Archive for the ‘skiing’ Category


December 11, 2009


  I remember hearing years ago in school something to the effect that Eskimos have more than a hundred different names for snow.  Recent investigation of that thought took me to a ponderous discussion of linguistic relativism.  Whatever the number, it seems obvious to me that a people living in an environment so dominated by a substance would develop a very nuanced relationship with it.

  Consider recreational users of backcountry in winter.  Skiers, hikers, climbers etc.  With experience, they’ll develop acute sensitivity to the nature of the snow through which they tramp, slide, andor ascend and not only because it governs the nature of their progress.  The evolution of a particular season’s snowpack determines its proclivity to avalanche.

Neve is granular snow on the upper part of a glacier
Sastrugi is snow sculpted and packed by wind erosion
Graupel is that type of snow that looks like little Styrofoam balls
Hoar is frozen dew
Depth Hoar is made of cup shaped large grained faceted crystals near to the ground in a larger snowpack formed by temperature gradients.
Surface Hoar is a dangerously slippery layer of frost formed upon an existing snowpack.  Little to impede succeeding layers from sliding off…

  Those are just a few.**  None would enter the consciousness of one bereft of experience.  Couch potato or equatorial vision of snow would suffer from what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl calls the “pandering ghosts” of a reproduction.  An image of snow on a mountain would reflect their preconceived notions – would show them what they wanted to see.  Like an un-defrosted freezer in the case of the former and an air conditioned heaven maybe in the latter.

  Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley was a New England farmer who found endless joy in, you guessed it, snowflakes.  He was born in 1865 and never lost the magic that all but the grim and grisly find in a season’s first snow.  “When a snowflake melted that design was forever lost.  Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind” he wrote.

  He spent a lifetime photographing snow crystals.  Some 5,000 separate images he recorded.  Imagine how difficult it must have been!  Cold obviously, but how to get individual crystals onto a slide without breathing on them or causing them to fracture.  In an accompanying narrative, he’d then wax exuberantly about their beauty. 

  In a paper written in 1902 he used the words beauty or beautiful nearly fifty times.  Snow crystals Nos 716 and 718 were “very choice and beautiful”.  Nos 722 and 723 were “charming patterns in snow architecture.”  They were “gems from God’s own laboratory”.  No 781 is “wonderfully beautiful…”.

  What a great way to go through life, eh?  

  Finally, here’s a somewhat less tranquil manner by which to get up close and personal with a whole lot of snowflakes:

*cf photo with that of post 11-7-08


***I learned of Bentley in a wonderful book: Exuberance – The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison.

****While reading about snowflakes, I also learned that it is an incredible experience to listen to them hitting the surface of a body of water from a position beneath it.  Have to remember to check that out.

High Lands

February 6, 2009


  Daughter and I took lifts to the top of the ski area where we boarded a snow cat which took us up the ridge to a point where it narrowed and steepened.  We got off.

  After the drop off we began the hike up the ridge as it narrowed to a knife edge.  A sign read: “Hazards of back country skiing include death”.  Though wife and I had made this hike and ski descent before and though it is a far sight from the leading edge of this day’s temerity,  I had been sleepless the night before.

  To voluntarily enter a challenging environment with one of one’s progeny can only hope to be a healthy endeavor if accompanied by some degree of expertise, experience, and humility. And voluntary participation.  Kids are all adults now…

  Hiking in ski boots is not natural.  Hiking up a steep trail – actually only a succession of small slots kicked in the ice and frozen snow – focuses one’s attention.  Drop your skis and you’d never seen them again.  Slip, well, you get the picture.  The wind was blowing so fiercely that the contrails from my runny nose froze solid on the left lens of my shades. 

   We reached the top.  Rested a bit and considered best route of descent.  Couldn’t  see over the corniced ridge so to be safe skied down the shoulder a bit and then dropped in.  It was steep and cruddy.  Had to be athletic and assertive.  Perfect for #3.  She knew she’d be back to drop in from point zero.

   From the bottom of the bowl a short trip down a tortured trail to a cat walk and the lift took us to the summit lodge, her mother/my wife  (the real skier) and lunch.

  It is not hard to imagine how humans began to slide down frozen inclines and even began to perfect the activity.  Just watch kids in winter upon the most modest of slopes.  Thinking of kids, hundreds of years ago in Norway a child prince was spirited away from danger upon skis for some fifty kilometers.   Name of biggest cross country ski race in the states – Birkebiener – came therefrom.

  What is difficult for me to understand is how our evolution equipped us to seek, survive, and thrive in the steep cold environment.  Well maybe I can understand the seek part.   Without a thirst for adventure in at least part of the population we’d all still be starring into Olduvai Gorge.

  But the kinesthetic part I don’t get.  Such prowess must be an epiphenomenon related to swinging through a forest canopy.  Now to think of it, that does sound like fun.

  Clearly the huge ski industry is built upon a very wide range of athleticism.  Weighted toward the heavy end.  The fact that couch potatoes enjoy it is interesting.  The fact that a few seek out the steep quick and cold is fascinating. 

  Whatever.  The conviviality on top is a fine reward.  Humans are weird and I’m glad to be one.