Brian Schott lives in Whitefish with his wife Lyndsay, son Ethan, and two black dogs - brianschott.com
As we approach the mid-point of the ski season, I am reminded how deeply skiing has become rooted in my soul, from the sinuous, icy runs of New England in my youth, to the wide open spaces of the Rocky Mountains where I ski today.
I am forever thankful that my parents placed me in the third grade ski program. My first ski experience began at Nashoba Valley, a 240-vertical-foot bump in Westford, Massachusetts. In the busy rental shop with a gravel floor and a smoky pot-bellied stove, I finally managed to get my gear on. I clicked into my skis and began shuffling across the rocks. An angry rental tech screamed “Whoa kid!” and grabbed me, clicked me out of the skis and shoved me out the door.
After another major struggle with the equipment, I burned holes in my gloves gripping the powerful rope tow and I later found myself half way down an advanced run called “War Dance” struggling pitifully with both skis off, the safety straps wound in circles around my ankles. My hands were frozen, I was shivering and drenched with sweat, and the bus was leaving, way down in the parking lot that seemed miles away.
Somehow, the following week, I returned to try again. And for more than thirty years hence, I have come back brightly to the slopes each winter to figure out another trick to the subtle art of sliding on snow. It’s a complicated dance, yet simple in a magical sort of way. We attach slippery boards to our feet, stand on a tilted snow-covered slope, shift our weight and create angles with our bodies as gravity pulls us to the valley floor.
It was also at Nashoba where I learned two difficult life lessons. On the short chairlift ride that same fateful winter, my friend Mark told me emphatically that Santa Claus did not exist (he had proof)—and I believed him. (How many important conversations happen on chair lifts?) And one afternoon a few winters later, I returned to the spot where I had left my new Rossignols outside the lodge (pizza sauce hardening on my face) and I found that my skis had been stolen.
I raged through the dirt parking lot in my ski boots, literally running as fast as I could in search of a thief. From a pay phone, I called my parents and was so upset that I could not get any words to form for several moments through the tears. I kept sucking in my breath as my mom continued asking, “Brian—what’s wrong?”
Although I would continue skiing in school programs through high school, even learning to race tight slalom gates, my folks began to take us on weekend ski trips to the bigger mountains up north. We’d pack the car in the early morning and take off for the likes of Waterville Valley, Loon, and Cannon. Now here were some ski runs! Skiing began to take on a new dimension for me. Soaring views. Softer snow. Runs you could hum a whole tune on.
I also got my first taste of powder skiing in New Hampshire, and oooh—it was delicious. A deep winter storm dumped boot-deep snow and we bashed though moguls without sound, launched into the air, laughing when we fell (no bruises on your butt!).
At Dartmouth, I skied surprisingly little. No car. No money—a bad combination for this increasingly expensive sport. I hit the college Ski Way once or twice, was treated by a friend’s dad to a ticket at Stowe and a weekend at Sugarbush, and even braved the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine one spring day after a scary hike up the steep bowl.
Instead of traveling to Europe or getting an internship in New York for a required semester away from campus, I moved to Vail for my sophomore winter term (the village does have a European flair, right?) and was never able to look at east coast slopes the same way again.
With graduation looming, I hatched a plan with two friends to put off the “real world” for a year and move to Vail. Our college degrees in hand, we landed eight-dollar-an-hour jobs renting and tuning skis in a hotel ski shop. I skied 126 days that winter and learned some good life lessons. One in particular: you don’t have to be wealthy to live richly.
After that post-grad winter in 1994, I jumped north to Whitefish in search of something more authentic. And I ended up staying, rooted by this vast, magical landscape. Skiing had its hold on me, a playful grip that turned into a major part of my career.
This past weekend as I chased my seven-year old son Ethan down the slopes of Big Mountain in the warm sunshine, zigzagging through alleyways in search of jumps, I was again transformed into a child. I swear I have never seen such a deep blue sky, high up above the world in this land of white. Snow fell in clumps from the trees absorbing the sunlight, and the snow ghosts seemed particularly magical. “Look—it’s a bunny rabbit! Wow—that one looks like an elephant!”
And for a moment I look at Ethan as we dangle high in the air on this moving chair and wonder what this life will bring him in an increasingly strange and complicated world.
Maybe you’ve heard—the world is heating up. And pretty darn fast. How dramatically will skiing be affected by these changes in climate that we are experiencing? Global warming. Global weirding. The glaciers are melting. No matter what you call it or how you slice it, billions of humans will be affected by climate change and mountain ecosystems are particularly vulnerable. My mind starts to spin as we approach the summit. What to do…?
Cool it, Brian. For now, just enjoy this moment. Listen to the snow squeak. Feel the transfer of energy as your skis bite into the snow. Listen to Ethan shriek. “Wahoo! I’m gonna try a 360!”
As I grow older and some of the heavier aspects of life add layers to our natural, more lighthearted cores, there is no better way for me to get grounded than a day on the slopes. We are born to play and this sport has carved a vast well that recharges my heart with joy.
I just hope my kid’s kids get to do it—and don’t just read about skiing in some story on their mini iComputer. “Hey grampy! Can you tell us about the time, way back when, when you skied in Whitefish?!”