My resolution this New Year was to get to bed by ten as often as possible. It’s wintertime, after all, and I live in the country. But last night I talked to my sister-in-law on Skype and she said, “You should check out this book that a friend of ours from Nelson [B.C.] wrote. It’s called Snow Tales and Powder Trails.” I was just having supper then, and afterwards I turned on my computer and tracked down the book, expecting to find some crackpot rambling away in run-on sentences about. . .well, skiing. Which I guess is probably how the world would see a lot of books about skiing if they took the time to read them. But I soon found that Steve Baldwin’s book is hardly the work of a crackpot.
Snow Tales and Powder Trails is self-published (I imagine only because Baldwin didn’t want to cut into his ski time seeking out a publisher, which I’m sure he could find with due diligence). No crackpot could not have made his grammatical notions entirely sound and, though I admit I was reading quickly, I noticed only two or three errors in about 120 pages. The book is an ode to powder addiction. Each chapter is a self-supporting vignette, perfect for building the stoke when you have fifteen or twenty minutes of downtime (i.e. it would be a great addition to the bathroom library for when you’re through reading the current issue of your ski mag of choice), and the chapters are interspersed with clean photographs of the world’s great ski mountains blanketed in awe-inspiring fluff, snapped mostly by Baldwin himself.
I should be angry with Baldwin for dashing my New Year’s resolution. I didn’t get to bed until one o’clock, and when I woke up in the morning, he had me glued to the page again over breakfast. And now here I am writing a review of a book that twelve hours ago I didn’t even know existed — an idea that, like Baldwin’s own inspiration for Snow Tales, came to me in a dream last night. Why is it that skiing has this seemingly mystical hold on its devotees’ minds? Baldwin might have an answer for that: “Most of the time we humans are so clumsy compared to birds and animals, but when we start to fly down mountains we can finally cross over into the next level of existence for a short time, joining them and becoming closer to the wildlife that predates us on this planet by many eras.” Elsewhere in the book skiing is called “a divine connection with the earth.” Baldwin’s snow sutras are a captivating personal exploration of that connection.
As a good European (the author was born in England), Baldwin prefaces the book with a note on snow safety. He then goes on, in loose and casual prose that strikes the North American ear as almost entirely native (no awkward “ski sticks” or “hill-walking” here), to paint a picture of his own coming-of-age as an off-piste skier, which began only after high school with a whole winter spent in Banff. Now in his mid-thirties, it seems that Baldwin has spent most of his time since then as a wandering ski bum. He takes us around British Columbia as he begins to get his powder legs, traveling all the way up the coast to Shames Mountain, outside Terrace, where he arrives in an off year (the low-elevation area normally gets forty feet of snow in a winter). But then the season is redeemed over the course of a few days in April on Vancouver Island’s Mount Washington, where he is sleeping in his tent and gets positively pummeled with Pacific snow. “It was Friday on the Easter long weekend, and the storm was raging. The access road became blocked, so nobody could come up, or leave. Down in the valley on the Strait of Georgia, a major sailing race was being abandoned, the power was out in the local town, and the wind was tearing apart a marina on the island coast, with boats piling up against each other!” After a day and night of this, “the next morning dawned bluebird, and dead calm.” Dropping into the Outback Bowl is like “sinking into a fresh pint of Guinness.” And off the ridges on the sides of the bowl, “dodging trees and Aussies, I searched for more clean lines and found some great pockets in the steep.”
We are whisked across the ocean to Japan, where, with the resourcefulness of a true ski bum, he manages to combine a visit to his brother with an on-the-cheap whirlwind introduction to the legendary snowpacks of the Land of the Rising Sun. The conditions he finds there, as long as he keeps an eye out for the local ski patrol before ducking into the trees, do not disappoint. The same kind of ski-like-every-day-is-your-last energy permeates his account of an eleven-day pilgrimage to Norway, where Baldwin’s train on the way back to the airport in Oslo on his final day there has a layover at a 1000-meter pass. He gets off the train, shoulders his skis, and climbs the mountainside for “a track of hop turns on the 250 vertical meters of steep pitch.” Carpe skiem!
But Baldwin’s amour vrai is Chamonix and the western Alps, where he claims to have found a spiritual home. Among his tales of Austria, Canada, Japan, and Norway, this is the place he always comes back to. The book culminates with a day on the Aiguille du Midi, in the shadow of Mont Blanc. Baldwin describes the tram ride up: “The trees beneath us look like spines on a white hedgehog, and the peaks above echo this, looming ever closer. I can see detail of the vertical ridges, etched into the rock and sculpted by snow and light.” He and his partners step off the lift on the summit, where “one thousand metres higher, the summit of Mt Blanc stands out to one side, looking larger than ever from this new perspective. It is now glowing yellow, as the sun has risen higher, and is surrounded by gnarled crevassed glaciers spilling into the valley. The sky up here is the most intense blue, so different from looking up in the rest of the land…. Way above any pollution in the low country, and cleansed by the forest on its way up, the clear air washes away all the toxins of everyday life.” After a short traverse in crampons, they begin the descent. “The sun sparkles all around me,” Baldwin enthuses, “and I am immersed in the surrounding cathedral of peaks which rise up as I descend.” He describes the long succession of mid-altitude pitches, an endless white plush stairway down into the valley, as “bottomless powder at its finest” with “not even a suggestion of the hard snowpack underneath.”
Baldwin is at times so carried away with excitement that his mostly book-quality prose slips into a slangy West Coast bumspeak which, at the end of the day, I don’t imagine will turn off many readers. Otherwise the book is always a pleasure to read. The author’s thorough understanding of snow types and the metamorphic processes that those delectable little crystals undergo in various atmospheric conditions is woven seamlessly into the narrative, clearly providing useful information without putting us to sleep. He writes about snow with childlike wonder, a function of his having grown up in a place where it was a “rare and joyous occasion.” Most of all, he makes you want to grab your skis and get out there before summer takes it all away.
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(Guestblogger Anders Morley lives in New Hampshire, where he is finishing up a book of his own on his four-month ski journey from the Northwest Coast of British Columbia to northern Manitoba in the winter of 2012-13.)