Want to hit the slopes in the dark? No need for a headlamp, just light your whole body. Not only is this short video stylish and beautiful, it’s pretty amazing. At first I figured the snowboarder, Will Hughes, must have memorized the slope, knowing he wouldn’t hit anything on a perfectly groomed slope. Then he heads towards the trees. And the powder. You have to check this out.
Let’s face it. I’m a lucky woman. When not getting paid to ski around, start avalanches with explosives and help injured skiers and snowboarders, I write about it (see, I’m learning to include snowboarders in the discussion, maybe I’m not such a Bad Kim after all.) While researching my new book on risk and action sports, I’ve talked to thrilling athletes, interviewed fascinating scientists and unearthed interesting archives. Yesterday I found this 34-year-old newspaper clipping about skiing and risk, and why it makes us better lovers and well, quite frankly, better people. Of course, this was written before snowboarding, so I’m sure it would apply to them as well. This article was originally published in New London, Connecticut’s Daily The Day January 20th, 1978. It’s a keeper.
This sort of proves it. Skiing is good for you. What Sol Roy Rosenthal didn’t know about back in the 70s was the connection that dopamine played in our reward system. The euphoria experienced by extreme athletes is connected to dopamine, which makes us want to keep coming back to the slopes or the waves or the rock walls and experience it again. But most intriguing in Rosenthal’s research is how he claims taking calculated risks increases our awareness while pinpointing our focus, sort of opening us while honing us in all at once. If seeing the big picture with the ability to focus on the moment doesn’t make us better people, better lovers and better skiers (or snowboarders), than I don’t know what will.
Professional skier and founder of Shejumps.org, Lynsey Dyer, tells how she broke through her fear of “skiing like a girl” and learned to be her own best friend. Her advice on listening to your intuition, having a goal and lightening up on yourself are excellent nuggets for all of us, male or female, skier or snowboarder. Check it out.
“Sensation-seekers”, according to psychologists, fill their days with thrilling adventures and novel experiences. Their brains seek more sensation, more of a dopamine kick, more of that optimal flow moment than the rest of the population.
Psychologists have been watching sensation seekers for decades, comparing skydivers to reckless drivers and gamblers, lumping them all together into a wide category of “risk-takers”. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman created a personality test for sensation seeking, check it out and see where you stack up.
Neuroscientists have recently dipped into the “sensation-seeking” brain and found more enlightening discoveries. I recently interviewed Cynthia Thomson of the University of British Columbia for my upcoming book on action sports. Thomson focused her PhD study on skiers and dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s way of offering motivation in the form of a reward. It provides that nice kick of good-feeling reverie after we accomplish something big. And it turns out, not all brains handle dopamine the same way. Thomson found that skiers tend to have a variant of the DRD4 dopamine receptor that affects the way their brain handles dopamine. In other words, they needed more thrill to get the same kick.
Where psychologists and neuroscientists diverge is by lumping together athletes and addicts. In Thomson’s initial study, she didn’t separate them either. But she was able to determine the difference in later work. In addition to being sensation-seekers, addicts also score high for impulsivity. This is not so for high-risk athletes. At least not the ones that stick around. Just imagine an action sport athlete that was also highly impulsive. He or she wouldn’t be around long. Involvement in a risky sport, such as skiing, skydiving or surfing requires careful planning and extensive training. Anyone jumping off cliffs without first checking the landing (acting impulsively) isn’t going to live very long. Impulsivity tends to fade as we age, whereas sensation-seeking remains more stable.
I believe that as we get older and log more experiences our judgement overrides our impulsivity. This is evident in my job as a ski patroller and EMT. I’ve seen enough head injuries to wear a helmet while skiing. I’ve watched avalanches rip down slopes and break apart trees enough times to choose my line carefully. In many ways, I’ve gained judgement by learning from others’ mistakes. But I’ve also had my fair share of close calls.
My new book project, which I’m calling Crystalized: Finding Clarity on the Edge (but that title probably won’t last, so don’t bother googling it just yet) will take a look at the hows and whys of participation in action sports. I will especially look at my own experiences with dopamine-inducing sports and try to determine where I stack up against the experts. Most of the time I wonder what they have that I don’t have. Why are they able to huck bigger jumps, surf bigger waves, run scarier rapids and overall scare the shit out of me watching them from the near sidelines? Maybe it’s their DRD4 dopamine receptors. Or perhaps it’s their training. Or maybe I’m just a natural born scaredy-cat in comparison.
