It’s a small, simple word that gets thrown around a lot in skiing. It’s all about progressing the sport, progressing ourselves as skiers, driving the progression of better ski gear. On the surface it’s straightforward: Progression is about making “progress” as a skier, moving forward, learning, growing. It’s about being better at skiing tomorrow than you were yesterday. But at the personal level, it’s a lot harder to quantify.
When I was learning how to ski it was simple, the goals were impossible to miss. Ski all the green runs on the hill, learn how to turn on blue runs, try to keep up with my friends off the groomers. I could tell I was improving as a skier because I was simply skiing stuff I couldn’t have skied in the past. I was making my impossibles possible.
For park skiers, there’s a similar roadmap: Do a 180. Ok, add another 180 to that. And another. Another. Once you get bored there, set those spins unnatural. Add some grabs. Get off axis. Get inverted. Take off switch. There’s this litany of tricks that’s pretty straightforward to follow. Jumps are dialed? Here’s a rail. Switchup. Pretzel. Lift up your front foot. Tired of the same-old-same-old? Go watch the Bunch.
I still think you should get progression points for taking off your shirt.
My first 360 was magical. I set the rotation and closed my eyes, landed facing the right direction and carved out to one of the greatest highs I’ve felt as a skier. I still don’t fully understand how spins over 180 work. Something inside of me blacks out. I know I made the rotation because I’m skiing it out. My first 540 was a surprise to me, thanks to too much speed and new, light skis. But damn does that explosion of pleasure and relief and delight in successful progression feel good.
It’s addictive. It triggers a blast of pleasure through the brain. I did something today that I couldn’t do yesterday! I’m going to do something else tomorrow that I can’t today! It’s a gratification that’s central to the human experience. If that sort of growth didn’t make us happy we’d be a lot less motivated as a species. The high that successful progression gives us must be some sort of fundamental evolved trait.
You can see it watching a game of SLVSH. The highlight of any game, for competitors, reffs, and audience, is when someone is pushed to try a new trick, forced to do something new, and lands it. The stoke is palpable through my laptop screen as some guy in California stomps something he never really considered even trying before this contrived game.
But what happens when you start to plateau? My first few years as a skier were so packed with progression, they set a high bar. Of course, there were off days, days when I was tired, days when I just wasn’t clicking with gear, days when the snow or the light sucked. But overall, I could taste my progression nearly every time I skied. Every day I was a better skier than I was the day before. And then somewhere in the last few years, I stopped feeling like that.
Maybe it’s a product of age, or increased adult responsibilities or something silly like that. Regardless of the reason, I’m growing at a much slower rate as an inbounds skier now than I used to. If I’m really growing at all.
When I landed my first backflip, I assumed that eventually it would grow into doubles, inverted rotations, the whole shebang. Instead, I maintained a 50/50 average for landing on my skis or my face for a season and a half before I concussed myself on a backflip for the last time and promised myself and my girlfriend that I was done with that particular trick. Last year I resolved to do a 360 every day I skied inbounds, regardless of how I felt and how the snow was. I did it, but this year I feel just as much of a panic weight in my gut as I commit to the rotation. I’ve done a bunch of them, but I’m not sure that I’m really much better.
There’s an older guy at my home hill who skies the same line, under the lift, literally every day. He’s not an incredible skier, obviously not an ex-racer type. Instead he’s competent and obviously happy making the exact same turns, Camelback hose flapping on his shoulder, run after run, regardless of snow conditions. I’ve ridden the lift with him a few times. Once I asked him why he didn’t branch out? My silent subtext was “why don’t you care about progression, about doing something new?” He responded that the line he skis every day is the most efficient line to ski, it allows him to make the most turns every day. He’s here to ski, this lets him ski the most. There’s no traversing, no sidestepping. He just unloads and slips seamlessly back into the fall line.
Three years of progressing the size of rocks I was dumb enough to ski off of.
Sometimes I wonder what it would feel like to be truly content as a skier, to not care at all about progression, to be fulfilled with the sensation of skiing. I love the Gs of an aggressive turn, the whipping wind of a groomer straight line, the blast of snow in my mouth with every face shot. But the dopamine release that progression triggers is another drug entirely. I want to do new tricks, hit new jumps, ski new lines. I want to grow, and more than that, I want to feel myself growing.
Of course, for many folks, progression stalls out because of a big injury, or a life change that takes them away from skiing. Either option is unthinkable to me right now, but I still can’t bear to feel like I’m stalling out as a skier. Is this as good as I’ll ever be? Am I never going to get that shot of pure stoke ever again?
In the backcountry it’s a different story because there, progression is much more tied to fitness and experience than raw talent and athleticism. I can chase the “new” every day. I can go further faster more smoothly. I get that progression high most weekends earning my turns.
But I can’t give it up inbounds. My roots are in the terrain park. A huge part of me just can’t quit that dream. I want to be in the air, to spin, to go upside down, tweak the grab, stomp into the sweet spot. I want to get cleaner grabs, hit bigger jumps, look better doing all of it.
Today was a powder day, but the park crew had just built out the big jump line. I never even hit it last year, let alone spun any of them. I was too busy chasing pow. But today I traversed to the park instead of skiing one more pitch of fresh snow. I sized up the hits, tucked deep as chopped up pow tried to steal my speed. The first lip floated me over the knuckle. Gentle slap of the landing, tuck again, no speed checks, a bigger hit, a little longer moment of magical weightlessness. Final tuck, the biggest lip, I’m off, floating a shifty, my tail smacks my hand so I might as well grab it. Whatever “it” is, I haven’t fully lost it yet.
Tomorrow I’ll set a spin on that jump. Maybe the next day I’ll add a 180 to it. It might be slow, but I’ll make progress.