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Cruiser corduroy is an odd place for an existential crisis, but hell, the fondue burps from dinner were mixing well with my morning coffee breath so the surprises were all around. On a cold, sunny Wednesday this past January at Sun Valley, I loaded the lift before the rest of the skiing public as part of the resort’s “early ups” program. With me was a spattering of Sun Valley ski ambassadors and rippers, like professional skier McKenna Peterson and local legend Cassie Abel. The early start and single-digit temps meant we needed to let the snow warm-up before venturing into the new expanded Sunrise terrain; 380-acres of south-facing glades, chutes, and bowls. Someone suggested Warm Springs; a mellow, wide strip of the perfect groom that rolls endlessly for 3,140 quad-quivering vertical feet. McKenna and Cassie’s blistering hip-dragging arcs should have signaled to me that I was in way over my head, but even in my late 30s, I continue to be a moronic adolescent.
For some reason, I tried to keep up with them. But when I reached speeds so fast that my molars sprung loose and rattled around the inside of my mouth and my mustache schmeared off my upper lip and waved behind me like the wisps of a mullet, I thought, “Hey, dumbass, what the hell are you doing?” I’m no local legend. And I sure as shit am not a pro. I am just OK, and I am damn proud of it.
Skiing has always intrigued me because of its inherent fun factor. I’ve never taken a lesson. I didn’t grow up racing. I moved to the mountains in my twenties having never skied. I learned by watching, emulating, and loving what others did atop two planks, most important to me was how it seemed to make everybody smile and laugh. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t try my hand at skiing faster than a bad burrito through a GI tract and jumping off rocks and cliffs you should only look at. But I didn’t do that for me and my giggles. I did that so other people would think me cool, allow me into the upper levels of the ski town pecking order. After I realized that living in someone else’s head is a sour reality, and after I got north of 30-years-old and started popping ibuprofen like Tic-Tacs, skiing mediocrity has been my goal. Yours should be, too.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. I love what insanely talented skiers can accomplish. I watched the Olympics with my jaw on the floor. I cheered when Eileen Gu exploded out of the halfpipe and off the big air jump like she was flung from a human-sized slingshot. I could not believe that Gus Kenworthy and Lucas Foster were able to give coherent interviews after their “SWEET JESUS!”-inducing slams. Downhiller Soffia Goggia won a silver medal with a torn ACL and a broken leg; what the hell?! Did you see Max Palm land the first-ever double backflip in the Freeride World Tour? What about skiing’s version of skydiving at this year’s Kings and Queens of Corbet’s? We should celebrate all of this. But we shouldn’t necessarily emulate it, and it damn sure shouldn’t be the standard by which we measure a successful ski life.
If pro-level crazy is the goal we chase every time we ski, then our grins only follow real limit-pushing. That sounds tiring and slightly dangerous. Thrills are great, but thrills are only a caught edge or speed wobble away from terror, or worse: injury. And nothing on this planet is as anti-fun as being laid up on a couch while snowfalls. Watching McKenna Peterson arc turns is a lot of fun, but when it comes to imitation, I have my eye on someone else … er, something else.
At California’s Academy of Sciences, there lives a fish. A lungfish. It is an ugly fish. It looks like a log of smashed salami covered in moldy silver dollars. The fish is four feet long and weighs 40 pounds. The fish’s handlers say it enjoys belly rubs, eating fresh figs, and has the mellow attitude of a puppy on Trazadone. Everything about this fish is remarkably unremarkable, save for one fact: It’s the oldest damn fish in all of the world’s aquariums. The fish is approximately 90-years-old. It is named Methuselah, after Noah of the Ark’s father, who—as the story goes—lived to be 969-years-old. This fish has been swimming in its tank, at the same damn slow pace, doing the same damn thing for nearly a century. And I bet Methuselah has been grinning the entire time.
When I ski patrolled at Telluride in my twenties, there was a weathered skier who’d come into the patrol shack a few times a week. He carried an oxygen tank in a tattered backpack, skied with O2 flowing into his nose every time he’d put boots on. He took a run, maybe two, on the mellow terrain under Lift 4 and then came to get a cup of free hot cocoa from us. The left arm of his sun-battered blue jacket featured a black patch with white embroidery. It read, “90+ Ski Club.” Maybe it was me, maybe it was a pal of mine, but one day somebody asked him how you get that patch. And I swear, with the same kind of rosy-cheeked twinkle-in-his-eye smile you see in drawings of Santa, he said, “Time.” And then he chuckled. And, pals, that’s just the type of skiing lungfish we all can hope to be someday.