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The always evolving sport of snow skiing
Boy, this has been a tough one for fresh powder seekers. Here it is a new year and some Cascade snowsport resorts haven’t even opened yet. Crystal, Stevens, and Baker are okay, by most reports, but by January we normally expect better.
I did manage to enjoy a few days of pretty good skiing before Christmas at Whistler/Blackcomb. I’ve been going there in December for many years, and the snow coverage was the lowest I’ve ever seen. That being said, I could ski all the way to the village, and the runs that were open were actually quite pleasant.
While riding the gondola one day, I caught myself thinking about the days when that terrain was served only by 3 consecutive chairlifts, each one slow and cold. It made me think back to how things have changed since I first put skis in the snow over 40 years ago.
Forty years means at least 1,000 days on the mountain for me. Truthfully, it took me a few years to truly fall in love with the sport, because I was too cheap to take lessons. Somehow, I thought it a good idea to have my friends push me down a slope with only a vague idea how to stop or turn. But once I figured it out a little bit, the pleasure factor just got better and better, and I’m still hooked.
The Cascade Mountains are where I made my first raw turns, and its resorts have been my home away from home for a long time. But I have had the very good fortune of visiting other ski areas in 14 states, three Canadian provinces, and in Europe as well. So I feel comfortable stating that I’ve witnessed a lot of change in my time in the mountains.
So what’s changed in 40 years? The basics are still the same: you’re still challenging yourself athletically to safely slide down a mountainside. But everything else is different, as in better equipment, different technique, better mountain maintenance, better methods of getting to the mountain and better everything at the resort.
There is definitely a cost variable, of course. In 1973, a daily lift ticket at Vail cost $12; today it will run you $109. That’s part of one major change itself. Fewer skiers buy daily tickets these days because you can find reduced-rate season tickets or some form of discounted ticket via electronic purchase, such as through Liftopia or GetSkiTickets.com.
The equipment we use is constantly evolving, with shaped skis, release bindings and flexible molded plastic boots making it easy for all to transition from beginner to intermediate and above. Snowboards came on the scene, and became more and more popular, with their riders comprising a large percentage of those we see on the hill.
Safety is another aspect a time traveler from another era would notice. Most of us wear helmets now, spurred on years ago by several high-profile celebrity deaths, but also by the fact this made as much sense as wearing a helmet while biking. I hardly know anyone who doesn’t wear a “brain bucket” these days.
The days when ski areas just built “warming huts” and sold chili and hot chocolate are long gone. Ski lodges have diversified their cuisine offerings, meaning you enter a food court for lunch with serving stations offering pasta or Mexican food cooked to order, as well as a variety of soups, salad bars and even health-food choices.
We get to the mountain with ease in our 4-wheel-drive vehicles, another improvement over the days when we scrambled to put chains on our family sedans before heading up on snowy days. We can get driving conditions and weather forecast information on smart phones before we go, and those same phones can still get cell coverage on the mountain, allowing us to connect with our friends instantaneously on the slopes.
As I watch my five-year-old son starting to grasp how to ski down a mountain, I realize it is the same sport with the same challenges that I faced 40 years ago. But the improvements and differences are part of the reason we continue to savor it.
Besides being a skier, John Naye is a Mercer Island resident and past president of the North American Snowsport Journalist Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.