The highs and lows of the premature ski season

🕔Nov 19, 2007

For many living in the North, our short summer is all too Canadian in the way it meekly sidesteps the onrush of our brash northern winter. Reluctantly, tires are swapped. Internal clocks recalibrated. Arrangements made with the farmer down the road to plow the driveway in exchange for a bottle of something come spring.
Many resist summer’s inexorable wane with the hopelessness of someone watching their cell phone lazily circle the toilet bowl before disappearing.
But for the skier, this is the most tantalizing time of the year. The steady descent of the snowline from the high peaks to the valley bottom trips a switch in the skier’s brain, setting in motion a season of unparalleled anticipation.
When I was a kid, this anticipation was almost too much to bear.
It would start each year with the arrival of Mountain Equipment Co-op’s Fall and Winter Catalogue. That revolutionary socialist retailer, catalogues chock-full of photos of smiling, bearded proto-yuppies in purple and yellow nylon one-piece suits and Peruvian earflap toques—mid-80s backcountry chic—fuelled my skiing obsession long before the flakes started to fly.
My brother and I fought mercilessly over custody of the revered catalogue, pouncing on it the instant we came in after school. Its pages held the promises of the winter ahead, and after a few weeks it looked like it had been attacked by a pack of rabid wolverines with a penchant for affordable recreation equipment.
“We had to duct tape it together so you could take it on the school bus with you,” recalls my mom on the phone.
She also recalls the purple windsuit, which I’m not certain I wanted to remember.
I had been lusting after a purple MEC windsuit. It was the days before Gore Tex—right around when the parka was dropped in favour of the then-miracle of layering (layering!). The windsuit was de rigueur. It came as a one-piece, but I picked the two-piece version: the purple pullover top with a flap over the zipper in contrasting black; the pants matching, with velcro cuffs. I had to order a women’s size small because the men’s sizes still didn’t fit. I was ten.
“I’m surprised you don’t remember it because it was actually quite traumatic,” remembers my mom. “I ordered it for you for Christmas at the same time I ordered some stuff for your dad’s family. I guess they screwed up the order because your wind suit went all the way to California.”
Later, the purple windsuit a distant memory, I moved on to more serious equipment. Bank account flush from a summer of cutting farmers’ thistles, I’d agonize over my pre-season gear purchases with the thoroughness of an astronaut packing his toiletries. Long and narrow skis, or short and fat? Plastic boots or leather? Critical choices, worthy of careful deliberation.
My mind made up, I’d dial the toll-free number (long since committed to memory). On the other end, an unsuspecting mail order clerk would be subjected to a veritable interrogation as I double-checked my selections against his assumedly infinite backcountry experience. I had transcended the lowly transaction; this was a relationship! I called daily over the next two weeks, at first to confirm my order had indeed been shipped, later to find out when they thought it might arrive.
The new gear’s arrival was a watershed event. I’d lean over the counter of the small post office at Hills’ General Store to catch a glimpse of the parcels stacked on the floor. Once home, I’d tear into them, and immediately assemble, affix and don whatever gear had arrived from the faraway Vancouver warehouse.
In full ensemble, I would shuffle my skis across the carpet to the full-length bedroom mirror. For the next 15 minutes, I’d practice alternating full tucks and dry-land telemarks, my gloved arms waving to keep my balance as I teetered on my skis, the airtight wood heater in the next room baking me in my layers of winter clothing. (Layers!)
More than once my mom walked by and caught me mid-turn, the imaginary wind in my face, snow billowing around my knees, my features set in an expression of earnest concentration. If she laughed, she stifled it until out of sight.
In these late-fall daydreams, the snow under my feet was always perfect, the skies always clear, and my form and fitness impeccable. Each swooping turn brought renewed elation, and my legs never tired. In my purple windsuit, I looked smashing.
Then, I would look out the window and notice the leaves, still firmly attached, just starting to change colour.
All too slowly, winter would make itself known, while I passed each day with my head buried in the catalogue. The trees finally stood bare, the snowline reluctantly inched its way down from the peaks. The suspense was palpable.
By the time the first day of skiing arrived, I would have already weathered the tribulations of an entire imaginary ski season. In fact, it was something of a feat that I possessed the energy to get myself out onto real snow at all.
The first day of skiing each year was always full of emotion. Enough time had elapsed between the last turn of the season before and the first of the season ahead to make the sensations all new. At the same time, the little details of winter—the cold nip at the end of the nose, the feel of the fleece inside a jacket collar—triggered a flood of nostalgia for winters past.
Then there was the skiing itself, and that remarkable feeling of the year’s first turn, apprehensive and jerky at first and then, after a few more, fluid and more confident. Soon, it was as if summer never happened—as if some sort of L’Englian time wrinkle had joined the turns under my feet to all the turns of seasons past.
It didn’t matter if I was flailing down the little hill in a nearby field on skinny Nordic skis, riding the chair at the ski hill or, later, skinning uphill for those first turns in the backcountry. That first day was always pure magic.
Sure, there were great days to follow that first one. There were those incredible days of brilliant sunshine and perfect snow with great companions. But as the winter wore on, the feelings would become more familiar, my interest would waver, and sometimes the skiing would just be skiing. Still fun but, run after run, pretty much the same.
By February—to many, only the start of the good skiing—my early season agony would have taken its toll. I would be burnt out. I would move onto something else (mountain bikes!), just as others were gearing up for the full two or three months of solid skiing still ahead.
Looking back, I’m unsure whether to regret these odd half-seasons, the fact that I rarely skied through the entire winter. If I don’t, it’s because that late-fall nail-biting, catalogue-flipping, mirror-posing anticipation of the season ahead was almost as good as the season itself.
Maybe—just maybe—it was even a little bit better.
Skiing has taken a backseat of late, making way for the mixed blessings of adulthood: two kids, a mortgage, car payments, a stack of lumber waiting patiently to become window trim. Bills to pay, meetings to attend.
The arrival of the first snow in the mountains still gets my heart going, but overall the early-season anticipation is quieter now. I understand that everything comes in good time, that obsessing over the future only cripples one’s ability to navigate the more immediate.
Nevertheless, there are still times of weakness. I’ll be out in the shop looking for something—needle-nose pliers, perhaps, or last year’s taxes—and I’ll find myself eyeing the ski gear piled in the corner next to the strollers and baby swings.
I’ll rifle through it, pull on a toque, some goggles—maybe my jacket. Just to get the feeling.
But first, I lock the door.