The best part about this book is the opportunity to interview some amazing athletes and brilliant scientists. I will be sharing some of these interviews here. I will also start hosting a radio show next month at Voice America, an internet radio site, where I will have many of them as guests on the show. (Hopefully you will join me for those interviews.)
Cynthia Thomson’s research suggests that some individuals need more thrill than others. If so, she posits that skiing and other action sports offer a viable avenue for sensation seeking, rather than the more destructive types of negative risks often associated with the term. Either way, her research shows there could be a genetic link to sensation seeking after all.
As if I needed another reason to go skiing.
A few weeks ago the NSAA came out with a study suggesting that snowboarding is in decline. This is big news in the ski industry. A segment of the population that was in double digit growth for many years is now declining, or as some commenters pointed out, at the least flatlining. I wrote a post here reflecting my personal thoughts on why that might be the case. Based on the comments both here and elsewhere I can see that the snowboard community is thriving with a vengeance.
I’ve taken down the original post, although I’m sure it’s still out there somewhere. I didn’t intend to offend anyone, only to spark a debate on why fewer people are snowboarding now. I’ve left the comments below, but closed further comments. I think we just need to let this one go. While the debate started off as lively, it quickly degenerated into name-calling and vitriol. By taking it down I’m not apologizing for my opinions only trying to put an end to what’s become a vicious, unhealthy debate. Some might react negatively to me taking down this post, saying that I’m backsliding and not owning my opinions. I can already hear it now. But like I said above, I’m just trying to stop what’s grown into a tool to fuel the skiing vs snowboarding debate, and no one wants to go back to the bad old days. Instead, I think we should stop hating each other in front of our computers and get out in the mountains more.
My personal opinions don’t reflect those of Crystal Mountain. This is my personal blog, where I write about my experiences and opinions. That’s the point of a blog. I’ve also been known to use sarcasm and hyperbole in order to get my point across and spark debate. I did that here and the results got out of hand. I tried to explain my original intentions in the comments. But you can’t squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. Therefore, I decided to just take it down so we can all move on and everyone can stop taking this personally. It was not an attack on snowboarding, but rather my observations as to why the sport is apparently in decline.
Sliding on snow in any form is a worthwhile activity. Regardless of how efficient or difficult the sport, being out on the mountain is a great way to spend the day.
On Saturday the line at the bottom of High Campbell chair was long enough that I couldn’t justify riding it alone. I hollered out, “Single!” and quickly found a partner to ride the old double chair that accesses expert-only terrain. The conditions were less than ideal.
The front side was breakable crust over a foot of guanch and the the Powder Bowl side was chalky but firm. A few patches of crust still lay hidden, and a fall there could mean a long slide. Still it was the best skiing on the mountain. And the sun was out. And the crust was warming up. And it was my day off. And there was barely a line on this busiest day of the year.
On the chair I struck up a conversation with the guy I’d found in line. It was my day off, and I really didn’t need to be critiquing this guy’s skiing ability. But sometimes intermediate skiers get on this lift thinking it will take them to the Summit House Restaurant and end up staring down a step chute at the top. These people usually need to download the chair, which is a bit of an ordeal in itself. The first step in making that happen is identifying them in the first place.
This guy looked like an intermediate.
“So have you skied this chair today?” I asked.
He nodded as a way of answering my question, then said. “This is the worst day ever.”
“I mean it’s sunny and all that. But the crowds. And there’s no powder.”
“Well,” I started. I was about to give him my any-day-on-the-slopes-is-better-than-a-day-at-work spiel.
“Have you skied this yet?” He asked, finally looking at me. “I mean, it’s pretty difficult. Powder Bowl is okay, but you wouldn’t want to, er, fall.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“I mean, it’s not easy.” He said. “You wouldn’t want to fall.” He looked at me pointedly.
“You’re right about that.”
He stared straight ahead, not even looking at me. “I come up here every weekend. My kids are in ski school. While they’re in their lessons, I try to make some laps on this chair.”
