From the first day we ski, we follow. Or at least we try to. The sport's most common rite of initiation involves a friend who whisks the terrified subject to some summit, bellows "Follow me!" and disappears in a billowing white contrail. It's amazing anyone ever goes skiing twice.
Those who take lessons fare better only because it is considered poor form for professional instructors to lose their students. The novices learn by following one another down the hill, straining to imitate the form of the master technician at the head of the serpentine conga line. The better they can imitate the leader's movements, to the point of staying right in the instructor's tracks, the faster they progress and the closer they get to leading their own parade.
Even when we acquire the skills (and bankroll) to indulge in the sport's ultimate delight, ripping untracked powder via helicopter, there's still a guide, someone setting the pace. I can tell you from personal experience that guides lose their sunny disposition when you ski past them.
One problem with cultivating the mentality of a follower is that it leads to an obsession with turning. Among the unwritten laws of nature is that whoever follows will either fall behind or close in on the leader. Those who fall behind already work the brakes too hard, and those who tailgate are obliged to pump out a few extra arcs to avoid tapping fenders. Either way, the follower associates the act of skiing with the conventions of turning, so that even during those heavenly reprieves when there is no leader, they continue to focus on making turns, rather than skiing the mountain.
Skiers who put their energy into making turns focus on the continuous, controlled execution of turn after turn, despite the variations in terrain they encounter. It's a triumph of technique over nature. Skiing the mountain, on the other hand, means flowing with the hill, meshing movement and terrain, spontaneously reacting to the mountain's multifaceted features. Turns are not cranked out in industrial symmetry, but evolve organically from the intersection of the slope of the mountain and the speed-saturated soul of the skier. It's the point where skiing stops being technical and becomes spiritual.
Another drawback to the practice of following is that it induces a conditioned response to imitate. Even without conscious intervention, the follower morphs into a mimic. This is particularly true when the leader has a pronounced style. If the lead dog lays it over into every turn, soon the follower has more hip into the hill. If the role model stands tall and relies on a supple lower body, the follower taps into hidden reserves of elasticity. Monkey ski, monkey do.
Actually, imitating great skiers is a fabulous way, if not the best way, to learn to ski better. Visualization, particularly visualization of that which is 10 feet in front of you going 30 mph, is the key that unlocks the door to high-performance skiing. But it is also true that at the end of the ability trail, where greatness lies, everyone skis a little differently. There is a distinctive character to how the world's best get from point A to point B. Of course, there are inherent technical similarities among ultra-proficient athletes, but how and where they steer a ski in a free-form descent creates patterns as different as snowflakes. Each developed a unique style by skiing their own mountain.
Once all the competitions are over, the reward of technical mastery is the ability to feel the flow of the hill, to interpret it in a way that invigorates and inspires. To engage the mountain as a canvas of choices: rolls, swirls, drops, transitions, narrows, pitches, each hit with a different brush stroke, fulfills the promise of self-expression that lies at the heart of the sport. To ski your own mountain entails feeling the land beneath the snow, matching its rhythms, pulsing to its beat. The turns unfold from the experience, they don't dictate it.
On the first day of this season I hooked up with a local posse and soon found myself flying in close formation down ungroomed, early-season slopes riddled with odd terrain features and dotted with tree tops. The seven skiers instinctively split into lanes and maintained constant momentum, skiing their own lines in their own ways. Their own mountain. Everyone leading, all at once. The author can be reached at email@example.com.