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Technology has caused skiing’s demise

Roger Marolt
Aspen, CO Colorado

Skiing is no longer a sport. The main object of it has been eliminated by progress.

It is hard for me to write these words. They lived alone on the top of an empty page in my notepad for some time before I could open it and look again. It’s difficult because I am a skier. My blood flows through multigenerations of a skiing family. My great-aunt and great-uncle were amongst the first people to hike and ski Highland Bowl in the late 1920s. My father and uncle were Olympians. My brothers are the first Americans to ski from an altitude of 8,000 meters and have put down tracks on the North Ridge of Mt. Everest ” twice. My children, growing up in the mountains of Aspen, pass their winters comfortably on the local slopes. I am happy to share with my kin the exhilaration of exploring snowy mountains with skis under my feet.

My personal stake in admitting that skiing has fallen from the rank of genuine sport is high. I have created a good portion of my identity around it. I’ll deal with that. The more general question is: Can a sport that has regressed into a mere activity survive as the center of our lifestyle?

In its heyday, skiing definitely had an object to it. It was to become proficient through patience, practice and conditioning so as to be able to tackle increasingly difficult terrain. Not everyone was an expert. The sport took years to master. Skiing was as arduous as it was adventurous. Many parts of Ajax, if not the entire mountain, were off-limits for vast numbers of skiers until they became capable.

Skiing was born a sport of technology, though, and the attraction of making it easier has resulted in simplification to the point of eliminating athletic purpose, reducing it to an enjoyable diversion. There’s nothing wrong with leisurely entertainment, but can it ignite the flames of passion in the soul?

The largest contributing factor to the decline of skiing is that the sport was consciously changed to accommodate people who didn’t ski, not to intensify the emotional experience of those who already did. That was a fundamental flaw in thought, if the goal was to maintain sustained interest by participants.

There is evidence on the hills and in the valleys that we are challenging skiers much less than in the past. For instance, S-1, the gnarled, narrow, defiantly steep trail on Aspen Mountain was once perpetual crud. Only the most skilled athletes attempted it and making it down was a noteworthy accomplishment. Now, in the midst of one of the most prolific snow years in the area’s history, its upper flanks are scraped bare by throngs eager to risk a few scratches in their rental skis for the mere threat of a thrill. Nearly every skier can handle any run on the mountain these days. Technology effectively has leveled the slopes.

There is a narrowing band of ability in skiing. It’s difficult to tell the pros from the proteges. The expert is less and less distinguishable from the intermediate. Who can’t carve a turn? Who can’t float through crud? Who can’t cruise 30 miles per hour down Spar Gulch?

It has become more about the equipment than the athlete. Like operating a modern automobile, it’s difficult to tell the good drivers from the bad unless you are on the race course. It isn’t any surprise then that kids are flocking to terrain parks, cliffs and couloirs because that is where it is all about their skills, their strength and their ability. They are drawn to do things others can’t.

Now skiers get tired of skiing before they get tired. High-speed lifts, meticulous grooming and easy-turning skis allow participants to be satiated within a few hours rather than ending the day wanting more. Apres ski is a thing of the past. Most skiers are finished by noon without accomplishing anything worth bragging about over a beer.

There is evidence in town of skiing’s dwindling allure, too. Where are the ski bums? They are on the endangered species list of every ski area in the world. Most often economics are cited as the reason for their demise. But, what if it’s not lack of loot? Could it be a lack of love instead? Maybe it’s not possible to devote a lifetime to an endeavor that can be mastered in a few years.

What I can’t convince you of, maybe a picture can. When was the last time in-bounds skiing was featured in a ski movie? Popular films reflect what we find interesting. Currently, this is skiers bombing insanely steep slopes loaded with sloughing powder and launching off cliffs that are higher than gondola towers; in other words, stuff that has nothing to do with what we do with a lift ticket hanging from our parka pockets.

But, perhaps the most revealing evidence that skiing has fallen far from the ranks of sport is this: I am a 45-year-old life-long skier who is slower, weaker, stiffer, more timid and less coordinated than when I was 20, yet I am making better turns now.

That is a poor endorsement. I can’t claim as much about any other recreational activity I do including golf, tennis and bicycling, all of which have enjoyed great advances in technology, as well.

Of course, you will say that it is up to me to dig my old gear out of the attic to challenge myself a little more. Alas, you have underestimated my ego, and those of almost every other skier, too. No expert is going to work a pair of narrow 210’s down Ridge of Bell while the advanced-intermediates steam past them with minimal effort on shaped skis. That’s the final loop in the Gordian knot. How can it be undone?

This will be the quest for the next generation of ski pioneers and innovators. Wish them luck.


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