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The End of Bluebird Propaganda

Skiing's often portrayed as a fun, sunny, powdery winter escape, but really it's a skin-blackening, appendage-robbing furor.
posted: 12/27/2002

Startling new research reveals that winter is damn cold.

It was a sight any skier should love: Early Wednesday afternoon, gray masses started bumping into the high peaks of Bridal Veil basin. Clouds were bottlenecking, spooking, and thrashing into each other-the way simpleminded wildebeests panic when cornered in a Kenyan gully.

By Thursday morning, the weather had become an ugly blizzard-stinging pellets of snow blowing horizontal with a vengeance. The storm seemed to fly in on the wings of spite. It was as if the snow gods heard the grumbling of Colorado ski bums and said, "Quit whining about your damn 36-inch base and take this."

I was happy to. But not many skiers joined in. Most folks stayed indoors that morning. My father-in-law, who was staying with us at the time, peered through the rattling windows at the blizzard and said, "You must be totally crazy or totally dedicated to go out there."

I nodded, pulled my neck gaiter over my chin, and stepped into the maelstrom. Yeah, it was nasty. But I was going powder skiing. I didn't mind if 70-mile-per-hour blasts slapped my face red.

The walk to the base area revealed that the snow was graupel, which falls not as gentle, artsy little hexagons but as sharp, conical-shaped ice shrapnel. Graupel is the powder that hurts. In the cult book Deep Powder Snow, Dolores LaChapelle describes a graupel storm as follows: "The wind is screaming in, horizontally, and it's impossible to see a thing unless you ski in the trees, because they give definition to the whiteout. Practically no one skis in this kind of weather unless they happen to know about graupel snow. Sitting inside a ski lodge, looking out the window, it seems utterly miserable...Going up the lift is torture...But once on top, it's total bliss all the way down."

Skiers canny enough to venture out into such storms are amply rewarded. In howling blizzards, the fluffiest powder lines change every run. The windblown cream that settles between mogul troughs is some of the most sensuous snow in existence. There comes a moment during big storm days when it no longer matters that you can't see or can't carve because the snow lets you float downward with only limp, sporadic effort. Once you've skied in a storm, you may never trust fair-weather skiers again.

I boarded a chairlift with a guy who was clearly a local but no one I'd ever met. We slouched low and tried to hide within our Gore-Tex. The blizzard howled and screeched. Eventually, the chair glided through a protected fold of conifers, affording enough protection for my chairmate to speak. "The skiing's excellent today," he said as a crust of rime built on his goggles. "It's crazy that the tourists hate weather like this." Imitating the distinctive accent of Texas, a state that for various reasons has gotten under Colorado skiers' collective skin, he said, "Hay-ull, I can't see where ah'm goin', and there's too much damn snow to turn."

Me, I don't mind Texans. If they don't want to ski in storms, there's more fresh tracks for me. But I do mind when skiing is tailored to appeal to the point of view of a Houston trophy wife. The collective ski industry marketing machine wants to deny the existence of storms when it should be celebrating them.

If you believed all the imagery hurled at your sticky eyeballs, you'd conclude that the sport is all sparkly and clear and hatless. This is nothing new, of course. American skiing has been biased toward blue skies since the 1930s, when Averell Harriman chose dry Sun Valley over sopping Mount Hood as the site of the nation's first European-style winter destination resort. Soon, Hollywood was filming movies in Sun Valley, ushering in a 70-year parade of sunny ski imagery.

There's almost a conspiracy against inclement weather. I, for one, was once blackballed by a heli-skiing company because I wrote a story that described skiing in bitter cold. Once my story, with its short description of a client's temporary frostbite, hit the newwsstands, I was fingered as the one ski journalist in North America who was no longer welcome at the heli guide's lodges.

I couldn't believe it. Did the heli-skiing outfit think potential customers would be afraid of getting cold? I wrote about skiing, not beachcombing. Are there skiers who actually believe Warren-Miller-dreamy-foot-of-fresh-under-blue-sky days arrive by magic? Can we not discuss graupel and winter storm warnings? Must all accumulations fall gently and perfectly vertically, so that Cindy Lu in Whoville can catch snowflakes on her tongue?

It sometimes seems that Americans gave their money to Jon Krakauer and Sebastian Junger without really reading Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm-books with a pretty clear message: Precipitation is not cuddly and cute. If you're a real skier, someone who's traded a little frostbight for powder, you know that weather remains wicked and inexplicable. It belts us with sudden, unpredictable violence, like a Joe Pesci character in a Martin Scorsese film.

Just once I'd like to see winter portrayed in all its skin-blackening, appendage-robbing furor. In fact, I fantasize about a new version of the Suzy Chapstick commercial, one that emphasizes gritty realism...

Suzy Meets The Weather (take one):
Action: (We open with the standard sunny, backlit shot: Suzy has just completed a dazzling pirouette on ballet skis, her blonde mane reflecting the West's golden sunshine. She skis toward the camera and begins to chirp.)

Suzy: Hi, I'm Suzy Chapstick! (From the left of the frame enters The Weather, an ominous horde of dark clouds, played by Joe Pesci.)

Suzy: And I want to tell you that Chapstick helps heal and prevent dry, chapped, sun- and wind-burned lips! (Her smile is huge, almost equine, with massive bright teeth.)

Pesci: Why you smiling? (with surging anger) You think I'm funny? Do I amuse you? I make you laugh? (Pesci picks up some windblown snow fencing and bashes it over Chapstick's head.)

Suzy: No! I'm just smiling because my lips feel so moist and healthy!

Pesci: What's the weather to you-a $%#@&* clown?!? (In a rage, he machine-guns graupel at Suzy's eyes.)

Suzy: Ow!

Pesci: (initiating the Scorsese-trademark head stomp) Winter hurts, doesn't it, Princess!

Suzy: (with a menacing wave of her 0.15-ounce wand of Chap Stick) Take this, Mr. Blizzard Pants! (lunging at his lips)

Pesci: $%#@&*! 15-SPF sunscreen, petrolatums, lanolin, and cetyl alcohol!

Suzy: (Applying Chap Stick and reaching into her shiny red one piece to pull out a hat and goggles. Adjusting goggles above tanned cheekbones, she finally looks like a real skier in a real winter.) That's right! Thanks for the powder, ass-munch! Time for me to rip some fresh!

Action: (Suzy skis into a whiteout with Pesci in chase as ice crusts her hat and wet snow saturates her gloves.)

Suzy: (in a close-up, dangling a good-sized frozen snot-sicle from her right nostril) It's called winter, people! Deal with it!

(Fade to white.)

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