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, 1931, 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 1934-1935, 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.
From the larger cities the week-end stream of automobiles is appreciably thickened by cars bristling with skis and packed with skiers who see nothing extraordinary in driving four or five hours on Saturday afternoon in zero weather, over roads slippery and bumpy from ice and frost heave, spending the night at farm or boarding house, skiing like mad all day Sunday, and driving home again that night. As long as the snow lasts this goes on, week-end after week-end. On the last day of March, 1935, 288 cars waited at the foot of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail on Mount Washington for the thousand-odd maniacs who had motored anywhere up to two hundred miles, and climbed three thousand feet up into the Ravine, merely to watch a downhill race. Understandable at the beginning of the season—but at the end!
Boston's two leading ski shops sold between them in the neighborhood of three thousand pairs of best-quality skis last winter, at prices ranging from ten to twenty-five dollars for the skis alone, not counting sticks, bindings, steel edges, boots, clothing, and all manner of special gadgets that every skier itches to try at least once. Nor are the country people unaware of their opportunities. Rival Chambers of Commerce bid actively for the snow trains; snow carnivals are rife and getting rifer; and many an honest farmer has turned the front parlor into a dining room, freshened up the spare bedrooms, sent Elmer to town for more pork and oranges, and nailed a tourist sign to the old elm by the gate. He knows -or ought to, by this time that the average skier, does n't care what he eats or sleeps on so long as the snow is good and the house not too far from the skiing grounds.
The nearest thing to an official register of New England ski trails for 1935 listed fifty-five in New Hampshire, sixteen in Massachusetts, and fifteen in Vermont, open slopes not included. These eighty-six are real ski trails, cut through the mountain forests for skiing only, trails made purposely steep and difficult for the expert, or easy for the novice. The shortest has a vertical descent of five hundred feet; the longest, from the summit of Mount Washington, and practicable only in late March and April, a drop of forty-five hundred feet. Many of them were originally lumber roads and foot trails, widened enough to make them skiable; but a few of the more recently built, like the Richard Taft at Franconia, the Wildcat at Pinkham Notch, Hell's Highway on Mount Moosilauke, the Thunderbolt on Mount Greylock in the Berkshires, are real ski runs, steep, wide, and hair-raising enough without the added menace of the encompassing forest. But, good as they are, there is nothing in the East that gives the skier even the approximation of his ideal, the Alps above timber line; and there never will be, though he is doing his best, with the help of Federal funds and state aid, to achieve it. For every honest ski runner takes it as axiomatic that the sooner every tree is stripped from the White Mountains the better. Trees are a nuisance -off with their heads! The trails are a hopeful beginning, of course; but only that. I venture to say that few ski runners travel the Taft Trail without giving secret thanks for the unhappy set of circumstances which brought the CCC boys there to build it. They may not admit it even to themselves, but their smile speaks for them: here, it says, is good, in visible form, come out of evil.
Skiing is in its youth in New England, and youth, if I am correctly informed, is partial to speed and lots of it. The current ideal is not one or two perfect runs a day, earned laboriously by upward striving, but as many runs as possible at the greatest speed attainable, preferably with the uphill part accomplished by means of a rope tow. No matter if the surface of the trail turns to glare ice before the day is half done; no matter if the crowd is so great that an uninterrupted run is out of the question: the thing to-day is to get down that hill fast, faster than the next man, then up to the top and down again instantly. Only one group, so far as I am aware, has set its face against the current trend; this is the Ski Club Alte Bürger, a group of venerable ladies and gentlemen who believe in moderation in almost all things, whose speed limit is fifteen miles an hour, and whose avowed purpose it is, according to their constitution, 'to bring to the noble sport of skiing the mature and mellowing influence of old age, and to act as an antidote with the general public to . . . organizations of good skiers.' It cannot be affirmed, however, that the beneficent influence of these worthy old parties has so far been deeply effective.. Figuratively and literally they are swept aside in the craze for speed; and many a young Boston bonesetter is now driving his own horse and carriage on the revenue derived from his Monday-morning business alone. It is said that the cripples queue up for blocks along Beacon Street on winter Mondays, and that the grisly symphony of bones and cartilages snapping back into place may be heard, when the wind is right, clear across the frosty Charles.
