Snowboarding in Search of Solitude
The Need for An Escape
This year’s winter storms have been good to our local ski resort. Consistent snowstorms have brought incredible conditions and plenty of fresh powder. It’s been years since I’ve been snowboarding, but with the growing stress at work and home combined with the recent snowstorms, I can hear the mountain calling.
As I leave home for the high country, I feel a cloud of uneasiness. I shouldn’t be doing this. There’s more drama than usual at home. I’m leaving behind unfinished tasks at work. I don’t even know how to set up an out-of-office email. Regardless, I need to disconnect. I need the rush of adrenaline and the freedom my snowboard provides. Those who depend on me may not be happy today, but they will get a better version of me tomorrow… that’s what I keep telling myself at least.
Pulling into the ski resort, I check my phone. I’m still unsure about being unavailable for the day. I take a few moments to respond to emails in a way that hides that I’m not in the office but will take care of anything important by the end of the day.
At the base of the mountain, I strap into my snowboard for the first time in years. It feels better than I had imagined it would. I take a few deep breaths and remind myself how fortunate I am that today my “office” is the mountain. It’s a Wednesday – a slow midweek day for the ski resort – and I have the slopes to myself. I’m excited to spend the day alone on the mountain and to forget about everything else.
All morning, I balance the thrill of each run with the quiet of the lift back to the top. I enjoy the rhythm. I do my best to fully appreciate where I am. Each time I reach the top, I make sure to take a few moments to drink in the views.
As the morning rolls on, I’m proud of myself for avoiding the distractions that undoubtedly await in my pocket. My phone has been vibrating with notifications all morning, but I have resisted checking them. I remind myself that whatever and whoever is jockeying for my attention can wait. The rest of the world will be just fine without me today.
After a few more runs, I can feel my body loosening up and my blood pumping. My once-cold toes are now comfortably toasty. The mountain is becoming familiar again and my confidence is growing.
On the lift, I dig my phone out of my pocket to take a few photos. Unable to completely ignore the long list of notifications waiting for me, I search for anything with an emergency status. I give my wife a quick call to check in. She isn’t feeling well and has called in sick to work. We are both absent from work today, but only I am enjoying myself.
I feel a sudden wave of guilt. Playing hooky from work is one thing, but having fun while my wife is home sick isn’t sitting well with me. I remind myself that there’s nothing I can do and I try to get my mind back on the mountain.
The Dreadlocked Snowboarder
I decide to take a break to refocus. A cold beer by a warm fire should chase away distractions. As I reach the lodge, I’m disappointed to learn that it’s “cash only” today. A fellow boarder at the bar senses my cashless condition and offers to buy me a beer. Appreciative, I recognize that accepting the beer will require me to take a few moments to sit and chat with him.
Between the guy’s long dreadlocks and his endless smile, he looks like he’s got some great stories to tell. Today though, I’m on a mission to do things solo and I politely refuse his offer. I know it’s an asshole move, but solitude sounds better than stories right now. As I leave, he turns his attention to another patron at the bar. I smile as I overhear the beginning of a story involving Shaun White, MDMA, and the Netherlands.
Before heading back to the slopes, I take a detour to check out the lodge. I take my time walking through the various rooms to clear my mind of the demands and responsibilities back home. The only schedule I am on today is my own and it’s liberating.
Having sufficiently purged my mind, I strap back into my board and head for the lift. I’ve been able to ride the lifts alone all morning. These quiet rides up the mountain have been opportunities to think and to process and I’ve enjoyed it. As I approach the lift, I’m looking forward to yet another solitary ride.
A Change of Plans
Just before picking up the lift, my plans change though. Instead of having our own chairs, another guy in line invites me to ride with him. I’d rather ride alone, but I reluctantly join him on the next chair.
Once we both get settled, I look over at my chairmate. Sitting next to me is the dreadlocked snowboarder from the bar. I’m embarrassed that I avoided him earlier, but thankfully, he doesn’t recognize me in my full snowboard gear. I learn that he’s a snowcat operator enjoying the mountain on his day off. He tells me about his long overnight shifts grooming the resort’s runs, the vertigo he sometimes experiences during storms, and his role in keeping the mountain in tip-top shape. He shares that he is also a “snowboarding coach”, and proves it as he shouts tips to boarders as they pass us below. While eccentric, he is a kind soul who authentically cares about those he crosses paths with.
As we talk on the lift, I’m hit with the irony of the situation. I ditch this guy in the bar and minutes later I’m stuck on a chair with him. I’ve been trying my best all day to be alone. He’s been trying to meet everyone on the mountain. I’ve been seeking to escape the entanglements of others. He’s been looking for more connections.
