An Interview with Michael Finkel - Ski Mag

An Interview with Michael Finkel

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Michael Finkel isn't home.

I've gotten his voicemail the past four times that I have tried to reach him, and I assume that he is out somewhere satisfying the urges of his notoriously adventurous soul. It is, after all, ski season somewhere.

I have been warned that this errant contributor to SKIING Magazine is sometimes very hard to get a hold of--so when he finally picks up his cell phone, I am both relieved and surprised.

Following are some excerpts from our conversation...

Ellen Wagner (EW)

You have been described as a ski bum who makes his living as a journalist, but how would you describe what you do? Michael Finkel (MF)

I call myself a "play writer". Not in the sense that I write plays, but that I think that the most profound interactions with people happen when they are playing, so I call myself a "play writer".

Every human being on the planet from those in war-torn Kosovo to the people who were interred in concentration camps during the World War II are the same in that we use "play". We all have to play. And, when we play we are at our most human, and this is what I explore in my writing.

EW

Do you have a favorite place to ski?

MF

Right in my backyard. I won't give you the name, but I believe that the best place to ski for me is the same for everyone: at your local hill. Your friends are there, the snow is good, and it feels right. It's an indefinable thing that can be chalked up to quality of experience, rather than place.

EW

You seem to have a very strong sense of adventure and a history of doing things that other people wouldn't even think of trying. What compels you to venture into uncharted territory?

MF

I think that I am always motivated to try and do something different. I try not to take skiing any more serious then it is. I mean, when you think about the act, it really is a hilariously odd sport. I think that maintaining this attitude keeps it new and fun. There is nothing better than an episode of unfettered goofballness.

EW

Like?

MF

One time I was driving down I-70 with my then girlfriend, and we noticed tracks on a runaway truck ramp. This just seemed brilliant to me, so we tried it ourselves. I mean, how great! You're skiing down an object that is not meant to be skied down, but perfect to ski down, with traffic flying by--it was great. I later called to see if it was legal, and it isn't. I wasn't caught, though, so I avoided the fine for illegal use of runaway-truck ramps, which incidentally is $112 and 3 points on your license.

EW

What about the story in your upcoming book, Alpine Circus, which describes some time you spent at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. I believe the chapter is entitled "Have Gun, Will Telemark." This strikes me as an unlikely place to find you. How did you end up writing that?

MF

Part of how a story gets generated usually involves drinking a lot: sitting in bars, listening to people talk. I was sitting on a barstool at Mammoth Mountain listening to some off-duty soldiers talk about how they were dreading their upcoming training stint at the Mountain Warfare Training Center. I fell into conversation with them, and it occurred to me that the frontline isn't always necessarily in a warm, flat place. And, it is quite conceivable that the US, in its role as global cop, would need its troops to possess the skills of a skier.

So curiosity got the better of me as I wanted to see how our armed forces prepared themselves for an alpine skirmish, and I talked my way into becoming an enrollee. No one within the program knew, so it was a very authentic experience. I even let them shave my head.

EW

Would you consider that the most difficult story you've ever worked on?

MF

No, that would be the ski trip to China. Fst of all, it was very hard to plan, and I thought that it was going to be a complete disaster. I wanted to go there, because I knew that China was opening a bunch of ski hills. I wanted to see what happens when a country wants to start skiing.

When I got there was no snow--but people were still skiing on these small patches of ice. I was fortunate to meet the person in charge of all skiing in China, and he told me through a translator that he had been shipping skis to remote areas out west. I then set out in search of where the skis had gone and ended up 3,000 miles away from where I started in western China.

We then tracked down the skis and found that they had been sent with only a note attached: "Here's a ski, go ski." So people taught themselves to ski in a really unorthodox fashion--no turns, just head straight down until you hit something. Sort of like sledding. I only showed them two or three things and within a few days everyone was skiing beautifully.

I think that in my own small way I started something. It was wonderful to be there at the spark of this. People there were very welcoming. They invited me into their homes, and I had my first experience eating yak meat.

EW

I noticed an underlying theme in your writing. Skiing appears as a common bond--something that people use to derive joy from--no matter their situation. For example, the story we just discussed, your article in the September 1999 issue of SKIING Magazine on Sarajevo, as well as a piece on Iran that also ran in SKIING. Can you tell me about this?

