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On Snow With My Son

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I have a very complex and difficult relationship with my son, James. I don't remotely understand the psychology of it. What I do know is that the best of it connects through the snow.

I ski. He snowboards. They are the same, but different. As we are.

So when the opportunity came up to go to Switzerland -- and to the mountains -- I took James -- but not my wife and daughter -- hoping to communicate something. I didn't know what, particularly, but something.

I first put him on skis when he was three and a half. That was on the strange, low, treeless hills of Scotland. We were living in Oxford, England. For the next three years we went to Les Trois Vallées in the French Alps, two weeks each season. Then we moved back home, to Woodstock, New York.

Skiing can be very expensive. Special equipment, special costumes - from socks to helmets -- lift passes, travel, lodging and food. I'm not rich. I don't even have a real job. The way I was able to put two kids -- and very occasionally my wife -- on skis was by being a part-time ski instructor. And sometimes by writing about it.

When James was ten he went over to the Dark Side. That's a middle-aged skiers joke about snowboarding. But I really couldn't care less if he's on two sticks or a platter, so long as he's outdoors in the mountains, breathing the air, getting the weather in his face -- cold, snow, wind, and the sun. And, all through middle and high school he was, every weekend, holiday, half day, and snow day.

That's something I gave my son, and we share it. We have the winter.

One day, about four years ago, we were tree skiing. Something I'd taught him to do. We came into a clearing. I took a look and said to myself, "Hey, nice, I can make a couple or three turns." James just tucked his head, went over on his shoulder and back up on his board, easy, neat, and perfect, and kept riding through the trees.

That was the moment I knew he'd passed me by.

At first it felt bad, because he was doing things I would never be able to do. Then it felt good, because that's the way it's supposed to be.

When he was seventeen, James got his first job, snowboard instructor at Hunter Mountain.
When he first switched over he said, "Skiing has too many things to think about. Snowboarding is more of a feeling." At some point in the learning curve it probably is. Now, he speaks about it in precise, analytic terms. In order to teach he has to be clear about the way it works and be able to articulate it, which makes his own riding better. A lot of that clarity is about technique. It's also about attitude, psychology, fear and courage.

We don't talk to each other, much, about ourselves. We don't "share" our feelings. What we do is show each other a little bit of how we live and how we get things done, connecting underneath the snow where sleeping roots intertwine, never discussing that we are connected or making an emotional issue of it. But it's there.

I also have a godson, Lucas.

He selected me when he was seven. At that point our relationship was simplicity itself, based on playing tag and skiing. Sometimes both at the same time. A couple of years ago he moved to Geneva. With his parents. His parents work at the UN. They're the sort of people tasked with saving the world from disease, hunger, war, and rape. They invited the whole family to visit. Circumstances made it impossible for all of us to go.

But I could go with James. That was important to me. The last time he was in the Alps he was six. He's been wanting to go back. That was important to him. So he came. I looked at the map. The nearest, big ski complex to Geneva is called Portes du Soleil. It's huge. Seriously huge. It consists of twelve towns, five on the Swiss side, seven on the French side. There are 191 lifts (by contrast, the largest in North America has 38 lifts), and over 400 miles of pistes, which is the French word for trails.

Lucas' mom is very fond of Verbier, as Brits tend to be. Actually, so am I. My old friend, Doug Sager, a ski journalist lives there. He taught me to ski off-piste. Which, as far as I'm concerned is up there with getting Batman into capes or sending Harry Potter to Hogwarts.

I contacted both resorts, something else Doug taught me to do, and asked for free passes in return for writing about them. They provided them. That's normal and it's one of the reasons that travel journalism is so insipid and always so enthusiastic. It can't be the only reason, because non-travel, real news journalism is so often equally mindless.

There are several differences between skiing Europe and the US. The basic US model is this: there's a peak; there's a base lodge; there are lifts from the base lodge to the peak; there are trails that go back down to the base. There are degrees and variations, and there are a few multi-peak resorts, but that's the standard paradigm.

Traditionally, in America, if you went off the trail -- or out of bounds -- and you were caught, the resort would pull your ticket. This has been changing over the last fifteen years. But skiing off piste is still a European thing. In Europe, there are towns and villages. Some old, some new, some purpose built as resorts. At various times, lifts were installed. If people could ski from one area to the other, they formed associations. Some of those have grown quite large.