I held my lips together and breathed.
“The skiing’s pretty tough though today,” he said again. “I mean, there’s no easy way down. You know that, right?”
This guy thought I couldn’t ski. Maybe it was the bota bag. I had to give him that. But if you ever want to see the Bad Kim come out, just make an assumption that I can’t ski. She loves that. She eats that up. It’s like swinging the doors wide open and saying, “Come out and play Bad Kim. This guy needs to learn a lesson and you’re just the gal that can do it.”
I (or the Bad Kim, rather, but how would he know that?) looked at him through my mirrored lenses. His too-thick helmet sat far enough back on his head that it revealed a two-inch gap between it and his goggles. His jacket looked like it might be a better sponge than a technical piece of clothing. And his boots were vintage.
His skis, on the other hand, looked pretty legit–K2 Sidestashes. But still. He was an intermediate skier at best trying to school me. That just wouldn’t do.
“I just took a lap out South,” I said snottily. Again, the Bad Kim was at the helm. The Good Kim would have bitten her lip. But what can you do?
Gaper Gap Guy raised his eyebrows and swiveled his head around to the left to look at Avalanche Basin. “You went out there?”
“I skied Brain Damage.” I was laying it on thick. I can be such a brat.
“You walked all the way to Brain Damage?” The patch of skin above his goggles wiggled, mirroring the action of his eyebrows. After a moment he cleared his throat. “I only go out there when there’s powder. I mean today? Not even worth it. I mean, was there any good skiing out there at all?” His laugh came out a little shrill. He was making fun of me. He was deriding me, putting me down, actually. Bad Kim didn’t like it one bit.
I sighed. “I go out there every day. I call it Crystal Mountain’s 20 Minute Workout.” I smiled, but my eyes didn’t crinkle up at the edge. It was that evil Bad Kim smile.
“20 Minutes? 20 minutes! It only takes you 20 minutes to hike out there?” He paused then shrugged. “That’s not bad. I guess.”
I swung my skis back and forth a tick. The Bad Kim was tired of this guy. “I like the sun.” I said. It was lame, but better than antagonizing him any further. “I like to think I’m stocking up on Vitamin D. Did you know that it’s foggy in town?”
“Yeah. And it’s sunny up here. Isn’t that great?” I was gathering momentum for my great-day-on-the-slopes lecture. But the top was getting close. We’d have to unload soon. Bad Kim had simmered down, and the Good Kim, the Real Kim, wanted to make it up to this guy.
“So are you getting off to the left?” He asked.
“Er, yeah.” I thought it was an odd question because one of the expert elements of this chair was that the off-load ramp was actually a wall. You had to literally jump off at the top to the left and get out of the way. There wasn’t any other option.
“I’m getting off to the right, so I’ll let you go left then I’ll go behind you.”
I should have said something. I should have told him that we all have to hop off left, then you can go right after the chair has passed. But Vintage Boots was pretty sure he knew the ropes around here and Bad Kim wasn’t going to let him off that easily. So I just said, “Have a nice run,” fake grins and sighs of relief all around.
I got off left and watched it unfold in the eyes of the patroller standing in front of me. He was looking back at the chair and yelled, “Watch out. Move. Get out of the way!”
I turned back just in time to watch Seasoned High Campbell Skier get stuck in the off-load ramp, the chair we’d just exited arcing back behind him at a 90º angle.
As hard as it was to do, I tucked Bad Kim back into her hiding place and buttoned my lip. When I dropped into Powder Bowl a few moments later I made myself not watch him ski a few chutes over to my right. Instead, I remembered my own unspoken advice about how any day on the slopes is better than the alternative.
All I can say for myself is that I have weaknesses. We all have them. The first step is admitting you have a problem. That and I’m also hoping that Oblivious Guy didn’t even notice that a Bad Kim had entered the conversation. It’s entirely possible.
I love to travel. New sights, exotic foods, interesting conversations with strangers all stretch me a little.
Travel takes me out of my comfort zone, turns me upside down and gives me a shake until quarters (or perhaps yen coins) drop from my pockets.