This mania for speed is at once a sign of the, sport's infancy here and its principal mark of distinction from Central European skiing. In Austria and the Alps, skiing has been established long enough for its practitioners to take speed or leave it alone. Thus we find the Austrians, for example, scorning as one man the Swiss for their childish preoccupation with such toys as badges, clubs, medals, comparative ranking, and similar artificial spurs to progress, and the British for their obsession with racing and the competitive side of skiing in general. (The Ski Club of Great Britain recognizes one hundred and thirty-four fixtures for the season of 1935-1936, of which fifty-three will be held at Mürren and Wengen.) The Britishers in turn feel polite regret that a race as charming as the Austrians should be so indifferent to racing, so taken up with pure form and the art-for-art's-sake attitude. And it is generally true that the Austrians' interest in skiing is aesthetic rather than competitive. They have developed—and, under the aegis of Hannes Schneider of St. Anton in the Arlberg, standardized—the most practical, the most easily taught, and, in the opinion of many, the most beautiful technique for downhill running. It is perhaps not too broad a generalization to declare that they think of skiing, primarily, as a way of getting up into the mountains and enjoying themselves.
It is in the Austrian nature to prefer grace of execution to mere daredeviltry. To them the uphill work is as much part of the game as the down, the technique of climbing and mountaineering as important as that of running. Perhaps that is why there are so few funiculars in Austria One sees there the most beautiful downhill runners in the world, from the point of view of pure form. In Switzerland one sees. the fastest. But the Austrians do not care to spend the necessary weeks in training and practising for the big meets, as the Swiss champions do; therefore the Swiss usually—though not last year - beat them, and therefore look down upon them a little in their turn, but not with so much scorn that they have been unwilling to tear leaves by the handful from the Austrian manual of instruction. The recently formed Association Suisse des Clubs de Ski now maintains standard ski schools in fifty-four different Swiss resorts, at which they teach what is virtually the Arlberg technique, with certain frills added. Interest is maintained by a graduated system of classifications, tests, badges, and so on. The Swiss system is a good one, and the schools have made an excellent beginning; but because the Austrian instructors are so much more experienced in their method and in the actual practice of teaching, and also because they concentrate more thoroughly on the basic elements of technique, I think it fair to say that it is still possible to learn to ski more quickly in the Arlberg than anywhere else.
The Scandinavians, of course, look upon all the Europeans with the amused tolerance of those who learn to ski as they learn to walk -instinctively. The average Norwegian can no more tell you, in words, how to 'do a christy' than you or I could explain the familiar mechanics of breathing; Norwegians have never known how not to do a christy. Their competitive impulses find outlet in ski jumping and cross-country racing, and in these specialties they have no equals. Jumping is their art form of skiing, as the langlauf is their endurance form. The great Alpine sport of downhill racing is only just beginning to be accepted in the Scandinavian countries, I am told; indeed, the first formal downhill meet was held in Norway as recently as three years ago.
The late Viscount Knebworth, one of the recent British 'greats,' describing in the British Ski Year Book for 1938 a trip to the Swedish skiing country, found that his elderly host's notion of a day on skis was to pick a mountain ten or fifteen miles away and ski round it; and try as he might he could hardly keep up to his companion, who sauntered along with his hands in his pockets as if he were out for a walk—which, as a matter of fact, he was. 'I must confess,' says Knebworth, 'that after eighteen kilometres across comparatively flat country I learnt to appreciate the Scandinavian doctrine, at which we in the Alps have always found cause for laughter, that a downhill slope should be used for the purpose of resting.'
