like. It was just as Wally had described.
That day we wore shorts and tee shirts. No goggles. Just Ray-Ban sunglasses. All of us were competent enough by then to tackle the black diamond runs — in guts if not in gracefulness. Our favorite runs were called Goat’s Kick, Dragon’s Tongue, and a hair-raiser of a vertical aptly named The Cliff.
We skied all day in the sun. Run after run on crispy yet carvable snow. For lunch we hung out on the deck outside the lodge as best friends under a vivid cerulean sky and ate ten-dollar barbecue hamburgers, then headed back up the mountain. One glorious day in my then-short history of skiing.
Wally was right. If you’ve never been spring skiing, it’s like an entirely new sport. You’re not fighting the elements so much as soaking in them. Spring skiing is about enjoying a new ambiance and balmy attitude as much as actually moving through snow.
But trouble lurked in paradise.
In those days, regrettably, we laughed at sunscreen. On any normal summer day we could play outside from dawn to dusk without wearing any sort of chemical protection. Hey, we slathered on baby oil in those days, trying to sizzle as dark as we could get. And who knew back then that rays are more intense the higher in altitude you go?
When my first day of spring skiing was over I looked in the mirror, my sunglasses still on, and saw only red. When my glasses came off, I looked like a raccoon.
The next day as I passed by in the school hallways, people literally pointed and laughed at me. My face was swollen and tender. I looked like a fried egg.
But I didn’t care. The glory of the day still rode confidently in my psyche.
“What happened to ye-ee-ew?” a girl asked a few days later. She was honey-haired and cheerleader-esque, a girl who didn’t normally talk to me. Undoubtedly she was wearing Jordache jeans.
“Spring skiing,” I said, my voice as sultry as The Fonz.
“Well,” she said in perfect hot seriousness. “It looks good on you.”
The red was already turning into a tan. I wasn’t shaving in the meantime, and I felt stubbly and undercover, like Don Johnson in Miami Vice.
Only spring skiing could produce that kind of swagger in me.
If you haven’t tried it, you need to go now.
The glory of the day awaits.
What’s your favorite spring sport and why?
Marcus Brotherton is a regular contributor to the Art of Manliness.
Read his blog, Men Who Lead Well, at www.marcusbrotherton.com.
A longtime bestselling nonfiction author, Marcus’ debut work of fiction, Feast for Thieves, will be published this September.