Words and photos by D’Arcy Mcleish.
Going uphill. These might be the two words in the English language I struggle with most. I spend a lot of time going uphill; boot packing, riding, skinning, climbing, hiking, walking, grovelling in chest deep snow, crawling in 80mph winds. Pretty much every mountain sport involves some form of travel to gain elevation. Even on the ski hill, where there are those magical machines to whisk you up the mountain, there is always something to conquer in the uphill world. The boot pack to that secret pow stash or the side step to drop in. All of it involves effort, sometimes huge effort, massive amounts of sweat, cursing, mental breakdown, physical debilitation, more cursing and questioning why you decided to leave the house that day. In the mountains, going uphill is part of the equation.
Ski touring, for instance, is 80% up, 10% rest stops to cough up a lung, 5% change overs and 5% down. Mountain biking can be similar. At least with riding, though, you are moving relatively quickly, so there’s a sense of progress all the time. And climbing? Unless you’re base jumping, the up IS the reward. In most cases, it really is a reward, but I have nightmares of ice climbing and mountaineering where reaching the summit is only the first part of the battle. I won’t even talk about running uphill. That’s just plain ridiculous.
We are told it’s about the journey; the effort and the humility of moving upwards in the mountain environment should be reward enough. The downs are just a bonus. Really? I’m no endurance athlete (who can relate to them anyway?) but I definitely prefer going down than going up. Who doesn’t? Every time I hear someone say they like pedalling in their granny gear better than coasting down, the little sarcastic voice in my head immediately wants to unleash a tirade of…well…you get my drift. If it was that fun, people would be pedalling up and shuttling down.
How could going up ever be more fun than going down, folks? Going down is the only reason I ever go up in the first place. When I was an obsessed climber, I started getting into mountaineering and the first time I summited something big and realized I had to walk down I almost physically assaulted the human closest to me. Why would you expend all those calories, push yourself to the absolute mental limit with your only reward being a brutal descent straight back down the way you came? Lunacy! At least throw some skis on your back so you can shred down.
Any time I go uphill, I do so because I want to experience the downhill part. A big climb on a bike means a big descent on a bike. A big tour uphill means shredding pow downhill. A boot pack means I’m going somewhere to put those skis on and let gravity take over. Gravity is what it’s all about. Not the up, you cardio obsessed maniacs. How could pedalling to the point of exhaustion ever compare to mashing down fast, buff single track with nothing but physics as your engine?
Do you really think that skinning in hard shell boots, in one of the more awkward body movements every conceived, is more fun than skiing? Do you think hot water is better than coffee in the morning? You probably don’t like maple syrup either. Come on, people, life is about balance. It may be defined by suffering, but it’s bearable because of FUN. And going downhill is super fun, in any form but walking, but even that can be better.
There is nothing wrong with going downhill.
But for some reason, in our culture of mountain endeavours, going down has developed a bit of a stigma. The down is somehow associated with adrenaline junkies who don’t believe in working for their effort. It’s helicopters and massive ski resorts and bike parks and shuttle laps and dirt bikes and sleds and the wonderful and terrible world of “freeride”. Has down has somehow become a way to sell out? The up seems to have become everything that’s good, admirable, soul searching and fashionable in the world of mountain sports.
How did this happen? I got into these sports because they give me a rush and they get me into the mountains. I ski because it’s like being a little kid on a slide in a park. I ride bikes because they go FAST, man. I climbed because it was terrifying to be run out with your last piece 20 feet below you and you still hadn’t made the crux. While there wasn’t down, there was certainly a rush. I go up so I can strap on something that will take me back down much faster than I went up, be it a bike, skis, board or parachute. Sure, I like to stay fit, but without some sort of bonus for my efforts, I’d rather sit at home and read a book.
I remember once doing the Spearhead Traverse in Whistler in a single day. 10 hours of punishment with no skiing but a whole lot of skinning, side hilling and anaerobic heart rates; hell, in other words. Throughout that day, I saw ski lines everywhere, all of which we passed by in a blur of fatigue. I realized at day’s end that I had spent ten hours suffering with no reward. There wasn’t even time to take it all in. It was go, go, go. Sure, we may have accomplished something mildly significant, but I have to wonder if it was more for bragging rights than for something deeper. Was it only so we could say we did it? I think it was. I suspect it was more about feeding our egos than feeding our souls.
I would rather have spent the day skiing the lines we passed and soaking in some of the views that seeing the world through a haze of sweat, indignation and hypoxic breathing. So why the obsession with going up and the seemingly negative attitude to going down? Maybe because for most of us, we are reluctant to admit that we’re competitive. We are reluctant to admit we want to be better, tougher and harder than the next person. Maybe it’s not about the journey at all, but about how much we can push ourselves. But that’s the thing. I realize it is about the journey. But the journey for me is supposed to be fun, and going down is the greatest manifestation of that. I’m willing to put up with the climb or the boot pack or the skin or the pedal. But only because I get to feed my soul on the way down doing something blissfully pleasurable.
So next time you’re going up, ask yourself why you’re doing it. To get fit or hang with some friends? Sure, I’ll buy that. To just be in the mountains? Absolutely. But that means being in the mountains, not spending the days conquering the mountains. So is it really to feed your soul? I remain doubtful. Maybe it’s to conquer, not to experience, and that’s fine, just don’t dress it up as righteous altruism. Call it what it is. It’s competitive, even if it’s just with yourself. And yes, there is value in that. But for those of you who work hard for the joy of playing hard, well, that’s what life is all about. It’s the reason I do these sports. It’s the reason I live in the mountains. It’s the reason I wake up everyday and get excited to cough, curse, breathe hard and put up with a constant battle of anger and despair every time I start that journey up to something. I go uphill because the suck is a means to the FUN.
Be safe, ski hard.
D’Arcy McLeish is a Squamish, BC-based writer, professional ski patroller, rope access technician, mountain rescue specialist, coffee addict and CBC listener. When not doing any of these things D’Arcy is reading, climbing or riding his bike.