To take sides in such friendly racial controversies is good fun, but it doesn't get you anywhere. The wise novice will follow his own bent. If he has strong legs, no nerves, and the universal native itch for competition, he will naturally gravitate toward downhill racing and its complementary test of adroitness, the slalom. If young enough, he may turn also to the pure thrill of jumping. The average skier will continue to find his greatest felicity in simple downhill running, in a big way if possible, in a small way if not. During a trip abroad the practical-minded will certainly prefer the larger resorts, not for their greater comfort, but because the large resorts usually have funiculars to carry one up the mountain, and your practical-minded fanatic begrudges every instant he isn't downward bound. Those of a gentler or more romantic turn will shun the popular centres like poison. It is they who support the small, unspoiled, out-of-the-way hotels and country inns, which they use as bases for lonely, leisurely climbs and runs on the untracked snow of the high mountain shoulders.
Nor must we forget the submerged nine tenths, the vast army of camp followers; if it were not for them the mountain hotels could not afford to stay open. They really make the whole sport possible. Camp followers may be defined as carnivorous members of both sexes who are seen, clad in impeccable 'sports costumes,' in the lobbies, sun verandahs, and bars of the smart hotels. You may see their fashionable faces and pretty clothes in the rotogravures, their names in the society columns. Sometimes they even put in an appearance on the local nursery slopes, where they subject themselves and others to death by impact and apoplectic rage. Why they ever attempt to mingle their shriveled egos with a substance so elemental and unsympathetic as snow is truly puzzling. Probably because it is currently the smart thing to do—a theory that finds confirmation in the fact that they behave just as they do in Florida or on the Riviera at the proper season: drink a little, flirt a little, dance, bridge, shop, and, instead of playing golf and tennis, occasionally flop about in the snow.
The females—who are so rife at the European resorts that in Austria, at least, a special name has been coined for them: Skihaserl, or ski-rabbit- the females, I say, do more: they fall in love with their teachers. In fact, the amorous propensity of the Skihaserl is recognized by the instructors as an occupational hazard, like stonecutters' tuberculosis. The average instructor—young, bronzed, broad-shouldered, slim-waisted, clear-eyed, a poem of strength and grace in motion—thinks nothing of having a dozen pretty women of as many different nationalities, all hating one another's eyes, in love with him at once. The teachers take it as part of the day's work, and get through by the use of such tact as God has given them. To prove that Eros, warmly furred and radiant, goes about the slopes on skis, one need merely mention the fact that the female ski professor is an unknown phenomenon. No, the girls like to be taught by males. So do the men.
Although the sport is young in New England, its practitioners have cultivated it with such calculated (and characteristically American) ferocity that the level of proficiency is already amazingly high. Despite all handicaps,—distance, uncertain snow conditions, a relatively short season, forest-covered slopes, lack of mountain railways and easily available instruction, -addicts by the thousand have stuck grimly to their skis, taken the bumps, and astonishingly improved. Distinct types have emerged from the snowy welter of the Northern hills, types which may vary in origin, in temperament, and in skill, but which, as I have suggested earlier in this essay, have one important trait in common: devotion.
Let us consider first the novice, or, as he is known in the new and rapidly evolving ski vocabulary of New England, the Ape-man. For a description of the typical Ape, I am happily privileged to borrow from the report, issued by the Ski Club Alto Burger, of the scouting expedition which they sent into the Ape fastnesses under the leadership of Mr. Pennyfeather himself, who recorded the observations which follow:—
CUSTOMS AND HABITS OF DOWNHILL APE (Apa Topsyturva) FOUND ON MT. CARDIGAN, NEW HAMPSHIRE, FEBRUARY 10, 1935, BY THE OSCAR PENNYFEATHER EXPEDITION OF S.C. ALTE BÜRGER
... On arriving by motor at base, it was observed that it is the custom among the Apes to segregate their young, as well as their aged females, on an open slope near their hut, where a number of healthy specimens were seen tumbling about in the snow and uttering their shrill cries of rapture. It was inferred that they were passing through a preliminary training period, before joining the adult males on the mountain; and it seemed apparent, indeed, from the frequency and violence of their falls, that not a few of them were ready for promotion. But it was not till the Expedition had left the base and climbed a thousand feet or so up the wooded trail that they had their first opportunity to study a genuine Downhill Ape in action—a specimen so typical that his description may serve for all.
