An ode to those underappreciated days of mountain solitude.
February 7, 2020. The Beforetimes. My alarm rips me from sleep a little after 3 a.m., and I stumble out of bed and into the bathroom. Cold water on my face is a rude shock but works instantly – at least physically. Mentally, I’m still deep in a fog, but I go through the motions of preparing for a drive to the mountains like I’m programmed. Get dressed, pack the cooler with drinks and snacks, unplug charged devices, kiss my sleeping wife, and load the Jeep. It’s a solo trip this time, and not having to wait for anyone else, I’m out the door in half an hour. From our place in Astoria, Queens to the K-1 lot at Killington is a 4 ½-hour drive, or one K-unit, which is the measurement I now use for describing long drives. Anything less than a K-unit is a breeze – I know I can tackle it easily, and it’s made shorter drives seem like nothing. A podcast or two, a favorite playlist, some NPR, and time contracts and the commute feels more manageable. There are no negotiations about what to listen to on the radio, and there’s no need to stop for anyone else’s bathroom or snack needs. I head north toward Sugarbush (1.1 K-units). A predawn crescent moon slides between cables as I cross the RFK Bridge, and I fly through Bronx highways that are jammed during daylight hours. I’m somewhere near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border by the time the sun paints the eastern horizon in shifting pastels, and I’m booting up in the Sugarbush lot before first chair. I’d reached out to the usual suspects – those friends and ski buddies with whom I often share days on the mountain – but they were all tied up with other responsibilities. A two-day solo trip it was, then. Sugarbush today, Smuggs tomorrow. There’s a sizeable contingent of the skiing and snowboarding community that recoils at the idea of spending a day alone on the hill. For many, mountain days are inherently social, something to be shared with friends and family. They’re inextricably intertwined in their minds with days spent with dad and mom, classmates, ski buddies, or friends made on snow over the years. Not me. I’m a relative newcomer to the sport, to ski culture, and to the pull of mountain life. I wish I spent childhood weekends with my parents at their favorite mountain getaway, but I grew up in working-class Brooklyn, and Vermont might as well have been Hokkaido for all I knew. I started skiing just over six years ago at 42, and I’ve been making up for lost time with a vengeance ever since. That means going up at every possible opportunity, friends or no friends.
You can’t chase a snow addiction for over 350 days to 90 mountains in such a relatively short period of time if you plan all your ski days around others’ schedules, so I’ve probably spent as many days alone as I have with friends I’ve made and the family I’ve cajoled into joining me. For much of my early time on skis, the solo day was my default experience. I fell in love with skiing mostly by going alone, and while I treasure the lifelong friendships I’ve made since, I still can’t pass up a day spent in solitary communion with the mountain, with only my playlists and my chairlift seatmates to keep me company.
Don’t get me wrong: I love sharing AirBnB’s, lodge fires, tailgates, and hot tubs with those people who best understand my ski habit, and there’s no denying that the social components of mountain life make it all that much more enjoyable. There are safety benefits to skiing with buddies on steeps and in the trees. Mastering a new skill is better with witnesses.
But there’s a rich world of experiences to be had when it’s just you and the mountain. This is not a new revelation: John Muir became our national naturalist patron saint by spending long stretches of time alone in silent commune with the mountains. Teddy Roosevelt would often alarm staffers by straight-up disappearing into the wilderness for days at a time. I’m sure most of you have spent sublime days of solitude in the mountains either working on some new skill or working on some personal shit. Whether you’re trying to stick a 720, recover from a breakup, or escape the pressures of an early 20th-century presidency, alone time with the mountains pays dividends.
Of course, there are benefits and drawbacks to the solo ski day.
First, the benefits:
- You set your own pace. You don’t need to worry about holding up more skilled companions and potentially impacting their mountain enjoyment. Conversely, there’s no time spent having to wait for others who are less skilled or who are moving slower than you’d like. You can pause where you want to, for however long you want to. Want to rip hot laps and rack vert? Feel like kicking off your skis and hiking to the summit? In the mood for chilling in the trees for a few minutes? Want to practice that new skill a couple dozen times? No consensus needs to be reached. Your day, your clock.
- Similarly, you can stop for lunch when you want, where you want. (Or you can just bomb through the day with only a Cliff Bar and a bottle of water for fuel - coughsendinbrendancough.) At busier times, it’s much easier to find a seat at the bar than it is to find a table for a group. You don’t have to wait for others to finish, and you don’t have to make others wait for you. I use my solo lunchtimes on the hill to catch up with emails, process photos, and build out story notes. Based on some complex back-of-the-napkin calculations, I estimate that a solid hour and a half of work-related productivity at the bar basically equates to a full day of work productivity spent in some soul-destroying office somewhere.
- You can get in the singles line all day (well, in non-Covid seasons). And unlike those schemers who like to break up their group and mob the singles line, you can do it with a clear conscience, knowing that you are the exact category of skier for whom the singles line was designed, and not some slimeball interested more in the letter of the law than the spirit of it. These goldbricking frauds haven’t earned their singles status, yet they suckle at the singles’ teat just the same. Disdain them.
