I grew up at one of those fabled local hills. Mt. Baldy was my place; I started skiing there at the age of three and kept at it until I was a young adult. I loved it. I loved knowing all the lifty’s names; I loved knowing every rock on my favourite run, The Vertical. Heck, I even loved skiing Baldy on the most treacherous of foul days, when it was raining or the snow had the consistency of a Thunder Bay ice rink. That hill instilled character in me that made me ski through anything because I was happy to ski at all. And the community that was Baldy would let me know if my head was ever getting too big for my toque.
As I grew up I began to drift away from Baldy. I skied at bigger, more famous hills. They were steeper, and had more snow, and faster chairlifts. On paper those hills seemed a heck of a lot better than ol’ Baldy. Yet every time I left my old stomping grounds I noticed things; people snickered if you didn’t have the newest gear; valets turned up their noses at my 1999 Chrysler Intrepid. I kept finding that no matter how good the skiing was at the bigger hills, none had the uncompromising inclusiveness of my hometown hill. It seemed to me like the love of sliding down hills on snow, any snow, had been lost at these places.
Last winter, I had a chance to go back to my home hill on a Saturday afternoon. I had been seriously sick with mono for a few months, and was just regaining my skiing legs. All my old shred buddies were there, and a few days earlier we had gotten a dump of dry Northwestern Ontario blower powder. I had forgotten my snow pants, hat and goggles, so I wound up skiing in torn up jeans, a balaclava and bent aviators I had pillaged from the lost and found. That day we lapped The Vertical, leaping off of cliffs I had thought to be godly as a kid, my wet pants crusting up with ice, aviators becoming progressively more bent.
It was the best day I had all year. Sure I wasn’t skiing a mountain with one hundred dollar day passes and a huge marketing budget; it didn’t matter. I was at my home hill, my friends were there, the atmosphere was right, and life was good.
Downhill skiing started out as a sport for the masses. From the poorest poor to the richest rich, everyone could afford to ski as long as there was snow on the ground. There was something so simple about it – all you needed were two pieces of wood strapped to your feet, two poles in your hands, and however much courage you could muster up to slide down a hill.
Somewhere along the way, things changed. Skiing became buying thousands of dollars of equipment, paying a valet to park your Maserati at the hill, and bragging about your on hill prowess in the bar all night. People began skiing to impress others. Luxury was the focus, not skiing. Yes, somewhere along the line the soul of skiing was lost.
Yet there are holdouts. Across the nation, local Mom and Pop ski hills carry the torch of making the sport accessible to all. At these hills, no one cares if you ski in your old oil stained Polaris snowmobile jacket. Straight skis are still seen regularly, as are one piece suits. It’s faster to hike up the hill than take the chairlift, but that’s ok, because the chairlift is a good time to have a smoke. The season is short; really only from Christmas until March. The locals are grizzled - most have spent their winters at the hill since they were kids. No one cares if you have the most modern gear – heck they’re impressed if you even have gear. The bottom line is everyone is just out having fun, and loves to ski.
The soul of skiing lives at the ends of dirt roads in small towns worldwide.
I hope local ski hills can continue to survive and bring the joy of skiing to people of all walks of life. I dream about skiing all summer and get to live my dream all winter. I loved growing up at Baldy, and I hope skiers get to experience the same joy the world over.