The Expedition's first intimation of his proximity was gleaned from the sound of a piercing, far-off cry, high up on the mountain side, which seemed to them not unlike the English word 'track,' weirdly prolonged: tra-a-a-ck!' - then silence, followed by a repetition of the same note farther down the mountain. The leader of the Expedition quietly ordered his men to take cover behind stout trees, and, as soon as they were safely bestowed, himself picked out a rugged oak and prudently followed their example. Again the eerie Ape-cry sounded, and again, ever closer; and presently they could detect an accompanying note, a loud crash, followed by the sound of clattering wood. Instantly, to the astonishment of the entire force, resounded the paradoxical echo, a peal of merry, almost human, laughter. And still all ranks stood fast, alert, wide-eyed, prepared for anything—for anything, that is, but that which greeted their gaze.
For suddenly close above them again was heard the hysterical cry—'tra-a-a-ck!' and round the turn at the top of the glade there whizzed into view a strange, manlike figure, leaning forward stiff-legged on widely separated skis, mouth open, eyes protruding, arms, sticks, and scarf flying. The creature zipped into the turn, lost his balance, bounded off a tree on the outer side, fell violently forward on his face, whirled over and over (thus explaining the clattering sound), and finally came to rest upside down against another tree in the deep snow beside the trail. Then sounded again the peal of wild laughter, and presently the creature extricated himself from his temporary hibernation and stood erect on wobbling knees, leaning on his sticks, panting, and completely covered with snow that adhered to the depth of an inch or more to his blue-and-orange-striped pelt. There he stood, affording the Expedition an excellent opportunity for study; a period heartbreakingly brief, it is true; for suddenly, without a sign of warning, the Ape hurled himself at the steep slope at his feet this time, as the trail was straight, having the good fortune to avoid arboreal contact when he fell, as fall he did, halfway down, leaving a curiously shaped pit, or depression (0HG. Sitz-Platz), in the smooth surface of the trail. Then ensued a repetition of the over-and-over whirl, the clattering, the maniac laughter, and the painful extrication.
A no less significantly characteristic type of New England ski runner, though in ability far advanced beyond the Ape level, is he who (according to Mr. Pennyfeather) has come to be known as the Bashi-Bazouk of the forest - possibly from the dictionary's description of this type of warrior as being 'notoriously turbulent; violently agitated; disposed to disorder; restless; unquiet.' In other words, that group of young sportsmen who have singularly devoted themselves to the pursuit of race suicide. As Pennyfeather aptly expresses it, 'If all downhill racers possessed the grace, the courtesy, the silky skill of, say, the members of the Hochgebirge Club, not a breath of complaint would agitate the shriveled leaves of the winter woods. But alas, like all great men and pioneers, the Hochgebirges have their imitators, a coterie of young chaps who try to make up in brute force what they lack in skill. They wear, it is true, the authentic dead pan of the racing Hochie, but one misses, behind it, the twinkling eye and the debonair carriage. Caring nothing for the lovely technique of skiing, with its grace and easy precision, the Basher is victim of the pernicious drug, rash daring. He seems happiest when out of control on an icy track. He scorns the established rule which gives uphill the right of way. By temperament he is too insensitive to know that he is n't a skier at all by classic standards, but a mere thrill-monger fortuitously making use of snow to achieve a novel form of intoxication - beaten snow, that is; for your typical Bashi-Bazouk is comparatively helpless in deep snow, wherein he suffers most of his common dislocations and fractures. Listen to this,' and Mr. Pennyfeather drew from his pocket a ragged copy of the British Ski Year Book, -'listen to the mighty voice of Arnold Lunn himself on the subject, and note the distinction that he draws:—
'Soft snow skiing is skiing. Hard snow skiing is sliding. Sliding is a magnificent sport, but it cannot be compared with skiing. Sliding is a matter of nerve, strength, and natural balance. But to ski fast in soft snow which varies in speed and texture calls for great skill, and great knowledge of snow, for brain no less than muscle. The more's the pity that skiing properly socalled is tending to disappear in favor of mere sliding.'
