Back when I was in school at Colorado College I felt obligated to go skiing. I had to see what all the the hype was about. Needless to say, it was a highly intense racialized experience for me. I was alarmed by the way whiteness had co-opted the landscape, erecting a prism of natural simulation. But beyond race, I was dismayed (not surprised) by the blatant hypocrisy of tree hugging white folks participating in an industry that is heavily emblematic of the negative effects that capitalism has on the earth. Skiing and ski culture is a biotic representation of the ways that inherited racial and socioeconomic traditions, pastimes, and luxuries will trump one’s desire to remain socially conscious or vulnerable. To process and respond to my experience skiing I wrote the creative non-fiction piece below. Enjoy!
And yet the heat that springs from the constant danger, from a lifestyle of near-death experience, is thrilling. This is what rappers mean when they pronounce themselves addicted to “the streets” or in love with “the game.” I imagine they feel something akin to parachutists, rock climbers, BASE jumpers, and others who choose to live on the edge. Of course we chose nothing….We did not design the streets.
-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Preparing for the upcoming block break is daunting. “Breck break” is swiftly approaching and I am severely underprepared due to my blatant ignorance regarding anything related to skiing. My friend Amelia is the only one out of our four-person female friend group who has serious experience with skiing so she braces us for the festivities ahead. Amelia is a short, well-mannered blonde girl with the comforting qualities of a wise older sister, thus grooming me for the mountain by giving me her hand-me down ski pants and jacket, but everything else has a price.
We spend hours in the ski shop finding the right goggles, boots, poles, and skis. I choose to rent my skis just for the weekend, but my other friends are buying to own. Nice adult skis cost about $500, then poles are about $100, boots can range from $100-$800, goggles are $60, pants $150, jacket $145. And aside from attempting to find something somewhat reasonably priced the branding is everything. Are your pants Columbia? Is your jacket NorthFace? Do your pants match your jacket, but not too much? Don’t coordinate your colors too well, you’ll seem like a try-hard.
At Colorado College the crazier the outfit the better. If you’re wearing a bright orange jacket with yellow pants and rainbow goggles you’re doing a great job. If you’re wearing a gorilla suit, even better. So we spend at least an hour helping my friend Martha, a limber brown-haired bombshell and a first-timer like me, buy a pair of ski pants. And then she realizes that they don’t have the specific shade of turquoise she wants in her size. We drive to another store just to find the right ones. Then, Amelia has to buy and install a ski rack. We spend another hour and forty-five minutes waiting around in REI for a $200 piece of metal to be installed onto Amelia’s car.
Finally, we are headed to Breck after about a week of preparation. The drive is vibrantly painted with conifer trees covered in snow along winding roads at altitude. We stop at a gas station, take a leak, get some beef jerky, and continue on our journey until we arrive in the town of Breckenridge with the black starry sky hanging in the air. Unlike many of our fellow students, we decide that renting a giant cabin housing 9 people officially and about 15 people illegally, is an excessive idea so we stay at the Mariott for about $40 per person per night.
Driving through the downtown area it is clear that modernity had taken hold of this town in its most brutal form—isolated, semi-urban, well-groomed luxury. We go out for dinner at an Italian place that claims to have authentic New York pizza, but as usual that isn’t true. As a Jersey Bitch I despise places that tout “authenticity” at $8 a slice when I could get a real slice for $1 at home. We end our night in the adjacent queen-sized beds in our hotel room anticipating the next day ahead.
The mountain air is light, but the neon colored bodies bearing clunky gear seem to weigh things down. The sun illuminates the glistening snow, refracting off their goggles and helmets. Breckenridge, Colorado shines brightly through the manufactured thrill that lifts people up the mountain. As we walk up to the ticketing office I nearly topple over. Walking in ski boots is reminiscent of a gangster lean. With a limp and a dip of the knee I attempt to emulate others so effortlessly mastering ski boot swag. The ticket clerk greets me as I peer over at the monstrous gondola shuttling people up to the slopes. How do you even get on that thing?
