Friday, December 12, 2014

Go in Beauty

What is chess, do you think?   Those who play for fun, or not at all, dismiss it as a game.  The ones who devote their lives to it, for the most part, insist it is a science. It's neither. Bobby Fischer got underneath it like no one before him and found at its center... art.  (“Searching for Bobby Fischer” by Steven Zaillian and Fred Waitzkin)

When I was thirteen, I was afraid of heights, due in part to a fall I took when I was eight which broke my right arm.  That December my mother died suddenly from a deep vein thrombosis.  The following January, my maternal uncle, William, decided to attempt to teach me to ski.  “Attempt” is the operative word: equipment then was still primitive.  My boots laced and provided minimum support, my skis were simple ash boards with metal edges.  Standing up on them, making them go in the direction I wanted them to go, even on a groomed slope, required significant effort and a technique which was contrary to a natural sense of safety.  To this day I think the reason I was first able to get on a chair lift which would swing me thirty feet into the air for the first time was that at that point in my life I didn’t care that much if I lived or died.

As I was fighting my way down my second and final run of that day, something magical happened:  I made two tentative, trembling snowplow turns in a row.  Suddenly, I was in control, suddenly I was free.  I could ski anywhere.  My adrenalin surged with the exhilaration of the realization.  I looked back up the hill at my uncle, a comfortable, inscrutable black shape watching over me from the top of the gentle slope.  I understood what skiing was, why people went through so much difficulty and discomfort to do it.

And I was wrong. 

And it wasn’t that I couldn’t go everywhere, which was true:   it was something else.

There had been a lot of snow early in the year.  In those days powder snow at the sides of the groomed slopes would remain un-skied for days or weeks and accumulate the depth of multiple storms.  A couple of weekends later when I could negotiate the slopes beneath the Albion chairlift at Alta in fifteen minutes instead of an hour or more, I stopped at the place where I’d made my first successful turns and looked back up the hill.  My uncle was no longer behind me.  Instead, he was perched at the edge of a steep ridge at the side of the slope.  Now it has a name, “Vail Ridge.”  Then it was nameless.  It was simply the craggy ridge that no one took the trouble to ski:  it was steep but too short.

Suddenly, my uncle “dropped in” to a short passage between two crags and in two fast, sweeping turns effortlessly descended through deep powder what to my mind was nearly a cliff.   The sight literally stole my breath.  My other uncle, his taciturn brother not given to hyperbole, used to say William skied the way a hawk flew and he was right.  It was the first time I glimpsed the deepest reason for skiing:  art.

These days, the aesthetics of sport receives short shrift, if it’s mentioned at all.  Yet, I find it in every sport with sufficient study.  One of the things I find particularly appealing about both skiing and fencing, is that anyone, at any level, can aspire to and accomplish an aesthetic moment, whether it’s a perfectly timed deceptive touch with an epee or a sailing turn in the fall line.  And with skiing sometimes the pursuit of art is the edge that enables you to find the courage or skill to ski something you wouldn’t otherwise.

These days, I rarely ski Vail Ridge, it’s too easy and not worth the trouble.  But when I do, I remember that day.  And then I also remember skiing West Rustler, a more formidable slope, with William when he was in his eighties, still pursuing the art.

Art is often dramatic and revelatory.  A particular run down Nina’s Curve, another slope at Alta, comes to mind.  I was skiing with a young man and his father on an icy, windy day.  Nina’s Curve has a particularly nice structure: its steepest stretch is also its narrowest.  It was the young man’s first time down and he was far from sure he could do it though both his father and I both knew he had the requisite skill.  He made one careful turn above the narrow space and came to face his father.

“Tyler you can do this,” his father said honestly, lovingly to his son.  And in that moment, I perceived a magic, essential quantum of confidence and strength pass from father to son.  His father went first and his son took a breath and followed.  I didn’t know if he would or not. It was a modest moment of drama revealing the characters of both.  Sometimes the best skiing is composed of small moments; interestingly it is how Hemingway’s story “Cross Country Snow” works.

I always watch Mark Obenhaus’s documentary “Steep,” about the history of Big Mountain and Extreme Skiing this time of year when I’m waiting for the snow to arrive.  A favorite moment is Bill Briggs description of his first, solo descent of the Grand Teton on skis, the only evidence of which was his solo tracks below the summit visible the next day.  If that wasn’t art, I don’t know what is.  Another moment is Ingrid Backstrom’s decent of a nearly vertical face of one of the mountains above Bella Coola, B.C.  The first skier down, Hugo Harrison, “who never falls,” to use Ingrid’s words, does so and then tumbles and cartwheels and tumbles for what seems like forever.  Perhaps the mountain is un-skiable. Nevertheless, the filming helicopter gives Ingrid the wiggle and she drops in.  And in a few long and amazingly fast and beautiful turns she makes a perfect descent.  I’m reminded of so many things, including my uncle’s descent of Vail Ridge long ago.  Quite simply, it’s art.  You can watch it here: Ingrid Backstrom in Steep

According to William Eastlake, the Navajo say “Go in Beauty.”

1 comment:

kristine arrivillaga said...

I love this Thomas, great photos too! Skiing is the ultimate culmination of being in control and losing it at any moment. Such an incredible, powerful feeling. I will never forget my first time skiing, cold and sweaty at the same time, sidestepping up the bottom of Mary's at Brighton and snowplowing down, over and over again. Finally graduating to the chair lift, riding it to the top and setting off the emergency stop as I rode on over the exit since I was too scared to get off! Ha, ha! Good times! :) So fun to ski with you and the family! Let it snow!!!