Mr. Pennyfeather put down the volume and looked at me severely.
'To sum up,' he said presently, 'the typical Basher is immature, muscular, indestructible, impetuous, beef-witted, and slightly mad. He cares for one thing only, the thrill of speed; and he is as indifferent to what occurs to him during his brief bursts of headlong vivacity as he is careless of what happens to others he may meet. Like any child, he seems bent on proving to himself-or to his mates-that he is n't afraid. I don't know why Bashers ski. Parachute jumping would suit them better. Preferably,' Mr. Pennyfeather concluded with a curling lip, 'without a parachute.'
It is difficult not to sympathize with the Pennyfeather point of view. I too have dodged the downhill Basher. But for my own part I find even more annoying the Basher's bland assumption that the thrill of speed is all there is to skiing. If he likes to go fast, well and good; but that he in his ignorance, should regard the classic school with pitying amusement unquestionably rankles, as I suspect the equivalent attitude has rankled in the breasts of more than one aged disciple of classicism in other fields.
We comfort ourselves, Mr. Pennyfeather and I, with the reflection that speed is relative, and that in fact no one yet knows what the limit of speed on skis really may be. Over the Flying Kilometre at Saint Moritz, the maximum so far attained is 84.7 miles an hour, electrically timed, on special sixty-pound skis ten feet long and equipped with short handles fixed to the skis in front of the toe irons for the crouching runner -who wears a streamlined suit - to hold on by. But who can say that this record will not be broken next year by somebody else on skis twenty feet long weighing two hundred pounds-and so on? The British Ski Year Book for 1938 has the following to say on the subject:
The Flying Kilometre is raced on a specially prepared course which is, of course, much less than a kilometre. It is interesting to compare the amazing times which have been recorded under natural conditions using normal skis on the Joch Pass at Engelberg. The vertical drop from the Joch Pass to the Trübsee is 1500 feet, and the distance 1.7 kilometres, that is, just over a mile. The first fifty metres are gentle there is no flying start as in the Flying Kilometre - and the ground varies rapidly in gradient. The greatest of downhill runners could not possibly take it straight from top to bottom. This year's record was achieved by Ernst Boss, who did the descent in 1' 12.4", which works out to the amazing average of 58.5 miles an hour.
It is interesting in turn to compare this with the time made by the winner of the 1935 FIS at Mürren, Switzerland. FIS stands for Fédération Internationale de Ski, and the race to which it gives its name is to skiing what the Grand National is to steeplechasing. The race was won under bad weather and snow conditions by Franz Zingerle of Austria, in 3' 30.4", over a course 1.7 miles long which dropped 2658 feet between start and finish, thus giving an average speed of a little over 9 miles an hour. Even this is very fast skiing, too fast for most mortals, probably faster than anything that can be achieved over a like distance on the trails of New England, where turns are not elective, but dictated by the requirements of the track's pattern.
The fundamental weakness of the Basher attitude may best be illustrated by his aversion to stemming that is, braking. Not once but many times have Pennyfeather and I overheard one Basher jocularly accuse another of stemming, as if there were something faintly unsporting, even shameful, about the stem; whereas actually, as every experienced ski runner knows, the stem is the very foundation of all good skiing. If one is either unwilling or unable to employ the stem, he is betrayed as an indifferent skier, no matter how fast he dare slip down a polished trail. To be charitable, this is perhaps less the Basher's own fault than the fundamental drawback of all- trail skiing. The runner is in a chute, almost on rails, under conditions which put a relatively small premium on the use of judgment. The really fascinating elements of the sport—route selection, control, the instinctive choice of turn according to the conditions -are, in the case of trail running, largely nonexistent.
