Mental space counts for a whole lot in the outdoors. But it's easy to lose sight of it when all the fun, enticing things about a mountain town are calling for you. So, how in the world do we just slow down for a minute?
In a place like Jackson Hole, it kind of feels like everyone’s goal is getting as gnarly as possible at all times. There’s a culture that tells you hiking Glory Bowl slowly just to take in the view means you’re doing something wrong. But what’s so bad about slowing down? Even in one of the weirdest years of most of our lives, where we’ve been encouraged to ‘stay at home,’ life still feels too fast. It’s all too easy to get caught in the pattern of work, ski, work ski, and never take a minute just to be. I’ve been wondering how, in a town where it can seem that it’s only about who’s sending the biggest, to find those moments of slowness, quietness, peace, and mindfulness in the common denominator between the valley’s residents. But where to go looking for those moments?
I sat down to write this article for the first time after a week of work, not very much skiing, and some pretty garbage snow conditions.Eight-hour shifts at the juicery blended into long days of cranking out content and sifting through ski media, fueled only by vegan Annie’s mac and cheese had me feeling disconnected from skiing, the idea for this piece, and the reasons I’d moved to Jackson in the first place. My pitch was ‘Mindfulness and Skiing’ but I wasn’t really sure I knew how to say much about either. Mindfulness is defined as two things; the first is ‘the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.’ The second is: ‘a mental state achieved by focusing on one’s awareness of the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.’ While I wasn’t exactly sure how yet to put it into words, I knew I’d felt this way while in the mountains and sought to figure out exactly how I’d found it in the past.
I was born and raised in Colorado and lived there up until pretty recently. Some of my earliest memories are learning to ski at Telluride, then growing up spending weekends at Winter Park, and finally calling Steamboat Springs home for the last six years. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I was convinced that skiing wasn’t just a cold weather torture inflicted on me by my ski-instructor step-dad. It was also in high school that I started practicing yoga regularly and discovered this whole idea of meditation and mindfulness and that physical activity could be a way to relieve stress and find a kind of spiritual calm in the everyday. With my newfound interest in skiing, I started begging my parents to drive me to the mountains to ski every weekend and let me skip school for powder days. The last day of the season I hit a tree and cracked my helmet and goggles down the middle giving myself a pretty solid concussion. Summer came and my brain had mostly healed and I started doing yoga all the time as a way to channel all that energy into something new. I continued to do both avidly throughout high school and when we migrated to Steamboat Springs from the front range my junior year I was introduced to living in a ski town for the first time.
Ski towns are this magical place where it snows all winter, the mountain is right there, and mostly everyone there wants to ski just as much as you. Although I wound up going to college in Washington state, I spent every break from school in Steamboat and even an unexpected semester of my senior year immersing myself in the magic. The idea of a ski town grew to mean more than just everybody went skiing― it came down to people wanting to be outside just as much as I did. Nobody I was spending time with wanted to spend their days off doing nothing. For the first time, I was surrounded by people who would text me at 7am, making sure I was already eating breakfast in my bibs, ready to ski. Or people who would skin up the service road on Emerald Mountain at 10pm just to eat charcuterie at the top. Or people who would drop everything to go float the Green or Yampa rivers for a weekend. From sun up, to sometimes, well past sundown, everyone was getting after it— on skis, bikes, rafts, kayaks, any way they could. The best part was that it wasn’t because anyone was saying they had to, it was all purely because that’s what they wanted to be doing. They worked as bartenders, maintenance guys, ski and bike mechanics, kayak instructors, real estate brokers, even lawyers, so that when they were finally off the clock, they could play outside. Ski towns were suddenly this magical playground full of people driven solely by the next time they’d get to be out in that crisp mountain air.
Throughout this time, I also practiced yoga avidly and found a connection between other sports and yoga and the ways that breath and movement influenced each other. I moved back to Steamboat amidst the pandemic and shortly before ski season began, ended up moving to Jackson. While I needed Google Maps to get anywhere for the first three weeks I lived here, there were many things about Jackson that immediately felt like home to me. A river running nearby, a whole mountain of bike trails out my front door, and that common factor that everyone here just really wants to be outside. To me, Jackson felt like new, gnarlier, home. I felt that I could continue to practice the things that ground me, like yoga, and of course, skiing and really grow in them. In fact, the skiing was about to get a whole lot better. So why, part way through December did I feel so disconnected from one of the things I loved to do, that helped bring me to this new home in the first place?
While I’m no pro skier, nor the type of person that can fully clear their mind while meditating, and therefore not given expert status at either, what I do know is that many people find parallels between the outdoors and a certain mental state. Mindfulness both as an asset to being in the mountains and as a result of it can have massive effects on one another and for people like me, can even be the reason to get out there in the first place. In my exploration of the ways in which they can influence one another, I wanted to pinpoint the exact moments that I found mindfulness easily in the mountains and share them.
