Nothing could have emotionally prepared me for skiing in the Swiss Alps. I’m well aware of the privilege of travelling, even to cold places, but I needed more than gratitude to pad my ego during a Christmas trip to St. Moritz, Switzerland.
St Moritz is a lavish ski village, about 3 hours drive north of the Zurich airport. Standing outside the Kempinkski Hotel, you are surrounded by summits on either side, invoking a sense of sublime that hasn’t been felt in centuries. It was cold, but not for the overly-packed, and it came with all the comforts of a 5-star destination.
It wasn’t as cold as Saint-Anne, Quebec, which I visisted during the Great Road Trip of 2010 (Ontario > New Brunswick > Ontario > Quebec > Ontario). It was my first attempt at skiing outside of Blue Mountain in Ontario, and the elements were not going to take it easy on me. After one easy ride down the mountain I was frozen to the core and itching for apres. After a full-blown temper tantrum, followed by sliding down the mountain on my ass, I was hanging up my skis for the remainder of the trip. This was the moment I realized that skiing, a completely non-sentient, sometimes enjoyable activity, had unearthed the darkest realizations of my id. Skiing had gotten the best of me.
A couple of years later, during Christmas 2012, I was in Whistler, not far from my home in North Vancouver. After only 2 half-days of professional ski training, I was whizzing down slopes with a blue-dot, a far leap from my days of sticking to the ‘easiest route.’ More than technical skills, I felt that my short stint in training equipped me with the proper mindset: fall, get up, dust yourself off, keep going. I ended up with the best vacation of my life.
As I stood at the bottom of St. Moritz’s Piz Nair, 3,000m above me, I knew that I was tackling a much different beast. Whistler had not prepared me for the Swiss Alps, which I so strongly believed in that moment. But, my ski gear was on, and I was travelling up the gondola, so the only way down was strapped to a pair of skis. Everything went smoothly at first, up a gondola, then onto a chairlift, then it was time to ski. Ski down a short run, get on another chairlift – up to the top. Piz Nair is the highest summit in the St. Moritz ski village. From there, you are greeted by a large goat statue, gifted with a stunning panoramic view, and served hot chocolate and schnitzel.
Then, respite was over. It was time for paralysing fear. I stared down the run in front of me. It was a metre across sloped gently downward, before curving around a hairpin turn and continuing to parts unknown. On my right side was a wall of snow, while on my left side was a cliff of snow, again to parts unknown. I skied slowly, started to pick up speed, and stopped. I was trembling, but other than that movement, I was completely still. I couldn’t do it. Images of falling over the snow-cliff, prompted images of starting an avalanche, only to be buried alive 100 feet deep.
After a solid 10 minutes of simply standing, I built up the courage to continue down. I had to; save an embarrassing trip going the wrong way on a chairlift, I had no other options. I didn’t feel that I had the skills to navigate the advanced terrain. Whether I was lacking in technical ability, or just mental strength, was impossible for me to discern in the moment.
The rest of the trip down the mountain was white-knuckled, sloppy skiing – the worst kind. I fell more times than I cared to count, and right at the end of the last run, I was faced with a sheet of ice that banked right and paralleled a small river, before crossing over a bridge. I couldn’t handle anymore terrifying scenarios, so I kicked off my skis and started to slide. A women skied over and began talking fast in German, before switching to English in order to tell me that I was in a dangerous spot and she would carry my skis down the small hill for me.
I had reached the bottom of the mountain without a shred of pride or dignity left. Skiing has the uncanny ability to push me to the limits of my ego. First, I’m scared, then I’m angry, then I’m embarrassed, and then I’m over it; those are the stages of ego death by skiing. It’s not the first time it has happened, but will it be the last?
I’m left considering whether I will ever ski again. Like most people, I hear that voice in my head urging me not to give up. Is that my ego? The part of me who cares whether people think I’m a weakling who gives up easily? Or, is that a healthy ambition that desires adventure and adrenaline? All I know is that ego has no business on a mountain.