There is no prettier sight in the world than that of an expert ski runner slipping easily down over the steep shoulder of an open mountain, the picture of relaxation and springy grace, always under control, never pressing, never tense; now going into a series of linked stem-christies or telemarks and leaving his lovely pattern in the deep, unmarked snow; now stemming at the top of a steep cornice, or again slowing up for a jump-turn at a bit of wind slab or breakable crust; and reaching the bottom cool, breathing easily, still relaxed, and ready if he feels like it to make his leisurely way to the top and do it again. Pennyfeather and I, neither of whom is capable of doing anything of the kind, feel that it is the most soul-satisfying exhibition that man can behold, as we agree that, there is nothing so pitiful as the sight of some grim young Basher diving headlong down an icy trail, tense and stiff and frantic, indifferent to form and grace of execution, skidding round the turns any old way in an attempt at the 'tempo' or high-speed turn, to reach the bottom dripping with sweat and his face wreathed in a silly selfconscious smile.
'There,' he seems to say, 'did you see that?' Yes, we saw it, both Pennyfeather and myself; and it makes us feel sick, much as we respect his nerve. Mr. Pennyfeather nudges, me. 'C'est magnifique,' he sums up in a low murmur; 'mais ce n'est par la guerre,' I conclude, knowing the language.
As I have suggested, the Barber is not entirely to blame. Seldom having had the opportunity for anything but trail running, he is, moreover, the unwitting victim of one of Lucifer's most tempting forms of exhibitionism: a fast run on skis ending with a flourishing hotel stop before the crowd at the bottom. But, victim of circumstance or not, let him at least give up his smug complacency, his assumption that speed is all there is to skiing. As to the lady Basher - oh yes, she exists!—not a word!
The Pennyfeather ideal is the type of skier whose pleasure is esthetic, whose enjoyment is derived from other aspects of the sport than sheer speed. Instead of counting up and boasting the number of feet of downhill running he has achieved in a day (like last winter's hero who 'did' eighteen thousand feet between dawn and sunset by means of sixty-odd runs over the three-hundred-foot towrope hill at Woodstock), your skiing epicure is indifferent to how far he goes or how fast, provided he gets a fair proportion of downhill work. At the end of the day he treasures the memory of having once or twice, perhaps, done a series of fast turns in form that satisfies even his own sense of perfection. He is happy in any depth or consistency of snow if it is fresh and untracked; and, if once or twice a season he finds the ideal circumstances of fresh powder over unbreakable crust, he counts himself sufficiently blessed. This idealist is most contented when out alone or in the company of one or two sympathetic spirits whose ability more or less matches his own; then there's no waiting for laggards, no worry about failure of equipment. These men -and women -know what to take on a cross-country tour, and how to keep within their capacities at least most of the time—save perhaps when exuberance or a perfect slope gets the best of them and they let 'er go.
Touring is the sport for these superior beings, not racing. Part of their satisfaction is derived from the purity of the snow, part from the contemplation of the countryside, part from the day's accomplishment. It is no pose on their part when they say they enjoy climbing; they do. Not so much as the run down, of course, but still enough to count. Climbing, they believe, is an art in itself, and, aside from the ability required, they feel, having sweated for it, that they have somehow more thoroughly earned the pleasure of the run down. They like best traveling over unfamiliar country, where they never know what lies round the next turn or over the next rise, and instant control is not only valuable but essential. This form of skiing tests their allround capacities in a way that the dash down a trail' can never do, and, of course, steadily builds up their strength and endurance and ability. There is nothing in New England, alas, to make this epicure truly happy; he needs the Alps or the Rockies. But he is usually philosopher enough to make the best of what is available, and a day of bushwhacking over the rolling wooded hills of Vermont or up one of the less frequented valleys of the White Mountains brings him modest pleasure enough, provided he can find plenty of fresh snow and a place out of the wind to cook his lunch. They are likely to show the world a stiff, impatient face, these lonely idealists, and speak to it in a gruff voice. But there is a place for them, too, in the skiing scheme of things, and they ask only to be let alone to find it—preferably far, far away from the Camp Followers, the Skihaserln, the Apes, and the BashiBazouks.
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