Frozen World



By Mitch Mode

Snow makes our world possible. Without snow we cannot ski: That's a fact, simple and irrefutable. As a cyclist needs road, a paddler water, a climber rock, we need snow. But here's the rub: We have no guarantee of snow. The cyclist, the paddler, the climber-they will find what they need. They enjoy a predictably. Not so the skier.

Snow may come early, it may come late, it may not come at all. It is unpredictable in amount, in consistency, in location. It is impermanent and fickle. We cannot, with certainty, plan on snow, yet it is the most basic element in our sport, the foundation on which all else builds. Without snow, we are bound to dry earth.

Now, as autumn wanes, winter draws near. Calendar pages fall as leaves to the ground. Skiers stir restlessly with the days and think: Calendar dates be damned. For us, for skiers, it's all about snow on the ground. Markers on the calendar matter not, but snow matters.

First, we need freeze. On nights clear and dark under the stoic gaze of Orion, temperatures drop causing lake and earth to freeze. That sets the stage. And on a day heavy and damp 'neath clouds thick and gray, it begins to snow. The snow draws downward and accumulates. And our world changes.

One day, there is dirt and tawny grass fatigued in a world autumn-brown. The next day snow covers all. Snow softens the world's edges, smoothes the rough spots, covers the brown of November with a mantle of white. Snow drifts and flows, driven by wind, sheltered by trees. Snow in the world of wood and field is as much sculpture as weather.

The snow gathers along roadsides where it invites our cars into inhospitable drifts. It fills sidewalks and driveways; our backs ache with shoveling. Snow collects in our lugged boots to better track into our kitchens. Snow finds gaps in our collars, works in consort with the wind to bite at our faces, tops our boots to leave us chilled. We do not care.

When snow comes, it changes our world, and not only at the mere physical level, but with an emotional impact. We greet the season of snow with reverence, for snow is a gift. It draws us outside to play, teases us with promise of better days, hints at wonder and fulfillment. Snow is frozen crystal that gives spark to a fire in us all. On the ground, snow brings the time of the skier.

That's where we start. But snow is complex-variable in texture and makeup. Snow at subzero temperatures is opposite from snow near 30 degrees. Fresh snow is vastly different from old, mutating with temperature and wind, with sun and age. That variability affects how our skis work. And we-in our efforts to achieve proper grip, maximum glide and superior performance-analyze snow.

Oh Lord, how we analyze snow! We poke it, we prod it, we peer at it. We test it for moisture, we check it for detail, we consider its age and its history. We look at flakes under microscopes, test snow for humidity, slice it and dice it to better understand it. We bring work to our play, all the time with brows furrowed at the seriousness of the matter. We often walk to the trail and drop to our knees, not in supplication, but for close-up inspection of snow. We squeeze it, sift it, evaluate it for moisture, hold it up to the light as if we await a message from upon high. We consider it for what it does to grip and glide. Then, we reach for the wax.

In our examination, we take risk. For when we look for detail in snow, we risk losing wholeness. In unveiling the intimacies of snow, we lose mystery. We gain analytical knowledge and lose innocence-fragments of what moves us to ski in the first place. Skiing is simple. It touches us and releases us both in an act of wonder and excitement. As we learn more of snow, do we lose part of that? As we gain knowledge, do we lose the wonderment? Do we ignore the beauty of snow for the details? We seek the minutiae, and in acquiring it, risk loss of the wonder. Are we right to do this? Are we well served? Perhaps. The knowledge of the detail will bring faster skis, better grip, improved performance. That seems to be important in our world. But perhaps that gain comes at a cost. Why not? Most do.

When we were children, we delighted in mystery. As adults, mystery fades and takes with it a measure of excitement and delight. We lose the wonder of childness, replacing it with the black-and-white knowledge of adults. It's the price we pay to be adult.

But in finding answers we sometimes lose a truth. The truth is that snow is a magical carpet, that it transforms our world, that its simplicity rather than complexity helps define us, excites us and inspires us. How ironic that it is white and cold for in our hearts it runs with fire and blazes in color.

We would do well at the start of the season to remember that. We need to stand back and accept the surprise of it all. Stand back to see snow for what it is: a wonder, pure and unaltered. A wonder that draws us in and holds us in power and grace. A wonder that delivers a new world.

The snow delivers to us a new season. We step from the warmth of home to see what it holds for us. If we are fortunate, we will not have lost too much. If we are truly fortunate, we will find wonder.

Mitch Mode has been skiing for almost 50 years. He finished the first of his 27 Birkebeiners in 1977. Though primarily a classic skier, Mitch skates, bushwacks off trail and skis under the stars. On hot summer days, he thinks of skiing to cool off.

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