It was about five minutes into a 12-minute lift ride when I recognized the strangeness of the situation. Second from the left on a quad, I was listening to music piped wirelessly from my phone to my helmet speakers, while three strangers—all seated within inches of me and one another—each listened to his own virtual concert, wrapped in an audio cocoon. None of us had spoken a word. We faced forward, isolated by goggles and helmets and digital silos. Two of my chairmates gently bobbed their heads in uncoordinated rhythm to inaudible beats. There, sailing through a deep-blue sky on a beautiful day at Big Sky, Mont., we sat silent, side by side, entirely alone.
I wish I could say I turned off my music and introduced myself to the guy sitting next to me—you know, as a human would do. Instead, I leaned back, hit shuffle, and resolved to be less of an antisocial weirdo on the next lift ride. But the reality of what was happening bothered me—we were like junkies sharing a drug den, uninterested in anything except the next fix. The difference, of course, is that while skiers may be junkies of a sort, we're also a community. Or we were.
Skiing is at its core a social sport. A shared experience. Lift conversations and on-hill shenanigans are just part of it, along with après-ski revelry, blazing hearths in ski lodges, and spring tailgate parties. Even the ride to the mountain is rarely done alone. The list goes on.
We’re a tight tribe, and for good reason. Skiing is a time- and resource-intensive sport. Most ski towns are small, personal, and filled with like-minded people who often choose to sacrifice stability, career, and even family in order to be a part of this self-sorting club.
And shared sacrifice encourages close relationships. It’s kind of a foxhole effect. But it’s also no secret that modern life is increasingly lived—shall we just admit to the term “dominated”—on-screen, in a digital proxy for the real thing. A recent study revealed that U.S. adults spend 11 hours a day using electronic media. And despite being a fully accredited outdoorsy guy, I still probably beat that average—though I’m not brave enough to keep score for 24 hours. (Never ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to.) And I’m 32. The younger skiers I see appear even more digitally sequestered (addicted?) than I am. Have mercy on their souls.
No surprise: There are new disorders related to internet addiction, like image obsession, loneliness, and a host of other emerging ailments resulting from the modern lifestyle that has us spending more time interacting with screens than people—ironically, even while we’re hyperconnected digitally 24/7. Research shows that people who interact face-to-face are happier, more satisfied, and less stressed. So why are so many skiers—people who have every opportunity to interact in purely positive ways—choosing to stay plugged in, tuned out, and isolated, even on the mountain?
It’s common to see people on the lift, in the lodge, and even midslope checking e-mail, futzing with GoPros, reviewing footage, and posting selfies to social media. It’s become a tree-falling- in-a-forest thought experiment: If a skier does an awesome daffy under the chairlift and it’s not immediately posted to YouTube, did it really happen? Are we that removed from ourselves and those around us? Skiing gives us a rare opportunity to connect in ways that we deeply crave—and we’re blowing it.
The next lift ride I took that day, I steeled myself and turned off my music. I asked the guy next to me how his morning was going. You know, as a human should do. We ended up talking about the Green Bay Packers—which was kind of weird, since I’m not a football fan, but hell, it was nice. The guy was nice. His wife was nice, too. When we got off the lift, I wished them an excellent remainder of their day, and I meant it. He, in turn, wished me well. Were we buddies? Of course not. But we were more than drones sitting in silence, separate but alone. We were skiers.
Drew Pogge is a writer and photographer based out of Bozeman, Montana. He spends his winters ski guiding, teaching avalanche education, and checking the weather forecast.