Mr. Pennyfeather on Skiing

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Skiing may be and doubtless has been described as a new form of snobbery, an exercise in exhibitionism, the last resort of the muscular feeble-minded, a purveyor of thrills, a religion, a fad of the moment, and many another harsh or paradoxical epithet. And, accurate though some of these charges may be, it is nevertheless equally true that, almost alone among sports, skiing consists solely of fanatics. Poverty, disablement, marriage, or some such calamity may put him on the shelf for a time, but the axiom still holds generally good: once a skier, always a skier. And this becomes doubly curious when one considers that a man on skis is almost always a man tired, or scared, or both.

My friend Mr. Oscar Pennyfeather, with whom I frequently discuss these matters, agrees with me. Pennyfeather would be the first to admit that he himself is an indifferent skier—a magnificently indifferent skier. How he has come to assume his role of oracle is, therefore, a matter of mystery; perhaps it is because he compensates for his lack of skill by a singular adroitness in ski controversy and a mind firmly closed to opposing opinions. He beckoned to me from his favorite corner in the club the other day. We talked skiing, of course.

'Take the novice,' he said, in his habitually clear and resonant voice. 'I once met a young chap who really tried to take up skiing in a spirit of calm inquiry; he was honestly determined to ski temperately. No good. It's the same with every beginner. Once his boot has felt the grip of the binding, once he has glided softly down a little untracked slope and heard the hiss of the dry snow against his skis, he is lost forever. He tries it again, he gets the feel of the thing; his skill increases, his knowledge expands, confidence and passion gather in his breast; he looks for longer, steeper slopes; he learns to complain of the snow, and masters the art of vituperative argument; he spends most of his money and all his time spare, or stolen—in the mountains; he takes a few lessons, learns how to turn and stop voluntarily instead of by accident; he scans the weather reports, eagerly reads textbooks on the art, bores his non-skiing friends half to death, is shunned by them, gives not a single damn.'

Mr. Pennyfeather is right. And yet skiing is such a simple art, essentially: sliding downhill. Why all this passion? Control is the answer. Skiing is the art of controlling the speed of the body when said body is mounted on two strips of wood turned up at the ends and made deliberately slippery by the application of beeswax; this is the common denominator of skiing in all its forms, from winning a downhill race at the rate of a minute or two for each thousand feet of descent to sliding unsteadily down the fourth fairway at the country club. Fresh snow, hickory wood, and beeswax, besides smelling and feeling nice, have a natural affinity for one another; they are elemental substances; and the triumph over their joint and silent conspiracy to throw man on his neck is somehow, for this very reason, a more than ordinarily satisfactory one.

Furthermore, the skier is solitary on his skis, more than in any other sport dependent on himself alone. He has no stubborn horse to cope with, no mechanical contraption like a gun or a backstay or an engine to refuse to work at the critical moment, no human competitor trying to trip him or trick him, as in so many games. No, your skier is all alone with his God and his skis, engaged in an endless campaign to resolve the differences between two eternally antagonistic forces - gravity and control. When he fails, the failure is his own. When he succeeds, it is his own personal triumph, no less sweet if a minor one, for in the art of skiing the degree of one's pleasure bears no relation to one's skill. The beginner's very first successful run, indeed, with a timid christy or two on the way down and a neat little stop-turn at the bottom, is likely to give him the proudest moment of his career.

When Mr. Pennyfeather and I speak of skiing, we really mean ski running that is, sliding downhill on snow, the branch of the art which in New England certainly, and probably all over northern America too, numbers nine out of ten of all skiers. To your true addict, ski jumping, for instance, bears the same relationship to skiing that fancy diving does to swimming: very pretty, but unimportant. Though the downhill runner has immense respect for the jumper as a jumper, and admires his nerve no end, he believes that his specialty has nothing to do with skiing. He really has a greater feeling of kinship for the honest plodding snow-shoer than for the jumper. The cross-country race he recognizes for what it is, a magnificent test of stamina and ability with the element of thrill largely extracted; but for his own part he is content to leave the langlauf to the Scandinavians, who are quite unbeatable at it and who, moreover, are the people who have his gratitude for acting as midwife and nurse to the skiing tradition in this country.

Wherever snow falls on mountains in the United States, downhill skiing is king. New Englanders happened to be the first to recognize its sovereignty, and with the encouragement of such pioneer organizations as the Dartmouth Outing Club, the much older Appalachian Mountain Club (which has recently added skiing to its major interest of mountaineering), and the Ski Club Hochgebirge, its domination has become absolute. That the general level of ski running is higher in New England than elsewhere is demonstrated by the fact that five out of the six members of the recently chosen Olympian Downhill Team are New Englanders; the sixth is from the State of Washington, where the reputedly magnificent conditions will doubtless soon enough enable the Westerners to catch up. It is easy to show that skiing is alive and kicking hereabouts—so vigorous, in fact, that news of it has even reached New York, as new ideas eventually do.

Whatever the beginner's original motives, whether he goes into it for his health, or excitement, or amusement, or because he thinks it fashionable, the outcome is the same. Skiing makes him feel the way a king ought to feel, a triumphant king, full of conquest and glory, undefeated. Just because he has proved that he can slide downhill on a couple of strips of wood without falling! Strange, mad, mysterious, unreasonable—but true!

The first Boston and Maine snow train left the North Station on January 11, 1981, with 197 self-conscious and rather defiant passengers; on succeeding week-ends eleven other trains steamed north to dump 8174 Sunday skiers on the snowy slopes of the White Mountains. It is probable that among the pioneers of 191 were relatively few absolute novices. These were quickly manufactured; for four years later, during the winter of 19S4-1935, fifty-eight trains were operated, and carried nearly 18,000 passengers. The snow-train patrons probably represent a small proportion of New England's actual devotees. There are sixty-odd ski clubs affiliated with the United States Eastern Amateur Ski Association, and many a village in the White and Green Mountains has its own less formal organization, consisting of every able-bodied man and girl in town and a good many of their grandmothers.

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