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Original Wildcat Gondola, NH

The Soul of Skiing, Revisited

Recently one of the leading ski publications dedicated an issue to the "soul of skiing," visiting places like Mad River Glen and Mount Bohemia to relate skier-interest stories about fabled routes, ungroomed trails and octogenarians arriving in station wagons. All heart-warming, but it's only part of the story. Like the ski industry as a whole, they seem to miss an important point, and their failure to understand the true soul of skiing is indicative of why the sport is fading away under an avalanche of snowboarders.

I invite you to join me on a trip down memory lane, specifically the early 1970s, when my uncle offered to put me on skis. He found an old pair of lace leather boots, then set to work with a drill and screwdriver to match up some bindings on a couple of worn out Northlands. After he was done, I was pointed to his front yard, where my older cousin was schussing around, waiting to teach me to ski.

The slope was about 70' long, including a steep section, a flat section, and a sharp turn. If you missed the turn, you crashed into the front porch. A long thick "tow" rope was strung between a couple of trees, so we simply had to pull ourselves back to the top for the next run. The following day we went to a local ski area, where we plied the snow under a beginner chair for a couple of dollars.

To my complete delight, my uncle told me I could take the skis and boots home when my visit was over. He even found a pair of mismatched poles to complete the package. I spent nearly every day after school bashing down the hill on my own front yard. Once that grew stale, I proceeded to crash through nearby forests and fields. The snow cover wasn't that great, but the old skis took the beating. And I fell a lot. I was 10 years old, indestructible, and I had my own private "ski area."

Soon I invited a friend to join me. Charles went to "real" ski areas. He showed up at my door with new plastic boots and gleaming Rossignol Strats. I took off into the woods with glee, and he followed. It wasn't long before we were falling, and he began screaming. He assured me that "this is NOT skiing" and proceeded to chew me out for all the damage done to his precious Rossys. Charlie's mother was called to retrieve him, and she gave me a piece of her mind when she did. Over the next few years he always had a season's pass at one of the local hills. I continued to receive hand-me-downs from my cousin and skied in the fields and forests, with perhaps one or two visits to a "real" ski area each year. For a brief period I lived within a half hour of Killington, but economics kept me on the farm fields, with the occasional uphill tow from passing snowmobilers.

My story wasn't unusual; I knew plenty of kids who skied backyards, golf courses, sledding hills, even cemetaries. Most of them stepped into their bindings wearing leather work boots or rubber snow boots. With his fancy gear that actually functioned properly, Charlie was envied. I knew a few kids like that. They had everything a young skier could want...but they never experienced the soul of skiing.

Today I live and work in Northern New Jersey, yet I routinely manage to eek out more than 30 ski visits per season. My cousin skis at every opportunity. Charlie and most of his crowd stopped skiing more than a decade ago.

Unfortunately I don't see much evidence of the "soul of skiing" these days. It costs hundreds of dollars to put a family of four on the slopes for a day, and that's just the lift tickets. I own skis that turn easily in any terrain, yet most ski slopes are groomed into uniform corduroy. I ski "trails" hemmed in on both sides by million dollar homes. I see the privileged given the opportunity to cut in liftlines at ski areas built on public lands. It's obvious where the money is, but where's the soul?

It's been years since I spotted ski tracks on the local golf courses or sledding hills. I've tried to convince my daughters to leave marks on a marvelous slope near their school; they don't see the point. But the most distressing signs of all are found on the hill in my own back yard: Make-shift jumps, rails fashioned from 2 x 4s, clumsy kickers, and hundreds of snowboard tracks, all made by kids in the neighborhood.

A couple of the older kids have snowboards of Charlie's caliber, but the majority are on plastic "toys" that their parents picked up for about $25 at a chain store. To add insult to injury, they strap into these plastic boards wearing snow boots or sneakers.

Some might say that with their injection-molded boards, these kids aren't really snowboarding. Certainly the ski industry pays no attention. Their parents aren't renting equipment, they aren't buying lift tickets, they aren't paying for lessons, they aren't being suckered into timeshares, and they aren't paying through the nose for lodge food. They just aren't on the industry radar.

But the kids are becoming snowboarders. They ride on plastic toys, crash off oddly constructed lumps of snow, and spend most of their time walking back up the hill. They can't wait to get home from school...because they positively love their version of snowboarding. Their sport has soul.

Parents can outfit their kids in a "toy" snowboard for anywhere from $19 to about $75. Some will pick up used versions at garage sales during the summer for a couple dollars. The plastic boot straps are easy to figure out, and they don't need to be taken to a technician who talks about DIN rates and an indemnified list.

Kids can read books like Snowboard Champ and Snowboard Twist by well-known children's authors Matt Christopher and Jean Craighead George. Even parents who've never seen snow can relate to these titles. has about 30 such snowboard books and related items, including a paperback I Can Snowboard!. Surprise -- as of this writing, that title is sold out.

Do a search on for "ski," and you'll find books like Best Ski Values in Switzerland, and Top Luxury Ski Resorts in North America. Sounds like a real approachable sport, doesn't it? The first thing on the list of search results that will even make sense to a non-skiing parent is a trashy movie called Ski School II; the cover prominently displays a bikini-clad vixen wrapped around a pair of skis. Using Wal-Mart as a litmus test, if snowboarding is the winter sport for everyman, skiing is for elitists with questionable morals. Does it even have a soul?

There are a handful of community rope tows and beginner-lift-only ticket deals left in this country. But there isn't a pair of skis, boots and bindings to be had for less than $200. And forget the rummage sale -- even your favorite uncle won't re-mount bindings for fear of a lawsuit.

Yet there might be hope...somewhere there might be a 10 year old on a pair of old Hart Mustangs with Tyrolia 540s. Maybe he or she has a pair of rear-entry Raichles that stay in the bindings most of the time. Maybe the skis are pointed down the steep side of a cornfield, and maybe that young skier will make it to the bottom of the hill this time. Maybe.

If a 10 year old is out there on those recycled sticks, amidst all the kids on snowboards, that's the soul of skiing. If there isn't, skiing doesn't have much soul. And I wonder if it has much of a future.

-- Rick Bolger, March 2005


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