“Excuse me, I.D. please?”
“Oh yeah sorry,” I fumble with the zipper on Amelia’s old jacket.
“Which pass are you going to buy?”
“Uh, the day pass.”
“Okay that will be $80 plus tax, so that’s $95.50.” I reluctantly pull out my overused debit card. My friend Eliza is buying the Epic Local pass for the season. That’ll be $619. Martha and I need lessons. That is another $162. Martha and I clamor onto the gondola, utterly dismayed at the coordination it takes to maneuver skis and poles onto this moving mountaintop contraption.
“Martha, you’re holding your skis upside down,” Amelia says.
“Oh shit…I didn’t know that was a thing.”
I quickly inspect my skis—they are upside down.
We finally reach Peak 8 where the majority of Colorado College’s elite has already overrun the lodge. As people speed down the mountain and make their way back to the lift many of them bear sunburned faces, clearly they had forgotten sunscreen, but it suitably plays into the lackadaisical culture. Apathy and adrenaline propel everyone down the slopes, meanwhile inside the lodge hunger and privilege whisk dollar bills out of pockets to pay for $20 hamburgers and $4 bottles of water. The lodge is teeming with sociable twenty-somethings drinking beers talking about how ready they are to “get fucked up.”
I click my boots into my skis intently attempting to make sure my first step upon the snow is graceful. The weight of the ski startles my gait as my right foots reaches the powder with a thump. My left foot struggles to meet my right, but eventually it does so with fervor. I stand tall in relief. I’ve made it in one piece. I begin to tread, but instead I start sliding. My body hunches over trying to catch itself, but gravity doesn’t care about my weak knees. I can feel my weight betraying me as the slowness of my fall attracts attention until I land in a strained version of the splits. Amelia muffles a furtive chortle.
“Dude just try to take it slow,” she says. She slowly herds Martha and me to the spot where we will begin our ski lesson with our older male teacher. His skin is slightly red except in the spot where his thick mustache resides.
“You guys are going to get on the magic carpet,” he says.
“What the hell is a magic carpet?” Martha whispers.
The magic carpet is a conveyor belt right beneath the bunny slopes where you are dragged along at .5 mph to simulate the feeling of flying down a mountain, even though it really just feels like those moving sidewalks in the airport. After a couple rides on the magic carpet and a few clumsy runs back and forth on a nearly flat patch of snow, our teacher decides it’s time we learn how to get onto a ski lift.
We wait in line at the ski lift for the bunny slopes eyeing the children behind us. We inch up the line, and as we get closer I look over at Martha’s petrified face. We reach the front and tepidly step onto the conveyor that moves us forward while the lift chair creeps up behind us. Martha and I hold onto each other tightly as we wait for the chair to arrive beneath our butts.
“Ahh, oh my god! Jeezuss it’s coming,” I screech as the chair scoops us up into the air.
Martha quickly slams down the lap bar, our only form of security. The chair was only mildly protective—I could jump right off if I wanted to. Two scraggly-faced snowboarders on the chair in front of us are dangling their bodies off the side to patronize their friend skiing beneath them, “Yeah Bryce! Shred it bruh!” Ignoring them, I catch my breath. I am soaring above luscious white powder. I am growing intimate with a mountain peering into its crevices. I grew up in dirty Jersey, I have never seen anything this breathtaking in my life. The slope steepens. The ascension tightens the air.
“Shit, Nia how do we get off of this thing!?” Martha yells.
We are fast approaching the end of the ski lift. The people in front of us turn their heads back at us in response to our mortification. In theory when the lift ends we slide off of our chairs onto a landing of snow that circles around the lift apparatus placing us right in font of a slope that steepens beyond our desire. In reality we are ejected from our chairs, hitting the landing with uncontrollable speed, and falling over just in time to keep us from aimlessly propelling down the mountain. We are instructed to zig-zag downward with our knees moving in tandem, ankles straight. I just end up falling again, wiping out twice, and getting caught in my skis six times all while being surpassed by fearless four year olds bundled to their ears in mini Patagonia.