MF

In repressed countries, or countries that are attempting recovery, people still need to play. They need an outlet. In places like this, it proliferates as a form of activity because the snow is there. Even in the most terrible of circumstances, I see people using skiing as an outlet for many things--perhaps to have a greater sense of freedom or to escape the devastation that surrounds them.

I travel as a skier because I am accepted without prejudice or suspicion. I'm a skier, you're a skier...let's ski. I use this as a vehicle to travel and to learn. It isn't necessarily about finding the best skiing. It's about being able to speak the language--it builds a bridge.

EW

Your trip to Iran sounds like it may have been a bit daunting at times. There was an incident at a ski area when you were there?

MF

I was really nervous in Iran. When we were there, several skiers were arrested for breaking the law, i.e. sitting in a group, women and men who were unrelated. Some women were also arrested for not having the proper ski attire. Although women can ski, and many do, they must use a separate lift and wear traditional dress over their ski clothes.

There is a very strong anti-American sentiment there. The state department strongly advised me against going. I was really concerned about inadvertently breaking the law because it is difficult to have full knowledge of it.

EW

For instance?

MF

For instance it is illegal to possess American currency, but I had American money in my wallet at all times, right in my back pocket. But at the same time that there was all of this uncertainty, I still had wonderfully connective experiences with Iranians that I met while skiing there. I think that it is mostly a government-against-government thing.

EW

How about absolute horror?

MF

I once volunteered to be a practice avalanche victim and spent 10 very long minutes buried under the snow until the avalanche dog and the crew dug me out. I think, however, that this experience made me more keenly aware of the dangers and risks involved in backcountry skiing, and I am more mindful as a result.

EW

So your days of jumping over five-foot wide crevasses on a snowboard are over?

MF

Well, I'm older now, I was in my twenties then, so...

EW

Hmmm. Somehow I get the distinct feeling that this won't change things all that much. What's next?

MF

Well, I'm leaving soon for East Africa to spend 6 weeks hiking the Rift Valley.

EW

And beyond that? Any ski adventures in the future?

MF

I have a couple of things in mind, but basically, whatever fascinates me, I will try to get someone to pay me to pursue. Definitely more skiing. I think that an extreme-altitude climb is something that will occur in the near future. I would like to climb an 8,000-meter peak, not necessarily to ski down but to understand what happens to the mind at extreme altitude.

I'm also planning another book called "Examinations of Exhaustion" which is about the quest to run 100 miles. I'm really interested in the hallucinogenic things that only occur at extreme levels of exhaustion. I've interviewed about 20 people who have done it so far, and about two weeks ago I participated in a 100 mile race that entailed 23 hours and 43 minutes of running upwards for 20,000 vertical feet.

EW

And?

MF

And I strongly suggest that you read the book instead.

Michael Finkel is a ski bum who makes his living as a journalist, and when not out adventuring, he calls Bozeman, Montana home. Finkel is also the author of Alpine Circus, A white-knuckled ride around the globe with an intrepid skier in search of the exhilarating and bizarre. Alpine Circus will be in bookstores in October. Check out Michael's latest, "War Wounds", a profile of Sarajevo, in the September issue of SKIING Magazine.

then, so...

EW

Hmmm. Somehow I get the distinct feeling that this won't change things all that much. What's next?

MF

Well, I'm leaving soon for East Africa to spend 6 weeks hiking the Rift Valley.

EW

And beyond that? Any ski adventures in the future?

MF

I have a couple of things in mind, but basically, whatever fascinates me, I will try to get someone to pay me to pursue. Definitely more skiing. I think that an extreme-altitude climb is something that will occur in the near future. I would like to climb an 8,000-meter peak, not necessarily to ski down but to understand what happens to the mind at extreme altitude.

I'm also planning another book called "Examinations of Exhaustion" which is about the quest to run 100 miles. I'm really interested in the hallucinogenic things that only occur at extreme levels of exhaustion. I've interviewed about 20 people who have done it so far, and about two weeks ago I participated in a 100 mile race that entailed 23 hours and 43 minutes of running upwards for 20,000 vertical feet.

EW

And?

MF

And I strongly suggest that you read the book instead.

Michael Finkel is a ski bum who makes his living as a journalist, and when not out adventuring, he calls Bozeman, Montana home. Finkel is also the author of Alpine Circus, A white-knuckled ride around the globe with an intrepid skier in search of the exhilarating and bizarre. Alpine Circus will be in bookstores in October. Check out Michael's latest, "War Wounds", a profile of Sarajevo, in the September issue of SKIING Magazine.

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