Winter is upon us. Although I know that technically we are not going to enter winter till the solstice on the 21st of December, I can confidently say that the beginning of a new – hopefully cold and full of precipitations – winter is here. Earlier on this week the long-awaited snow has finally hit European Alps with decent snowfalls that started last week in Scandinavia spreading more recently over the Alps and Scotland. Switzerland has done particularly well with over 30cm (about 1ft) of fresh snow, and a good number of resorts have seen snow falling on and off throughout this past week, leading to the first significant accumulations of the season.
I am SO excited thinking about going into a new winter. Most of people dread the winter arriving with its shorter days, cold winds, low temps, often associating a grey and grim picture to it. My winter is never grey and certainly not grim. My winter is white, pure and full of interesting people to spend my time with and beautiful places to explore, it’s exciting. It’s mind boggling thinking I have been snowboarding for over 20 years and I am still as excited about a new winter as when I was a freckly teenager. People who don’t know me very well often ask what is wrong with me, what my compulsion is.
Family and close friends have stopped asking that questions a few years ago. What is it that makes me want to wake up in the cold winter mornings before dawn and draws me out of comfort to uncertainty, to climb and sweat and even struggle for a reward only just assumed? Let’s face it – this thing people like me do, takes some pretty strong motivation, the origins of which I believe can be found hidden in people’s psyches and personalities.
Over the years and the many tours started in the early hours of the morning, I have met and shared my experiences with many different people whose motivation seemed to have the most diverse origins. Surprisingly, a few admitted that theirs came from a steady application of self-inflicted emotional, intellectual and sometimes even physical pain. It sounds a bit too much for a day skiing, doesn’t it!? They seemed to do what they were doing because they had to, because they had no choice but challenge themselves in an attempt to prove to themselves and probably to the rest of the world too that they were strong and tough enough. They seemed to be on a mission. Whatever was they were trying to achieve, climbing a peak, skiing confidently steep terrain, they needed to show the world they could do it.
I am happy to report that I don’t fall into the category of the self-flagellators. I believe I belong to a particular kind of people whose brain chemical imbalances help them perceiving what the rest of the world perceives as unpleasant (leaving a comfy warm bed to venture out in the pitch black of a winter frosty morning, hiking for hours, etc. ) as something rather enjoyable. The way our brains rationalize and process the information could not be simpler and make more sense. The average ski touring day starts the previous day, checking snow, avalanche and weather conditions, deciding itinerary, thinking of plan A and B and preparing equipment needed. These are all essential elements of the planning phase. I will always remember a phrase I heard saying in a lesson while attending one of my BASI instructor course: failing to plain is planning to fail.
I am not a doctor but I know that enjoying aspects of ski touring most people don’t, would not be possible without the help of the endorphins produced by a gland at the base of the brain and released into the blood. Apparently, enthusiasm and excitement is all our body needs to start producing that magical hormone. People like me are simply excited and fascinated by the simple idea of moving through the mountains achieving a deep level of connection with the environment around us. In my case for instance, only the thought of going off hiking in the mountains with my splitboard or my Telemark skis on my feet is enough to start producing it. The equipment I use allows me to look at a map with different goggles. This kind of excitement it’s what ski touring can do – almost anything is worth sacrificing in order to experience what the mountains have to offer and share with us. It’s overwhelming.
Anyways, regardless what category you fall into, motivation remains a purely personal affair between you and your little voice; whatever method works – positive reinforcement, rationalization, self-flagellation, it doesn’t really matter. The important aspect is that gets you up, gets you excited and gets you out there.
This is also the time of year when people start asking themselves what type of winter this is going to be, which is a fairly recent phenomenon. Up until about 10 years ago, European winter precipitations were not too difficult to predict. Western Alps usually blessed with abundant precipitations brought by low pressure systems generated on the Atlantic and moving towards East, the Italian Dolomites enjoying cold air coming straight through from Siberia and the Balkans.
Although Europe never really had the amount of precipitations North America and Canada usually do, the Alps have always been a mecca for skiers and mountaineers from all over the world. Sadly, over the past decade or so the winter seasons have been getting more mixed up than ever, making people at this time of the year start wondering whether the winter will be a very snowy one or a very dry one. The winter of 2009 was a record winter. The amount and the frequency of storms European Alps enjoyed, both from the Atlantic Ocean and from the Balkans, have been the most the old continent has seen in over 10 years.
I will remember it for the rest of my life. At the time I was living full time in the French Alps and I remember riding powder almost every time I was out in the hills, either using lifts or hiking outside resort boundaries until mid-May. I could not believe my luck. On the other hand, last winter was the driest winter the Alps have seen in about 15 years. After a couple of storms in December, there hasn’t been any precipitation for about 6 weeks, in mid-February. A couple of small storms helped improving the situation only slightly during March and by the first week in April, the season was essentially over. Despite that though, I often managed to find snow up on the higher peaks. Although it required longer and drier approaches and more effort than usual to get there and the quality of the snow wasn’t always that good, I always enjoyed myself.
Who knows what kind on winter we are going to have in Europe this year. As always, I don’t have any expectations and I will try to make the most of the conditions. I think I am lucky in this respect. I don’t need a perfect sunny day and bottomless powder to have a great day out – although that would be perfect. Regardless the conditions, together with climbing, skiing is one of the most pure forms of play to be had in the mountains. Normally static humans slide down powdery slopes, bounce out pretty turns or tumble in reckless, painless cartwheels. Slippery skis, a bit of practice and magical, ephemeral snow are the basic ingredients. Venturing further into the backcountry adds untouched powder and winter sparkling beauty to the fun. Then the extra effort of the trail in and the hill climbing loosens your muscles, lightens your anticipation and makes the skiing seem even better.
So don’t let the cold scare you, winter is a truly fascinating time of the year to be out and about. Maybe it’s the cold itself, the blanket of soft whiteness of the new fallen snow hanging on trees and rocks or the peace and the solitude of a winter’s night. There is just something special about winter that I find invigorating. And then there is skiing and snowboarding of course – I can’t think of a better way to truly enjoy and celebrate this magical season.
Happy turns everyone!