Sometimes in skiing you just need a little Zen. Photo Leslie Anthony.

by Leslie Anthony and Asta Kovanen

I’m that guy. Crack of dawn on a powder day, in the line-up by 7:30 a.m. in a bid to stay ahead of the inevitable wave, chomping at the bit for first tracks with a rabid horde of others. On such days in Whistler, you can stare back to watch the line-up grow to astronomical proportions behind you, chuffed that you’re ahead of these thousands of other humans who are desiring the same thing that you will obtain far in advance. I am completely oblivious to the bonds of self-satisfaction forming around me, as well as the general assholishness that many otherwise polite folks suddenly adopt. Each incremental forward movement in the lineup is a subtle attempt to out-manoeuvre the person next to you—a silly game of centimeters where centimeters don’t even matter. But it’s a powder day and that’s just the way it is. I’m used to it. Been doing this for years and think little about it. Basically, I plug in my headphones, tune everything and everyone else out and adopt a Zen state until the rope drops.

I’ve never really thought about how those who aren’t used to this calamitous scene view it. But I got some insight into how this might be when my partner, Asta Kovanen, and I hit the line together early one morning, because we needed to be on the road to Vancouver early. Her take and reflections on what she experienced—while standing right beside me—were completely different, but instructive. I said “You should write that down.” She did, and those thoughts are worth sharing:

“A few weeks ago, as I waited in line at the Creekside Gondola on one of our first official powder days of the season, I thought about the concept of powder angst. And powder contentment. At that moment it was more about angst since the energy around me was one of testy, growing excitement. Snow had not fallen on our resort town in some time and there were a lot of uncharacteristically early risers to contend with.

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This situation struck me as interesting—the subtle thought that I was contesting with others over who would get the most untouched powder (i.e., theoretically the most enjoyment). We were competitors at a starting gate—crammed in, pushing our way into gondolas in order to get into nature, in order to then be solo, spreading out amongst the mountain in all directions (and hoping that no one was close behind).

The view from an early chair: spreading out the angst. Photo Asta Kovanen.

When snow begins to fall in a ski area, a surge of energy comes with it. Large flakes falling from the sky bring an excitement that you don’t normally find in places like cities. As I waited in the lineup, I noticed anticipation mixing with a cocktail of surplus energy and the running dialogue of strangers in the lineup: Why aren’t the gondolas cleared off? Why aren’t they loading yet? Are they saving it for the Fresh Tracks people? Why is Blackcomb open?

Things began to move forward with the mental chatter. A morning that we were all looking forward to felt a bit anxiety inducing. There was even an elbow from a neighbor being pushed into my ribcage as the line began to surge, his fear of being passed made clear—even though we were literally at the front.

“In the lineup I was reminded that I don’t want anxiety to take me up the mountain.”

After uploading right to the top, we dropped the clamoring crowd that was engaged in out-dueling each other to hammer the alpine and made one long, glorious, snow-filled run back to the valley bottom, removing ourselves from the mountain by 9:30 a.m.. We had what I consider a great day and were more than satisfied. The lineup was still growing at the bottom as we walked by.

Since that day I’ve thought a lot about why I head up the mountain and how and when it adds to my life. And when it does not. I first heard the Buddhist term dukkha—which commonly refers to suffering, anxiety and unsatisfactoriness (yes that’s a word)—in a Pema Chödrön talk about the mental places we get stuck. In the lineup I was reminded that I don’t want anxiety to take me up the mountain. A healthy amount of drive and motivation contributes to getting things done, but in the end, most of us are here because we love mountains and simply being able to enjoy this place—snow or no snow—is satisfaction enough.”

Les Anthony Whistler Mountain
Satisfaction enough indeed.

She was right, and since then I’ve had a lot of one-two-or-three-run powder days on the mountain, noting that it feels far better to leave that energy behind than be pushed by it.