A map of a place like Portes du Soleil, Les Trois Vallees, St. Anton, and Val D'Isere/Tignes, looks like Old Man Winter tossed a bunch of lifts out of his workshop in the clouds and they landed willy-nilly across his favorite mountain landscapes. You go up the side of one valley, then down into another, up the other side and over. If you don't figure out where each valley goes and how long it takes to get back, you can end up in the wrong town at the end of the day, thirty or forty miles by road back to home base. A $125 cab ride.

Most of the skiing is above the tree line.

Trails -- pistes -- are marked out. In Portes du Soleil they're clear and immaculately groomed. Pistes comes with a promise that you won't come to any cliffs or crevasses, you'll end up back at a lift, a semi-guarantee that you're not in an avalanche zone, plus, if you get hurt they'll take you off the mountain for free. But you can ski anywhere you want.

There will be ropes hung with flags that display the skull & crossbones and have words like verboten, avertissement, and avalanche. If you're an American you'll think that you can't go there. But you can. If you ski off piste, you have to figure things out for yourself.

You look around, you see some place that looks fun to ski. You figure out how to get to it (the best stuff usually requires walking) and get out of it (some routes will lead you to lands far, far away, or into gorges you need to climb out of). You have to watch for cliffs and, if you're on a glacier, crevasses, and make your own avalanche judgments. If you need rescue, you have to pay for it. Or, more sensibly, carry insurance, since helicopters don't come cheap. You can purchase the insurance when you buy your lift ticket or from your tour operator.

Portes du Soleil has an immense, endless, amount of off piste skiing that you can see and figure out for yourself.

Verbier -- maybe because I know it better -- has more places where you can get that adventure, adrenaline rush. Or, as Doug likes to say, exercise your right to die.

The first time we hit Avoriaz -- more or less the center of Portes du Soleil -- we went with a pair of 27 year old au pairs. Charlotte, a Canadian, who watched over Lucas and his sister, used to be a ski instructor at Whistler-Blackcombe. Jess, her best friend, an Australian who worked for a family a few streets away, snowboards.

They'd worked their way through Europe, America and Asia. They were always happy, laughing and joking and teasing. They drank, they had boyfriends here and there and often not. They could be bawdy and rude without the monotonous monosyllabic swearing that's emblematic of American speech. The quote of the week came at lunch. We were having pommes frites. Someone said they were an American invention. James said, "Then why are they called French Fries." Jessica said, "Because they're skinny, greasy and salty like every French man I've ever known."

Jess went off with James to hit the snowboard parks. Portes du Soleil has ten of them. Each one's different. Big, well-designed and well maintained. Especially the Burton Stash. It winds and rolls through big trees. All the rails, boxes and tables are cut from timbers, and it's guarded by chain saw Yetis.

If you ride, Portes du Soleil is one of the great places in the world to go.

There we were in Switzerland. Everything neat and perfect. High tech and clean. Basking in the sun on the decks of mountain restaurants like in a James Bond movie. Meantime, Lucas' dad was flying from Rome, to New York, to Washington, trying to put together a relief package for people who are going to starve to death in the coming years. His mother was working to stop rape used as a weapon of war.

So there was a reminder, a constant awareness, of the chaos just outside the gates. That while we play with our rich people's sports, the rest of the world seethes and writhes, and that must be addressed.

Skiing runs through my life like the creeks run through the mountains.

It's a sport, a trivial thing, a luxury indulgence. It has its moments when I, and now my son, pit the correct execution of our skills against injury and death. It flows in and out of relationships, to other cultures and other ways of life. It opens doors that would otherwise never even be seen.

It gives me a way to talk to my boy.

On the way to catch the flight back, James said, "I want to come back. Maybe go back-packing around Europe." Maybe that's what I wanted to give him. Yes, there's a world out there, and you should go.

When we got home there was a letter of acceptance from his first choice of colleges, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Yes, I know why he picked it: Vail, Aspen, A-Basin, Breckenridge, Steamboat. Yeah, I'll go visit him at school next year.

"Hey, when I come out there, you'll show me where the good stuff is, right?" I said to him. By then he should have found the powder stashes, the chutes, the good trees.

"Well, maybe," he said. "If you give you me the car."