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Skiing was once supposed—by sentimentalists—to be the sport of a heroic elite. In a simpler time, when rope tows creaked, the outdoor ideal was untarnished. "It was all fresh air during the day and singing in front of a fire at night," an oldtimer recalled. There were even those who, in Norse fashion, made long cross-country trips on skis. (This has become the fashion again.) But the dynamics of popular sport are irresistible. You start with a Spartan idyll, the sport catches on, and there is an inescapable expansion—and melancholy decline—into crowds, technology, motels.
Ski operators are inclined to be impatient with elitist nostalgia. As the sport gains popularity, the facilities become more lavish—so lavish and so expensive that ever larger crowds become economically imperative. Mt. Snow has led the way with such peripheral things as outdoor swimming and indoor ice skating, saunas—and girl-watching for the predatory. Who has to ski?
Nearly everybody is the answer. For what saves skiing finally is a respect—amounting to reverence—for the sheer skill of the sport. No snobbery is fiercer than that of the echt skier. Skiers discuss refinements of technique and equipment with a passion and a minuteness that suggest scholars engaged in esoteric studies.
Technique snobbery is remorseless. The wedelners perform their choreography like movie stars. They come spinning down the mountain with negligent grace and churn into the tow-line in a haughty spume of snow. On the mountainside the serfs laboriously make their way down the slope, picking the easy spots, eying the moguls like enemies. But they, in turn, lord it over the beginners. And even the beginners feel a lofty superiority over the snow bunnies, those fellow-travelers of sport.
Another system of snobbery has to do with where you ski. The farther you go, the more dash you have. The lower Catskills—Grossinger's, the Concord, Davos—are simply out of the question. Skiers love to boast about prodigies of driving that they perform ("We made Stowe in six and a half hours"), and the whole point of a ski weekend is to cram as much as possible into the weekend with the least amount of sleep. The ultimate refinement in this distance steeplechase is the junket to Switzerland—"just for a few days of skiing"—to Chile or even to that final outpost, New Zealand.
The spirit in which you go also yields points in the status rat race. Skiing is big business today, but skiers like to maintain the illusion of a certain nonchalance—Renaissance Italians called it sprezzatura, a highly prized quality among courtiers.
The pecking order
Low man on this totem pole is the square who makes arrangements to go on a packaged bus tour, a kind of grubby welfare state in which meals, lodging and instruction are written into the contract. Bus tours are scorned even by ski operators, a group notable for their magnanimity. The operators' quarrel with bus tours is that they carry their own ski instructors, who, allegedly, are uncertified. There are also recurrent reports of ungentlemanly drinking during the day. The package planners have the last word. They argue that skiers should be relieved of the anxieties of travel and lodging. The ski instructors, they insist, are often certified and have the advantage of knowing their students before they teach them. And in this fresh-air democracy, why shouldn't secretaries and salesmen take a crack at skiing?
One would expect that people who make their living from skiing would be free from the status nonsense. But they tend to be as hierarchical as their customers. The pecking order, in ascending order, is ski bum, ski patrolman and ski instructor. The ski bum is really a beatnik with a suntan and an implausible passion for skiing. He—or she—works part-time in a lodge in exchange for board and a season ski pass. He is often a college kid on the lam, a member of that army of restless students who take a semester or year off. Sometimes he is just out of school, determined to squeeze in a full season of skiing before graduate school or career closes in. Ski bums provide a touch of bohemia in a sport which is becoming big business. (There are even ski-bum entertainers whose job it is to sing folk songs in front of the fire.) But, in the end, the Organization will be their undoing. Already, ski operators are nervous about the term ski bums. "Please call them lodge staff," a slope operator suggested primly.
Ski patrolmen, the medical corpsmen of the slopes, are the dray horses of the sport. Brightly costumed, with medical packs bulging around their middle, they maintain safety, take down the injured and make a final sweep of trails and slopes at the end of the day. They are the beefy cops of the ski area—steady, sturdy, utterly reliable.