- Your playlists become the soundtrack for your time on the mountain. Is it a Beastie Boys kinda day? Let devoted snowboarder Adam Yauch keep you bumping down the bumps (“You might say I’m a fanatic/ a phone call from Utah and I’m throwing a panic”). Are you in more of a jam band mood? Blast that Phish, you smelly hippy, and don’t worry about the judgements of others. Is EDM the music you hear in your head in the movie of your life? Well then, I’m sorry but chances are you think that everyone loves Skrillex as much as you do and you’re already blasting it from insanely powerful Bluetooth speakers in your backpack and you should know that everyone hates you.
- If you’re a generally sociable person, then solo ski days function in much the same way as solo travel – they put you in a place where you’re forced to interact with those around you. I’ve made friends on lifts, I’ve teamed up with temporary tree-skiing buddies, and I’ve had some great conversations about favorite stashes, or the Patriots and their cheating ways, or the latest skis with strangers I’ve met on that short window during which we’re all sharing a seat up the mountain (admittedly more difficult this year, but not impossible). Similarly, lunch at the bar (you know, when that’s a thing again) is a great way to meet locals, get some sweet insider beta, and swap tales. When we’re in groups, we tend to limit our socializing to others in our circle, and we’re less likely to engage in exchanges with strangers. But that’s how we make new friends, and it’s a cruel irony that having friends can be one of the major impediments to making new friends. Naturally, this aspect of the solo day will suffer during a pandemic, but making friends is still a worthwhile and enjoyable thing to do, especially after this year when the threat of getting one another sick diminishes.
Of course, ski solitude has its downsides as well: - You’ll miss your friends and family. Or I do, at any rate, but I don’t doubt many of you know what I’m talking about. If you ski regularly and you live outside day-trip range of your favorite mountains, you’re going to have to make most ski trips a two-day commitment. Then there’s laundry, food shopping, work, childcare, and sleep – not necessarily in that order – and you’ve got exactly bupkis to spend with others who don’t waste 40 hours a month driving to and from the mountains. This damage can be mitigated by doubling down on summer and fall commitments, but available solo time is in direct inverse proportion to the richness of one’s social and familial bonds, and we’re all gonna have to navigate those rapids on our own.
- Lodging is more expensive. If you’re among the sizable proportion of skiers and riders who do not live within easy day-trip distance of your preferred ski area, you’re going to need lodging. And if you want to ski or ride as much as you possibly can, you’re going to have to face up to the reality of paying for your own lodging. Factoring in fuel and food costs, you’re looking at spending at least $200 on each ski trip – even with a season’s or multi-mountain pass. If you’re among that lucky proportion of Northeast skiers who live within day-trip distance of your favorite mountains, I both envy you and hate you. The rest of us have to pay up, and it’s much harder to solo on a budget.
- Some woods are out of bounds. I hinted at this downside earlier, but it bears repeating: if you’re alone, there are trees it’s not worth venturing into. Admittedly, the boundaries here are fuzzy. Some skiers are better than others. Some glades are safer than others. Some conditions are more negotiable than others. This is the reality of skiing Northeast trees while solo. There’s no one guideline that will keep everyone safe and happy. Simply saying “never ski the trees alone” does not account for the relative risk of skiing Black Hole at Sugarbush on a two-foot powder day versus flowing down Killington’s wide-open, low-angle Squeeze Play glade. These are different experiences on different trails with different traffic, and they involve more or less risk. It’s up to you to decide which trees, under which conditions, are out of bounds for your skill set, and this makes the solo mission that much more problematic. Even the most accomplished tree skiers among us could hit a stump or branch, snap a leg, and find ourselves stranded out of voice range (or cellphone range), even on an inbounds trail. This is hard, ever-shifting math.
- There’s no one to push you outside your comfort zone. The best ski companions are often those who encourage us to do things that are within our skill sets but that may scare us a bit. I would never have skied the Madonna lift line at Smuggs that first time, or hiked up Tuckerman Ravine, or dropped down High Rustler at Alta if I hadn’t been prodded on by friends. Of course, it’s always possible to be your own risk prod, but then there’s no one there to share a laugh with when you wipe out in a comically dangerous way.
- There’s a bittersweet tinge to it all. I have to confess to feeling a certain sadness when experiencing a magical day of mountain beauty, but not being able to communicate the sublime joy of the thing without falling short. I can write well-wrought sentences all day about how the breeze throws bright silver diamond dust off evergreen boughs on those glittery bluebird mornings following a snowfall, or how the sensation of floating on top of powder pulls laughter out of some deep, under-nurtured childlike portion of our soul, but it’s not the same as being there and sharing it with another person. Sure, it’s still magical, but a little less so for not having anyone else there to look over at and say, “Whoa.”
None of that means that a day or two of solo skiing isn’t worth it. In fact, solo days might among the most important gifts you can give yourself as a skier or snowboarder who wants to improve (and don’t we all want that?). They lend themselves to introspection. They can be more healing than a therapy session. They allow you to focus on yourself, inside and out, attitude and form. They can be, for want of a better term, spiritual.
If you let them, solo days might just turn out to be some of the best days of skiing you’ll ever have. I don’t agree that there are no friends on powder days, but I also think that friends aren’t always necessary on non-powder days. Skiing is still skiing, and sometimes we just want to rip the shit out of a ski area until we’re exhausted and satisfied, and if no one is available to join you – oh well, their loss. Today, it’s just you and the mountain, and that’s a beautiful thing.