Words by Leslie Anthony
Here’s the thing: while high-speed groomers are fun, dropping couloirs is rad and bouncing down pillow lines divine, what I love most about skiing—even about winter—is the trees.
Whether British Columbia’s giant hemlock and cedar, Japan’s beech forests, Europe’s larch stands, Norway’s dwarf birch, or Aspen’s, well, aspens... skiing trees offers a different aesthetic than that found in unimpeded natural features like bowls and chutes. And eastern tree skiing, lacking the west’s fuzzy warmth and cathedral spires, is different altogether.
Growing up skiing in Ontario, Quebec and Vermont, I spent a ton of time in the trees. In addition to being a way of embracing the simple beauty of a winter day, I found myself enjoying the forest in its most raw and elemental form—without the decorative green pageantry of summer. Still, it wasn’t always easy passage. Eastern hardwoods were like the rough bouncers at an exclusive club, repelling anyone who didn’t belong, or a girded honour-guard welcoming those who did. But if you liked powder at all, it was a club worth joining. Just ask the skiers at Mont Sutton, Le Massif, Jay Peak or Mad River Glen.
Though skiing trees can feel like moving through a state of suspended animation, there’s plenty going on—stories being spun in the wood of hibernating critters and burrowing insects, of hormones coursing through roots ready to send sap racing upward at the first hint of warmth. And yet, save for an occasional creaking in the wind, this production is all carried out in silence. Moving among winter trees is like entering a realm populated by beings whose sentinel nature is their very allure, as if they both conjure experience and bear witness to it. Perhaps they do: research shows that the human genome has some 30,000 genes, while a poplar tree has 45,000. What does it mean when the complexity of our brains is governed by fewer genes than a block of wood? Clearly the wisdom, stoicism and vigilance of trees requires a lot of DNA, and skiers the world over are all the richer for it.
In British Columbia, where I now live, I love the myriad forms trees take: from hunched snow ghosts to alabaster towers. In reality these are snow trees, exquisitely evolved in form and function to make use of the white stuff. With a heavy load, their symmetry sheds just enough to allow the branches to bend but not break; in cold weather they’ll hold enough snow to protect buds; and the melting snow from branches drips in a circle, feeding roots that require a steady moisture supply over winter. Indeed, the entire arc of a snow tree’s spring, summer and fall is being written as you ski by them in winter.
For skiers, trees are shelter in the storm. For the snow that finds its way into them, they’re both filter and natural preservative, minimizing the effects of wind, sun and freeze-thaw. Microclimates also help: a mountain that spends a lot of quality time in the cloud deck, with its peak perpetually shrouded, pulls down significantly more snow than neighbouring peaks. Where such places are found, it’s the fluffy turns beneath branches that rule the mountain’s personality.
In a sense then, the trees we spend time with in the winter have evolved to “like” snow. And if that can’t make a skier love them even more, nothing can.