What an Aussie Learned about Canadian Winters

I’m so lucky, I  got to spend Wednesday skiing at Whistler and conditions were absolutely perfect. We didn’t have the luxury of staying up there – my daughter has to work – so it was a day trip. That means up at 6am, on the road by 7:30am (the doggie needs an early morning walk) and in Whistler by 9am.   One of the great legacies of hosting the Winter Olympics is the vastly improved  Sea to Sky highway that gets you up there in about 90 minutes.  And it was crazy gorgeous this morning.  It was dark when we started out but as the sun came up Howe Sound and the mountains could not have looked more spectacular. 

We were meeting up with friends to ski on Blackcomb and by 9:30am we were uploaded and starting out on an amazing day.   I’ve not skied in about 3 years now  – funny how that time motif recurs in my life and writing.  But this was a fantastic day, no matter how you cut it. 

I’m not a natural winter person – I grew up in Cairns, North Queensland, Australia.  We had two seasons there – the wet and the dry – and both were hot.   I had zero concept of cold, snow, freezing, skating, skiing or any other time-honoured Canadian winter pastime until I moved to Canada when I was 17.   I arrived in Toronto, in March, with “trainers” and a sweater jacket – I thought that would do.  Hahahaha.  It was simply beyond my reckoning to image a cold so intense I would need fleece, down parkas, gloves, hats, long underwear, wool socks – you know, regular Canadian stuff.  I soon learned the error of my ways. 

After a couple of freezing winters in Toronto (is Uof T possibly the coldest place in Canada???) I ended up living in Banff.   That’s where I learned to ski.   And like most things I do, I didn’t do it by half measures.  If you are going to learn to ski, why not move to what was then the best skiing  in Canada, forsake your education and become a ski bum by day, waitress by night.    And this was not skiing for the faint-hearted.   The “locals” in a place like Banff are the hardest of the hardcore skiers.  These  are the guys that are the ski patrol – the ones that come and bail you out when you really screw up, the winners of the Mountain Smoker race – how many times can you ski peak -to-lift on Mt. Norquay in 3 hours – winner gets bragging rights for the year.  So there I am, an Australian neophyte with boards strapped to her feet for the first time, baling down ridiculous slopes at crazy speeds.   I loved it from day one.    I skied 100+ days every year for six years.   I figured that if I was going to embrace this country as my own, I had to learn to embrace its crazy weather, winter and all, and make the most of it. 

So I also took up cross-country skiing and telemark skiing on back country ski touring trips.   A group of woman friends would make an annual ski touring trip from Lake Louise to Skoki Lodge, one of the oldest backcountry ski lodges in the Rockies.  About 20 of us  would ski in (it’s about 4 hours over 2 major passes) and spend a couple of days at the Lodge.  Because the Lodge supplies all your sleeping gear and food (and because it was run by friends) all we had to bring was booze.  A lot of it.  And we drank it all.  It was a bit of a marathon.  On the final morning we had to ski out with hideous hangovers.  This  involved an uphill ski of several kilometres (with our without skins – your choice) to the top of Deception Pass.  It’s called Deception because it always looks like it’s just another 10 minutes away and an hour later you are still pushing uphill.  After an all night session with every bottle left in the Lodge . . .painful.  One year our better halves thought it was hilarious to ski to the top of Deception from the other side and set up a stand to sell us ice-cold Cokes for a buck a piece.   They thought they were so funny, but they sold them all!!  

At about this time heli-sking started to take off in a big way in the BC interior.   Through my work I was connected to one of the premier heli-ski operators in the Canadian Rockies.    So I decided that if I was going to be a ski bum, I was going to be the best ski bum around and get a job at a heli ski lodge.   How many ways to describe fun – being a single gal working at a heli ski lodge pretty much covers them all.  I spent the next three years getting in as much heli skiing, and trouble,  as I could.   I skied with big groups and with private groups in 4-man machines.  I learned to ski the trees and the glaciers and I learned, in the harshest way possible, about not only the thrill of heli-sking, but about the danger.   In the three years I worked at  the Lodge, we lost people every year.   Some were to avalanches and some were to helicopter crashes, some were strangers and some were friends.   It was terrible, it was exhilarating: you lived every single minute of every single day and didn’t waste a second.  Life was never more immediate.   

How to describe a perfect run at 12,000 feet down a pristine glacier – your group’s tracks the only mark on a landscape otherwise without blemish.    Or out-running a sudden storm that was shutting down operations for the day – we had to race the storm down a drainage (valley) with the snow blowing hard at our backs to make a lower heli pickup.  If you are slow, or miss the pickup, or just unlucky, you get to spend the night on the mountain in a snow cave with an emergency blanket.   Our guides were well prepared, no-one would die, but it wouldn’t be fun.  You can bet we skied our asses off that afternoon to make the pickup.   Or a power-on landing on the top peak of the range  – the machine holds a hover with one skid on the snow (because it’s too steep to land) while the skiers bail out and grab their gear from the baskets.   Once the machine takes off, you get to stomp out a tiny platform  in waist deep powder and get your skies on, without jamming the bindings with snow.  Then it’s straight downhill.    Freaking amazing skiing.  

Because this is not a travel blog, but a blog about my life just a bit past normal, you may be wondering how  this relates?    For the last 15 years, I pretty much gave up skiing, something I love, something I was good at, something I once did pretty much every day of my life.   But once the fun is gone, once your confidence has been completely undermined, it’s not that hard to imagine.   A destructive relationship is destructive is many ways, some you don’t even realize till they are gone.  Skiing became another power struggle, another battle ground and another piece of yourself you can lose.   How does that suck – let me count the ways.   If you come to believe that you can’t do something, you can’t.  It’s that simple.  I believed what I heard over and over, so I stopped skiing. I was literally paralyzed.  Once that relationship was gone I didn’t have the jam to try it out again for three years.  Until this week.   Now I am stunned, wondering what I was thinking and what I have been missing.   For the whole day I couldn’t pin down what, exactly, was so exhilarating.  Then I realized – it was not having that voice telling me condescendingly, but oh so kindly, how crappy I was.  And without that voice – I had the most awesome day.    I skied some with my friends and some on my own.   Those runs in the afternoon by myself were so sweet – I rediscovered the sheer joy of plummeting downhill at high-speed, hanging on by an edge.   I reclaimed another lost part of me.   There have been quite a few lost bits reclaimed in the recent past and I’m not done yet.   2011 is going to be an amazing year for me. Tomorrow is New Years Eve and I can’t wait to see what the new year brings and the most fascinating part is having no idea where, who or what I’ll be/be doing on New Years Eve 2012.   Isn’t that awesome. 

And I”m hooked on skiing  all over again.   Here are some pic’s from my day.  We have a 3 day Whistler ski vaca booked for later in January – can’t wait.

I’ve been trying to think of a sound track for this post, but once again I have to fess up that the one track that was running through my head all day on Blackcomb was Elton John’s Tiny Dancer.  No shit.  I’m not even going to try to explain that.   There is an original video, but I like this one – I think it captures perfectly a time when the possibilities of life were infinite, when all that mattered were friends and music.  And maybe, for me, skiing.  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s