today is Nov 28, 2021

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 (49.2) issue of POWDER.

Consider the turn. The bare-bones, no-frills, functional purpose of turning a ski is to control where you are going, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to manage your speed.

Now imagine you had retractable, tail-mounted snow-combs that you could lower by degrees to drag in the snow. You wouldn’t need turns to slow you down at all.

By deploying your tail brakes with a wireless controller built into your gloves, your poles, even your helmet, you could point ’em straight downhill on bunny slopes, groomers, or the steepest of the steep. No worries.

But that’s not the point, is it?

Turning your skis in long arcs or making quick slalom squiggles is only partly about practicality. It’s also about how it feels to make a turn. It’s about rhythm and pressure and that sweet feeling that comes from engaging the tip, flexing through the center and blasting off the last sharp centimeters of the tail. It’s about finding the right snow and laying both skis over like the world’s narrowest catamaran.

Put another way, with tilt and speed, compression and release, a ski on edge may be the world’s great anti-gravity fun device.

Gravity, instead of being something to be conquered, becomes your friend thanks to turns. A demanding and unforgiving friend, to be sure. But a friend who acknowledges your skill and rewards you instantly with the satisfaction of performance.

In short, the turn is not just about controlling your speed. It’s about having multi-dimensional fun.

Which invites us to consider: In the beginning, skis were transportation. They were functional, useful, and, in some cases—such as delivering mail and medicine or rescuing Norway’s boy king Haakonsson from the beastly Baglers, round about 1206—indispensable.

Sadly, the value of fun is often overlooked, denigrated, seen as sinful or selfish by those too serious to waste their valuable time. Similarly, practitioners of sports with practical beginnings often resist new interpretations of traditional styles and proven gear with anger, zeal, or righteousness.

In skiing, you don’t have to go back very far to find the era of long, skinny skis. Back then, if you dared ski on anything shorter than 200 cm or wider than your wrist, your credibility would be subject to speculation and derision.

Before that, it was skiing with your feet locked together: the famous Austro-Germanic Tyranny of the Parallel Turn.

And before that, leather boots and cable bindings were celebrated as state-of-the-art technology.

Which should make you wonder: What will future skiers think of our skiing 20 or 30 years from now? Will our current equipment, clothes, and modest notions of “extreme” cause laughter and derision? Will future skiers watch old films of us skiing Valdez or La Grave and wonder why we didn’t see the obvious limitations of our “modern” gear, the silliness of our fashion, the timidity of our best skiers?

It may be that the only things we’ll have in common with future slope-shredders are the very things we share now with skiers who went before us: the love of the outdoors. The mysteries of the mountains. The smell of the woods, the stillness in the glades, the raucous celebrations in the bars when the night is full of stars and the air outside is as cold and clear as the English gins and Russian vodkas quaffed by our lusty, fun-smitten ancestors. They, too, had their rituals of preparation and months of training just to be able to enjoy a few weeks of Euro-schussing for no reason other than enjoyment. With friends or alone. In high places too cold for comfort. Right after the first snow of the season or on soggy beds of slush in late spring.

There is one constant, however. Whether you believe skiing is unique in the world of sports—which is open to bartalk and debate—or not a sport at all, there is undeniably much we share in common with all skiers past, present, and, climate change willing, in the future: Our need to feel special, different, superior to our fellow bipeds.

So, here’s to all the crazies who crave those moments of pointless pleasure when they can shut out the noise and meanness of daily life and enjoy a better world of their own design.

If only for a few long and deeply satisfying turns.

Neil Stebbins was the editor of Powder back before computers… and cars and aeroplanes and fish tacos and indoor plumbing.

Get your copy of the Winter 2020 issue here.