Mushroom Mountain and a Buddy’s Wisdom
He points to a mountain off in the distance. He tells me that it’s his favorite place in the area and that he harvests mushrooms there in the summer. I ask more about the location – how to get there and about the hike to the top. We talk about the barely-visible cell phone tower that a buddy of his works on. As he shares more about his friend’s work, he mentions something that sticks in my mind, “Because my buddy spends so much time on top of mountains, time moves slower for him.”
My mind starts to wander. Can time truly be slowed down? And if it can, does high altitude hold the key? I let the concept linger in my brain for a few more minutes before concluding that “time slowing down” is more likely caused by mind-altering substances than mountaintop experiences. Still, something about the idea continues to rattle around in my consciousness.
Once we reach the top of the mountain, I say goodbye to my new friend. While on the lift together, he had told me about a powder-filled trail on the other side of the mountain. I set off for this rare virgin powder feeling grateful for our time together. Though I am on the mountain to be alone, I’ve enjoyed hearing his perspective on life… and on “time”.
The Sacred Powder Trail
Finding the dreadlocked snowboarder’s powder trail requires a journey across the ski resort to a less-traveled side of the mountain. Locating the run, I take some time to study it from the top. Between deep breaths, I acknowledge my fortune. Just down the hill lies deep, flowing powder touched previously by only a few skiers. The fresh powder beneath me is stunning, but I am also struck by my utter isolation here. The nearby lodge is a ghost town. There are no lifts overhead and no voices to be heard in the distance. A quick 360-degree scan reveals that I am completely alone on this side of the mountain.
Undaunted, I whisper a quick “thank you” to the dreadlocked snowboarder and I push off down the hill. The powder is deeper and heavier than I had anticipated. My board disappears beneath me as I carve through the flawless snow. Tired, I have trouble keeping the front of my board above the snow’s surface. I have yet to fall today, but now every movement is a tactic to avoid eating snow.
My descent down the mountain slows as I take frequent breaks to catch my breath. I know that it’s critical to keep my board on top of the deep snow and I’m failing miserably. It quickly becomes clear that I have no business chasing this powder. Unable to sufficiently slow down in these conditions, I need a plan.
Can’t Stop Until The Mountain Stops Me
I notice a narrow snowmobile track down the middle of the run and I head for it. Within the track, the snow is packed just enough to allow me to control my speed. Now committed to staying inside the track, I snake side to side across its slender width.
My speed starts to increase as the slope steepens. Needing to make wider turns, I am forced back into the powder to try to secure an edge. Without warning, my board digs into the deep snow and I am abruptly sent flying over the front of my board. The crash is instantaneous and intense. My face burrows violently into the powder and a cloud of snow envelops me.
I lie there in silence for a few moments. Face down deep in the snow, I see only white. I sit up and take inventory of the situation. Other than my pride, nothing is hurt. I’m caked in snow, but my board and bindings are fine. It was an ugly fall, but thankfully, not a disastrous one.
Rethinking the Search
The quiet reminds me again of how alone I am. I am on a remote side of the mountain on a slow, midweek day. I chose to ride an ungroomed trail that few had dared try before me and not many were likely to follow. If my fall had been serious – if I had been injured or had an equipment failure – there’s a decent chance I would have spent the night on the mountain.
I had been searching for solitude all day. I had ignored countless emails from work. I had relished each chair lift taken alone. I had even declined a free beer to avoid talking with a stranger. On that powder-filled trail, I had found the solitude I had been searching for only to find myself so alone that I was in danger.
After clearing what feels like pounds of snow from my body and board, I determine that this run will be my last of the day. I had pushed this exercise of aloneness as far as I dared.
I ride down to the bottom of the mountain and head for the car. As I pass by the lodge with my board in hand, I look for the dreadlocked snowboarder. I imagine having that beer with him, detailing my nasty fall on the isolated trail, and begging him to tell me more about his theories of “slowing down time.” Unsuccessful in my search, I pack up and head home.
Learning to “Slow Down Time”
The four-hour drive home gives me time to reflect on my experience on the mountain. It felt good to be back on my snowboard and the time alone was renewing. But I am most aware of how much I need others in my life. I need the unexpectedly wise words of strangers to reveal the secrets of life. I need the laughter of others’ insane stories about professional athletes taking party drugs in foreign countries. I need the community of others to avoid disaster and for support when disaster inevitably arrives.
Something about being on the mountain demands reflection. Up here, you can’t help but take regular pauses to remind yourself of where and who you are. Perhaps this is the “slowing down of time” the dreadlocked snowboarder mentioned – mountaintop experiences that force us to rethink our connections and reset our pace.
I want to learn how to “slow time down” during the times of my life when I can’t get to the mountain. I won’t always be able to escape the demands, pressures, and expectations of others, but I can mimic the mountain’s rhythms – regularly pausing, taking a few deep breaths, and appreciating the view. Hopefully, in these “slower” moments, I’ll be better at remembering the role of others in my life and recognizing how grateful I am for the opportunity to share life with them.