Monday, September 26, 2016

The Draw: a reflection on skiing

There she was. At 6.50 a.m she was still in the shade but the vivid blue sky gave hints of the day to come. Driving from the small rural community of Rataehi some 10km from the seasonal
play-town of Ohakune, I had stopped to photograph an abandonned house and the stunning Ratana church that reflected the morning sun. The day was going to be GORGEOUS!

This mountain was the Maunga of my childhood. Introduced by my dad and visited during my teenage years, the winter weekend jaunts punctuated my tediously boring school years; this is where I learnt to ski - this was Ruapehu.

To the uninitiated, skiing would seem a rich man's sport. Arguably at one point in time, skiing was considered an elite sport, beyond the reach of your average pleb and certainly not a sport your parents would happily fund unless you were fortunate enough to grow up near a mountain! The face of skiing has changed however.  When snowboarding arrived on the scene in the 90's, the skiing fraternity threw its hands up in horror. The purists were aghast that this modified skateboard of sorts, would be allowed on the pristine slopes to "mess it up". What snowboarding did however, was offer skiing the chance to pull its proverbial head out of its proverbial backside. Skiing needed to rid itself of it's elitist persona and embrace a shake-up. Borrowing from snowboard technology, skiing was redesigned.  The carving ski made an appearance which threw open the doors to a whole new "freer" type of skiing; in a sense, snowboarding saved skiing. Being one of the holy trilogy of board sports, snowboarding brought with it a whole new genre of snow sport enthusiast - a younger, grungier and ultimately poorer generation was hitting the slopes and this infected the skiing world profusely. The tight-legged, neatly packaged style of old-school skiing gave way to new ways of being on ski's which included adopting the "park style" of snowboarding, as well as big mountain skiing and just a "looser" style of skiing altogether. This new-school tricktionary got the thumbs up from younger skiers. The 'endless winter' as a lifestyle became popular again and the term "ski bum" proliferated, firmly cementing year-round employment in the snow sport industry as a legitimate career choice. I get that.
Today, as I drive up the mountain road I found myself stuck in the longest line of traffic out of Ohakune - all headed for my mountain on this perfect day. This to me, is the biggest hazard of commercial snow areas - the madness of heading to a hill where thousands of other like-minded individuals (is that an oxy-moron?) will also be. 

This was insanity. I do not enjoy the farmed-in nature of commercial mountains. I enjoy getting off the beaten track and being away from others and normally I would put skins on my ski's and walk the hills to avoid chairlifts and queues and the cost. Yes ... lift passes are not cheap which is one good reason to find employment in the industry if you cannot get enough of snow! Once you have your gear (which is no more expensive now than it was decades ago), the true expense does come in that golden ticket to ride, which is one good reason why I prefer to walk up the hill. Walking up the hill (or skinning) really enables me to connect with the mountain while I am sweating and breathing heavily towards the top! The ski down is over-whelmingly luxurious and I see it as another variation of being with my maunga. But this day I was going to ride the lifts.
As I stood in the long line waiting to get onto the chair, I couldn't help notice how happy people were. There is no space for negativity or aggression in this zone - people have a common knowing and way of being on the hill and as such it is a calm, almost zen-like atmosphere. But I wait in line wishing I had my skins...

Once on the chair there is an engulfing silence. It is a weird thing to be up there, dangling and suspended in a surreal world above the mountain.  This affords the opportunity to observe - to be the watcher.  Skiing is a very public pursuit; the style of skiing tells a story of how long one has skied - out there for all above to see. I wondered, do we know we are being watched and if we know are we suddenly aware of oneself in the act of being  a skier?

Here in this space above, I could plan my next run down the hill; I could take in the incredible beauty of this volcano; I could talk to others on the chair if I chose to; I could close my eyes and allow the gentle sway to lull me into a micro-nap and I could just watch. 

Skiing has an immediacy about it. The temporal nature allows us to both be the snow and to be aware of having just skied this or that bit of the snow. It is a strange juxtaposition. It is completely freeing, for there is little room for anything else apart from being  in that moment. It has a meditative quality to it.
As I reflect again on the atmosphere of calm amongst the people who dwell here in this mountain space for a fleeting part of their lives, I wonder if it is this way because we all speak the same language - we have a way of knowing and a way of being that transcends the normality of our daily life off this hill. 
As spring approaches and winter recedes, I know that being on this hill during a snow season is a sort of home-coming. For me it is about being close to my maunga. My Ruapehu. The snow clings perilously as if it might go forever - holding out against the warming spring sun and fighting fruitlessly against the urgency of new spring growth emerging from beneath. This is Ruapehu's time to renew - and we who long for the snows to stay a little longer, must wait, once more.

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