Naturally, the first step in answering all the questions I had was simple being that it’s usually the first step to skiing: wax my skis. Let me tell you how much I love waxing skis, I always have. I find that it’s best done with some good tunes and a strong IPA to accompany it. There isn’t really a way to tune skis super quickly without doing a crappy job. For best results, admiring the slow drip of wax off the iron, the way it spreads out onto the base of your skis, and the methodic scraping of excess wax are required. A task so mundane as waxing skis allows for an untouched moment of focusing on nothing more than each scar on the base of a ski, the warmth of the iron, and the sweet, sweet smell of wax. Waxing skis might just be waxing skis, but that awareness of a present moment and one’s thoughts and feelings seem pretty spot on in doing so. The night before a giant powder day, the tuning bench provides a few of the best moments of peace and reflection for those who look for it. Some skiers would even say the tuning bench is a kind of altar for the sacred ritual that is waxing your skis, but those guys might be on a whole different level…
My skis waxed and ready to go, I set out for the next few days of finding my flow in the mountains again. I felt better about my relationship with skiing after a day at the resort but still craved purity in the sport. The weekend brought more snow, so I trekked up to the top of Teton Pass for a morning lap. Even though I am usually the slowest person on the skin track, I don’t necessarily get to ‘slow down.’ But on this particular day, I did. Encouraged by Rosie the herding dog chasing after our skis, we climbed through the woods to the top of the ridge. About halfway in, I was both keeping a good pace and able to hold conversation with my ski partners which included my landlord, Joe, and another friend of his. We covered the best hats for touring, ways to make coffee, cold pressed juice, and whether or not we actually had a waffle iron in our house, and before I knew it, we were at the top. The ski down was nothing short of epic. The powder was up to my waist and getting turns through the untouched bowl with Rosie chasing after us had a big, goofy smile pasted on my face all the way down. On the skin back up out of the woods and to the car, I was a way behind my friends, and was able to take my time with each step. Even though I was tired, sweaty, and hungry, I think I smiled all the way back up feeling as though I had gained something more than just a good day of skiing. A walk in the woods with my friends, and a dog, and some really, really deep snow had helped me remember why I loved the sport, all while slowing down to appreciate all the little things, even peeling your skins apart on top of a windy ridge. Backcountry skiers always talk about ‘earning your turns,’ and sometimes it sounds pretentious, like those of us that only ride lifts are lesser. But I think there’s more to that notion than just the reward of turns after the hike. ‘Earning your turns’ is a way to appreciate the way down because you worked for the way up. Each turn matters so much more, and it’s not about who makes it down the slope the fastest but about how much you appreciate each moment you get in the snow.
The last day of my quest brought me back to the resort, but this time, solo. There’s something about skiing solo that’s always felt good to me. Last winter, I had enough time before work every day to go get a few runs in and those early mornings watching the sun come up over the valley always brought untouched silence in one spot or another. I hadn’t skied at the Village alone before this day and the snow actually happened to be pretty good for a Sunday afternoon. Methodically, I made my way between Teton trees, Thunder bumps, and Dick’s Ditch for some pretty stellar runs. There were two things that struck me most about this day. The first was that if you’re like me, and largely too afraid to pull your phone out on the lift, and you end up riding it by yourself, you’ll find yourself with at least seven minutes that you just have to sit and do nothing but take in your surroundings. You’re absolutely forced to take in your surroundings-- the cliffs rising up around you, the ‘whoosh’ of skiers below you, the gentle hum of the chair on the cable, snow falling on your lap. Try as you may, there’s no real way to escape the purest moments of life only brought to you by the chairlift.
The second was simply the importance of the occasional solo shred day. Skiing with your friends is undoubtedly the best ninety-eight percent of the time. But a solo day here and there means you can do your own thing. It’s all up to you, and when you find that perfect spot to stop in the trees, there’s a silence you can’t get when skiing in a group. I found that silence several times throughout my day, only broken by yells from people on lifts above me.
At its core, skiing is really a way for us to experience land. In the summer, we are free to frolic on foot or by bike, or even by water to engage with our surroundings. The top of a peak or a field or wildflowers is just footsteps away. But in the winter our bodies tell us to hunker down and stay warm. The mountains find themselves with an inaccessibility in the form of avalanche danger and the sheer impassibility of winter itself. It’s those of us that watch the falling snow out our windows and have that unending desire to immerse ourselves in it that call ourselves skiers. Whether us skiers find our peace on the skin track or the chairlift is not what matters. Skiing allows us to find peace, to live in the moment and to experience winter in a completely unique way. Winter brings out the children in each of us; every snowflake that falls on our gloves is a magical moment on it’s own. Taking a moment to appreciate the falling snow, the sun glittering behind the trees, each turn through powder, and that simple, child-like joy of winter, we can find new meaning and the very thing I searched for; a renewed love for the mountains in all seasons.
If anything, growing up in a city and then moving to a ski town provides context, if not a reason itself to practice mindfulness out there. I’ve thought about all the other things I could be doing with my life had I not fallen in love with the outdoors and ended up in ski towns. But instead, mindfulness helps me appreciate moments like standing in the trees and watching the snow fall around you, taking it in as each snowflake comes careening down. If living in Jackson has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to take that moment just to look around, take a breath, and appreciate that sparkly snow in the air, the way the light hits the Grand Teton just right, and how somehow the sky seems bluer at the top of the pass than anywhere else. Then you can send it off that cliff in front of you if you really want.