After our lesson we continue to ski, but it doesn’t seem to get easier. The barrage of skiing tact, knowledge, and culture comes down on me like an avalanche.
“When in doubt just send it down the mountain,” Amelia advises.
“Hmm send it…”
“Yeah or you can just pizza.”
“Did you say pizza?”
“Yeah just invert your skis into a triangle.”
The avalanche grows.
“What’s a mogul?” I say.
“It’s those hill things on the bigger slopes.”
“Okay well then I’m definitely not going on those.”
The avalanche quickens.
Snowboarders are usually stoners. They give off chill vibes.
Girls usually are racers. Boys tend to park ski.
The avalanche swallows me whole.
“Hey Nia there’s a black guy over there!”
“Oh my god where?!” I respond hoping she’s right.
“Oh wait he’s not even skiing, he’s snowboarding actually.”
“Dammit, maybe I should board….” I say.
Black people don’t ski.
Amelia keeps teaching; little does she know I am suffocating from her avalanche of insights. However she is a great teacher, compassionate and patient. She isn’t the most amazing skier, but she is pretty good. She started skiing with her dad in Massachusetts when she was young because she became depressed in the winter. Naturally, in winter people tend to stay inside their homes, but her home life wasn’t the best. She looked forward to every ski season just to escape her demons at home—to find a personal space that wasn’t grimly tainted. Skiing is calming for her, which puts me at ease.
My friend Eliza on the other hand, stresses me out. I don’t see much of her on the slopes because she darts in every direction with minimal coordination and reckless abandon. She is a tall athletic girl with a mane of blonde curls, striking blue eyes, and the uncanny ability to be “one of the boys.” Skiing is thrilling for her, and the endangerment of her life is not a pertinent consequence, but it seems odd to me that all these people can choose to put their lives in danger.
The risk factor of skiing never appealed to me. Maybe that’s because I was raised in a cautious home. Think before you act. Think before you speak. Recklessness doesn’t pay. Don’t break the law. Always be nice to the police. You don’t get second chances. People like us don’t get second chances. Your life is bigger than you. Your life was built on the backs of us.
These white people hurling themselves down a mountain have the privilege of putting their lives in danger, but my life has been at risk the minute I was born. Considering that black lives have just now received mild recognition for their importance in America, why would I be willing to wager my life? Considering that non-white Americans only make up less than 38% of the population, yet they make up 46.6% of police killings, why would I wager my life? Considering black Americans are more than twice as likely than white Americans to be unarmed and shot by the police, why would I wager my life? (The Guardian).
I suddenly lose my determination to master my first day of skiing. Martha is getting the hang of things, easing down the mountain, and I am too, but something is tugging at the back of my mind. I can certainly afford to be here; I have the gear, the clothes, the style, but it still seems like there isn’t room for me on this expansive mountain.
The next day we ski again. I am determined to do better today. I pay my 95.50 again, clumsily hop on the gondola, and head straight for the slopes. I am doing well, and I think maybe I am ready to venture out on my own. Martha and I split up. She is skiing faster than I am—my caution still apprehending me. I start to let some of my inhibitions fade and the wind whips in my ears as I begin picking up speed. My heart beats heavy and fast in a euphoric frenzy as my eyes water. Suddenly my left ski starts wobbling uncontrollably and my speediness revolts, hurling my body onto the ground. I wipe out. Hard. Entangled in my skis, I attempt to get up but my right knee is lodged under my left ski. I am only half way down the slope, but I can feel myself tearing up. I need to go.
“This is fucking bullshit!”
I hastily unlatch my skis and fling them away from me. I watch them begin to slide downward so I dive back toward them, gripping them before they run away. They slide between my icy hands as I try to orient them and sling them over my shoulder. Finally, I gain the balance to stand up. As the skis dig into my neck I walk the rest of the way, boots crunching and sliding. I had finally mastered my gangster lean, and I think this time it was cause for concern.