This is the summer of our discontent, and of our pent-up demand.
With the coronavirus still raging across the country, dipping into mountain towns where ski lifts abruptly shuttered weeks, maybe more, before their scheduled closings, skiers have enormous pent-up demand.
Pent-up demand for the charms of first tracks. Pent-up demand for the amiable companionship of the chairlift. For the whoosh! of skis across corduroy snow. Hell, even for the chill of a January deep freeze, even for the skid of a New England patch of blue ice, even for the days of wind and frozen rain when our extremities are soaked, our faces reddened, our hands chapped till raw.
Not in living memory have skiers’ desires been so frustrated, their dreamy spring-skiing fantasies so interrupted, their high hopes, next-season plans so uncertain. Will a second-wave COVID-19 surge endanger Thanksgiving openings? What will social distancing mean in the ski lodge? Is the stolen kiss on the chairlift a thing of the past — a gilded memory, to be sure, but one transformed into a deadly gesture?
There are no answers now, only questions. Questions — and mountain-high hopes.
Never in the history of our winter sport have skiers yearned so much to return to the slopes.
Well, maybe once.
For we — or more properly, our skiing forebears —have been through this before, in recreational skiing’s infancy: a century ago, an ordeal known to us only in legend and in books. But after the influenza pandemic following World War I, the nation, and the young sport, recovered, in part because of a recent but enduring great insight from the North Country conservationist and mountain woman Laura Waterman: “Mountains are indifferent to humans. And beautiful beyond belief.”
In that early century pandemic, Vermont was particularly hard hit, with 43,735 cases in 1918, producing 1,772 deaths — a quarter of all deaths in the state. But right after the influenza waves waned, Dartmouth, on the way to becoming a ski pioneer and ski power, hired its first ski coach. By 1920, the Dartmouth Winter Carnival had strong performances from, besides the home team, Vermont, Williams, McGill and Middlebury. That winter, freshman ski classes began near the Hanover, N.H., campus, with 75 students signing up. “Small groups of men under the direction of an experienced ski runner,’’ according to one account, “were instructed in straight running, turning and jumping.’’
That year Hannes Schneider, not yet an American skiing innovator but already a pioneer in St. Anton, Austria, made an instructional film, “Wunder des Schneeschuhs,” or “The Wonders of Skiing.” It was a big-screen sign of big things to come. Within two years the Lake Placid Club became well-established and was, according to its brochure, “an informal university in the wilderness, a meeting and working area that combined civilization with leisure and beauty, with access to the vitalizing forces of nature.’’
In short, skiing took off after the influenza interruption.
This pandemic, to be sure, is different. The death toll is horrific and there is little likelihood of the kind of swift disappearance of the threat that occurred during the influenza episode. We may be with this menace for months more, maybe years.
And this much is clear: As schools, factories, offices, airports, even highway toll booths, are reshaped and reimagined for the post-COVID period, skiing will have to do the same thing.
Maybe lift lines will be different. Maybe base-lodge and mid-mountain lunch spots will have to be overhauled. Maybe gondolas and trams will require new social-distancing protocols. Maybe rental shops will have new configurations. Maybe lift attendants will have new tempos when they swing the chairlifts. Maybe helmets will be fitted with face shields. Maybe ski patrollers will undergo coronavirus training. Maybe ski schools will be reshaped. Maybe the hot-chocolate dispenser will have new cleaning procedures. Maybe the coy flirtation rites of the après-ski life will acquire new rhythms.
Maybe the sport will have a broader view of safety besides assuring that the bindings work, the bars on the chairlift are oiled and the steps to the ticket office are shoveled, the bathrooms are kept clean. Safety now has an entirely different meaning. It is the way we live now.
But this much will not change: The thrill of a steep descent. The grace of a carved turn. The breathtaking view from the summit. The exhilaration of a day amid the wind and the sun. The pride of a parent after a child’s first run on a black-diamond trail.
“The best times in my life I have spent on skis in the mountains, days full of joys and thrills, days without sorrows and troubles, glorious days that I will remember forever,” the great Benno Rybizka, who was Schneider’s right-hand man at St. Anton and later a beloved fixture in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, wrote in 1938. “To sit on top of a mountain, to see hundreds of proud peaks pointing into a deep blue winter sky, their reckless contours smoothed with the soft ermine of glittering snow and a splendid sun overhead, golden and blue lights pouring down over mountains and valleys — every skier who has experienced this will realize how paltry human troubles really are and how insignificant are so many of the things which we spend our lives hunting.”
True in the days before World War II. True surely in the days following the coronavirus. True always in the great sport of skiing, in all times and circumstances, especially in our summer reveries.