As I stepped outside into the pre-dawn winter morning, I set my course for a cafe named ‘First Tracks,’ the establishment which offered the earliest hours in which to obtain coffee. I noticed with pleasure that snow was falling through the still-dark mountain air. This was especially pleasing, since my plan for the day, after drinking a coffee, was to go skiing. But new-falling snow always has an exhilarating effect on me, even if careening down a slope on two waxed planks is not an immediate option. Thinking back to my childhood, ‘snow days’ represented pure possibility. Now, conversely, they represent transportation safety concerns and childcare issues, occasioned by treacherous roads and schools that close more readily than workplaces. How much more pleasant, I thought, to view those falling flakes as my ten-year-old self did. Back then, the simple occasion of precipitation could wipe clean the slate of my schedule and deliver a day of untapped potential, a clean slate of winter wonder.
The blanket of white mutes both the colors and the sounds of our customary environment, creating a blank canvas on which to write the arc of the day’s activities. The white winter canvas spontaneously invites us to commune with nature. Children know this intuitively. Even if previously content to remain indoors, new fallen snow draws them outside to play in it, with it. To create, even consume. A backyard becomes a bank, filled with the frozen currency of winter. Each untouched square foot of ground invites one to dip a hand, foot or whole body into the immersive white blanket. Skiers also know this intuitively. New fallen snow invites skiers and boarders to make tracks on winter slopes. The experience of creating these “freshies” is unparalleled. The alternation between frictional and frictionless downhill motion thrills the gravity-powered trip down the mountainl. On a powder day, one can look back up the hill and see the path just carved through the fresh snow, one’s own personal signature, applied in fleeting ink to the mountainside.
Each path down the mountain is unique to the one making it. The novelty creates new connections in the mind, even as one moves through a familiar place. On this particular snow day, I visited a mountain where I had skied with my family as a youth. Even then, I had found the majesty of the peaks to be magical. I used to keep repeating that word in my mind. As the tram would glide past ridges and bowls on its ascent to a hidden peak, I used to think, “Magical…magical…” Twenty five years later, I found the scene to be the same yet different. The mountains were the same. The snow was new. The activity was the same. I was different. Even as an adolescent, I had been grateful for the privilege of recreating in the mountains. As an adult, my gratitude was deeper. I thought back to that morning as I waited in line for my coffee. The gentleman immediately in front of me in the line, who appeared perhaps two decades my senior, was ordering a latte with four shots of espresso. ‘Bravo!’ I thought. He was dressed in gym clothes with the exception of a woolen winter hat. Hunter green topped with a green tassle, the hat was adorned by green block letters which spelled simply ‘GRATITUDE’ on the lone white stripe around the middle of the hat. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘No explanation necessary.’ Despite my physical and mental growth in the intervening years, I was relatively the same in comparison to the mountain – inconsequential. The mountains retain their ability to inspire both awe and humility, reminding us of our place in the universe.
They can also remind us of our fragility. The mountains have claimed many a life of those seeking action and adventure therein. The sense of our own fragility tends to increase with age and experience. I shudder to think of attempting the aerial assaults I used to launch into on skis as a teenager. And of course back then, we didn’t wear helmets. This increased caution and prudence is in no small part due to increased development of the frontal lobe of the brain, which remains underdeveloped in adolescents. A major benefit of this appreciation of the fragility of life is self-preservation. One is less reliant on luck, resulting in an increase in the chances of living long enough to pass on one’s genes to the next generation. There are trade-offs, however. The child’s mind is often less cowed by danger. Starting from toddler-hood, they crash to the floor in a heap, over and over again, undeterred by the string of failures on the road to learning to walk. On bikes and scooters, my kids hurtle down hills with a speed that makes me cringe, yet feels natural to them. If they avoid catastrophe (with a little bit of luck), a child’s fearlessness can help him or her with skill acquisition. They’re just doing “gravity research,” I tell myself.
Skiing was a skill I acquired with an as-yet undeveloped frontal lobe. As such, this inherently dangerous sport fails to inspire any fear of mortal peril in me. As I topped out at 50 miles per hour down a snowy slope this week, I reflected on the fact that I have no appetite for such speed on a bicycle. Although I learned to ride a bike at a similar age, I did not reach any significant speed on a bike until I started road cycling in my mid 20s, old enough to make me loath going faster than 40 miles per hour downhill on my bike.
Ask anyone about the experience of learning to ski as an adult and part of their experience will likely include enviously marveling at nearby streams of small children hurling themselves down the slopes with skill and ease. Their child-like disinhibition has facilitated skill acquisition. A willingness to fall paradoxically prevents falling. Give yourself up to gravity and you can harness its power. Embrace danger and you can thwart it. Perhaps. The decision to embrace or avoid danger runs along a fine line that separates skill acquisition from stunted growth. But it can also separate survival from demise. Every action and adventure athlete that has died in their sport has ultimately crossed that line. But most of us don’t approach that threshold. If we’re not careful, our caution can get in the way of fully experiencing life.
“Everybody dies but not everybody lives.” - Drake, in Nicky Minaj's Moment for Life
A desire to stay alive can hijack our path to feeling alive. We could benefit from embracing a child-like mindset when it comes to learning a skill. After all, children are the best learners among us. But perhaps more importantly, thoughts of mortality and fragility don’t prevent children from being fully alive. A willingness to take risk with the fearlessness of a child might enable us to reap the benefits we seek.
I am reminded of the words of one of my chief residents when I was an intern, at the inception of my surgical training. He was explaining how to do a procedure before sending me alone to the emergency room to perform it. After explaining the set up, he concluded with the following instruction: “Then, you just f—ing do it!”