Story & photos by Abby Sussman
My love for skiing began with a story.
This was before I knew what it felt like to float on powder, before I stepped into free-heel bindings, before I knew what “off-piste” meant. My infatuation with finding the rhythm to link one turn with another began with a story given to me by an ex-boyfriend who never once buckled into a pair of ski boots.
When we parted ways, I listened to the compilation of radio pieces he gave me to feel closer to him, to hear our story in the words of others. But as I listened to one particular narrative over and over again, I began to understand something new.
That story was by Scott Carrier, an independent producer frequently featured on NPR radio waves. In his account of teaching his son to ski, his descriptions are deliberate, and it is easy to envision him and his young son riding the ski lift, jackets zipped to their chins, noses running, skis tapping against one another.
Part way up the lift, Carrier’s son tells him he wants to point his skis straight down the hill rather than learning to turn. Carrier explains that to maintain control the skier needs to face the fall line while turning, skis moving to the rhythm of the hill, upper body quietly rotated downhill. He tells his son, “Gravity is equal to love…. Just as you should never turn away from love, you should never turn away from gravity…always keep your heart open to the fall line.”
I appreciated Carrier’s story before I could even complete a telemark turn, but now I understand it. Just as I need to face the fall line to keep my momentum in the right direction and allow my skis to carve more effectively, I need to keep these words as a reminder to allow my heart to remain open to falling. Carrier has become my personal Isaac Newton, providing me with a concept that explains things I knew to be true but could not name.
Gravity = love has become my mantra. I repeat this phrase in my head not only when I’m skiing a steep slope or when I’m being drawn into a lover’s orbit, but also when I’m riding my bike, wanting to squeeze the brakes though knowing I should embrace the speed; or when I’m writing, wanting to censor myself but knowing that the story will come if I just let the words drop into place.
Most of the time, we do not recognize gravity. It is exerted upon us and by us imperceptibly, and we see only the result. When you start off skiing flat groomers, gravity pulls with barely any resistance from the snow. Form is negligible and a novice tele-skier can get away with common mistakes: legs too far apart, knees bent too much, shoulders and chest facing the slope’s periphery. In the beginning it is easy to let gravity take over, to lose yourself in the newness, passion preceding comfort.
As the skier ventures to steeper hills, form is transferred more directly into energy. The margin for error is smaller and the result of gravity is increasingly grave. When a powder day is added to the mix, leaning into gravity becomes essential and form is crucial. Gravitation endows objects with weight, but when harnessed it is the very thing that allows us to float.
I wanted to learn to tele-turn because I was bored with my relationship with gravity. On alpine skis (and I was never an expert downhiller) I did not skim—I skidded. On the icy slopes of the east coast where I grew up, skiing was more like ice skating—metal edges were imperative and kneepads were not just for free-heelers.
Tele-skiing—the knee bend, the torso twist, the stance switch—lets me feel gravity more acutely. Tele-skiing teaches me to feel the way water would flow and to look downstream, to lean into risk rather than away from it. This is the instant that I work toward—the moment in which there is no room to think, no need to think. The law of falling bodies keeps me on my feet.
Like a burgeoning romance, I want to embrace gravity just as much as I want to resist it. Exercising outside in low temperatures is one of my favorite activities. I love the quick internal warming of uphill stretches, cold air in my lungs, my breath visible. If chair lifts provide a one-sided conversation with gravity, the backcountry allows for a dialogue.
In the backcountry, a skiers’ union with gravity is a necessary paradox, providing thrill and threat, delight and danger. Gravity can result in both avalanches and snow-pack stabilization. A skier commits to gravity—compromising just enough to reap the reward of the risk. It is an uncertain cycle—giving into the pull without losing control, and needing to relinquish control to give in to the pull. The outcome isn’t known until—sweat beading, thighs burning, spirit soaring—one looks back at the slope to see smooth lines carved into the powder.
The history of a marriage with gravity is written in the wake of my turns, a lack of devotion punctuated by a fall, graceful arcs signaling a successful collaboration. To ski rather than skid, to float rather than fall, to live rather than languish, we must commit ourselves to both gravity and love, natural phenomena which are palpable only in their effect.
I first listened to Carrier’s story to feel the sharp loss of love. I resisted its pull and turned away, squaring my shoulders toward the periphery. I ski, in part, because it forces me to face uncertainty, to find the delicate balance between faith and doubt, challenge and comfort. I ski because it reminds me to keep my heart open.
When I’m standing at the top of Pan-Face in the Mt. Baker Ski Area, or waiting for my turn to drop into a certain bowl in the backcountry, and all I want to do is sideslip down the top steep section, I remind myself that turning away from gravity is as dangerous as turning away from love. An opportunity is missed. A moment of pure joy is relinquished. A particular freedom is lost. And so, with gloved hands clenching poles and knees bent, I twist my body toward the fall line, trusting an unseen force that is still considered a theory.