Challenging terrain, dynamic weather, risk-seeking adventurers: White Planet has it all

By Leslie Savage

Sub-titled A Mad Dash Through Modern Global Ski Culture, the White Planet (paperback, Greystone Books, $21.95) answers the question raised by Olympic freestyle gold medallist skier Sarah Burke’s recent death while training for freestyle ski competition: why do they do it?

If you’ve already joined the revolution in extreme skiing, you’ll rejoice in this ride through some of the sport’s most air-gifting terrain. This is a true insider story by a freestyler who’s been there and done most of what skiing offers — with pro skier/photographers, movie-makers and guides. On the other hand, if you’ve never stopped shaking your head about the general craziness of skiers and boarders who think Kill the Banker might be bettered by going out of bounds, you’ll learn a lot about why freestyle snow sport now draws a bigger TV audience in the USA than NFL football. Truly.

Author Leslie Anthony, a Canadian living in Whistler, journalist, adventurer and extreme skier, takes you on a world tour of off-piste and alpine ski terrain from Chile to Greenland, Whistler to Newfoundland, through Iceland, Spain, Scotland, Bulgaria, China, India and the Swiss Alps. The tale combines pure excitement with fine observation and analysis, clear writing and a storyteller’s love for his passion. Here also is a history of how telemarking lost out as the benchmark of backcountry style, tales of political ups and downs of skiing at every level, and eye-witness reports of the some glorious, as well as some tragic, events of recent ski revolutions.

Anthony writes with an analytical understanding of terrain, weather and dynamic forces that makes this the most compelling book about skiing I’ve read.  It’s also both erudite and often hilarious. Consider this description of skiing in Scotland:

“Winter weather in the Scottish hills was uniformly miserable… Some kind of precipitation was falling sideways (a feature of most storms here) and although it was crystallized water, it wasn’t snow… it was neither sleet nor true ice pellet, but lighter, irregularly shaped masses, the size and consistency of Styrofoam packing that, in the driving wind, felt like hairbrush bristles being bounced off your face…  In the maelstrom, it was hard to tell which way was up, down, or sideways, and impossible to maintain balance while standing still on any low-angled ground. Though skiing blind quickly became art out of necessity, it was almost a godsend to find ourselves top a fifty-degree chute . . . where gravity took care of our orientation.

“…Five minutes at a Scottish ski field… and your expectations were so low that anything short of a full gale was considered pleasant.”

Bad trip make great stories.  But it’s the whole scene that Anthony conjures up: bushy-browed skiers wearing kilts and gaiters, bars boasting every malt whiskey produced in Scotland, overflowing platters of haggis and neeps, bedraggled snowboarders thrashing about until they’re knackered and upper lips made stiff by facial ice.

Honesty is essential in such stories, and Anthony doesn’t hold back: the tale is full of highs of various sorts, induced by altitudes, chemicals and an unrelenting quest for experience. Why does he write about freestyle alpine skiing? Why does he, or anyone else do it? What’s behind this passion for biting weather in the face of death-inducing risk?  For Anthony tells it as a fascination about “how the planet’s long-term forces combined with the momentary tantrums of the atmosphere in different places — geology, in all its multifarious forms, meeting meteorology, in all its angry outbursts.” The people who share his obsession also interest him: who are they and why do they do it?

The people he introduces are described with the same energy and insight Anthony applies to weather, mountain terrain and snow. My personal favorite is Larseraq, the Greenland Inuit who started a ski club at Apussuit (“big snow”) with whom Anthony spent happy hours:

“Travelling largely by boat . . . we scoured the coastline for likely looking slopes, climbing hundreds of feet above the ocean under hanging glaciers and leaden skies to explore unnamed peaks for the first time. Navigating crevasse-riddled glaciers and dealing with the ever-present risk of avalanches, each ski run involved a seeming season’s worth of snow conditions starting in the powdery high alpine and ending in mush at the edge of a shimmering copper fjord, the smell of the sea in our nostrils, whales breaching on the horizon.”

Then there are Fric and Frac, the trigger-happy Lebanese military guides who accompanied Anthony and Rich Elias, the founder of Ski Peace, across a planned traverse of the Lebanon Mountains — planned until they realized that not only did they not have a map, there were no maps — except those of the military. When they eventually spied one, they asked about the tiny tick marks layered across the route they had planned. “Ah, not to worry,” the military man said, “land mines, but now covered with snow. Perhaps.”

My one reservation about this book is that, necessarily, it tends to glamorize extreme sport. To be fair, Anthony doesn’t overlook the challenge, even naming one chapter “A Death in the Family.” Part of the revolution in freestyle skiing and extreme sport has led to the deaths of some of the ski community’s best-loved heroes. Anthony was there, watching, when Brett Carlson died in January, 2000. He tries to explain, not terribly originally, but with poetic enthusiasm, that the core community in Whistler

“…understood that those who fly too close to the sun in the mountains are the sacrificial lambs of our collective ambitions and how easy it was to die doing what you loved.”

Then there’s the story of James Shane McConkey, “the most versatile and influential skier in history,” who died in March, 2009 filming a jump in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains. Most freestylers don’t stop skiing though, however high the risk.

White Planet goes a long way to helping non-GenXers get why they do it. More importantly, perhaps, it puts freestyle skiing on the map of sport literature — and possibly of serious sport. A phenomenal adventure — read it, pass it on to a friend.

And do take care.

White Planet,  by Leslie Anthony, is available at Grizzly Books and Serendipity Shop in Revelstoke