I’m in Niseko on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in search of new experiences, legendary powder and the famous japanese powder trees. Excellent sushi, apres ski onsens (the japanese version of hot tubbing) and a lively little ski town doesn’t hurt either. We’ve been here for a week–hence the lack of new blog posts the past few days–and return today. Or tomorrow rather. We leave tomorrow and get back today. Or something like that. All I know is that we leave Sapporo at 2pm on Tuesday and arrive in Seattle at 8am the same day. It’s like a time machine. I’ve been playing Back to the Future in my head like an earworm, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!”
Yesterday we skied at a tiny area with one lift used by the military for training. It is surrounded by easy access backcountry peaks carved against the backdrop of the Sea of Japan. After a short skin above the lift, we carved down a protected face of fresh snow, the stellar crystals glinting in the sunlight layering itself across the slope like curtains of light.
Lap after lap we found untracked turns, until we skied down to the onsen and lowered ourselves into the steamy, sulfurous water. Our Japanese friend Kenji claims the sulfur warms you to your bones and soothes sore muscles. He might be right about that.
Sometimes, though, the best part of travel is returning home. Seeing new places can offer fresh perspective, it can scrub away the jaded edges that form around familiar viewpoints. Maybe flying 4,000 miles to ski powder makes you that much happier to know its piling up at home, filling in the jibbed-out lines and
resetting itself for your return. I appreciate more now the familiarity of skiing at home, knowing to ski Appliances when the wind blows from the south, how the sun and temperature affect particular lines, that the trees will protect the snow in Paradise when Exterminator, with a similar aspect, is burned to coral. That Powder Bowl stays dry and chalky even in the midst of record breaking inversion. That you can almost always find untracked lines beyond Boxcar.
I return now to yesterday, to the snow storm that’s blowing in Monday evening, even though its Tuesday morning here in Niseko. The sun is out here and it looks like a leftover kind of day. But yesterday it’s snowing at home.
Now all I need to do is channel some lighting into that flux capacitator and just maybe I can bring some of this japowder home with me.
I recently caught up with Sid Kurtz, reigning Crystal Mountain Dirtbag King, and asked him what it took to be a member of the royalty. He said, “It’s dedication to the sport, man.” To be a true dirtbag, according to Sid, you have to be here when it rains, when it doesn’t snow, when the conditions are firm, when everyone else finds fix-it projects around the house.
I love that.
It got me thinking about dedication to skiing. It takes all kinds. There are the dirtbag types–those that surf couches in exchange for shoveling snow. There are fathers teaching their sons to sky–like the man I rode the Forest Queen chairlift with on Sunday. His young son watched jibbers hitting the Sasquatch Park and told his dad he thought jumping was awesome. The dad reminded him that controlling his skis was the first step. Once he learned how to stop and turn, then he could try out the jumps. Later, the son asked if the “wire moved” on the lift. His dad explained in painstaking detail how the chairs detached from the cable when coming into the bull wheel in order to slow down. He explained it better than I could have.
Then there’s the weekend warriors that fill B Lot with their RVs. Campfires flicker in the wind, illuminating these temporary abodes. Every Friday night the RV lot fills with the same vehicles, spots are staked out and neighbors chosen. By Monday morning the RVers have returned to work and left B Lot empty.
So what does it mean to be dedicated to your sport? I’ve had the opportunity to interview athletes and adventurers for my upcoming book, and every one of them is dedicated to their sport. I’ve been noticing what it takes to be dedicated to skiing.
Dirtbag Royalty, like Sid, are obviously dedicated. RV families that book a slot every weekend are dedicated too. So is the dad that carefully explains the workings of a detachable quad to his son. As is the mom that parked in Employee Housing with her daughter, rode the shuttle, rented skis, and finally got on the lift nearly an hour later. The midweek pass holders with the slopes to themselves on weekdays are dedicated. The CMAC parent that laps the race course, taking video of her son every weekend knows what it means.
To be a snow sports enthusiast, you have to put in some effort. Anyone that chooses skiing as their sport, arriving dutifully to the slopes every Friday/Wednesday/Sunday or whatever day of the week, regardless of the weather, knows what I’m talking about.
Skiing isn’t easy. Neither is snowboarding (although some might argue with me on that). It takes a little effort to get out on the slopes. But it’s worth it. The effort and dedication are worth it.
What do you think? What does dedication to the sport mean to you?