The average chairlift moves people uphill at a rate of 2.5 meters per second. A high speed chairlift doubles that, moving at 5 meters per second. Doing the math, that means a chairlift is going to get you from the base to the top of a 1000 meter ski run in somewhere between 3 and 7 minutes. This past weekend, I tried to race one. On foot.
There was no starting gun, or actual starting line, but I glance at my phone and start the timer as I headed onto the Mount Seymour winter trail running up the skiers right side of the resort. The trail winds up through the trees for about 3 kilometres, covering just shy of 1000 meters in elevation. I pass throngs of people out for a Sunday stroll as I skin up the hard-packed snow trail.
This is going to be a problem in the steep bit. I think to myself, lamenting the previous day’s outing in the Mount Baker backcountry when my skins failed and I ended up crawling out of a tree well.
I start making what I think is good time, blissfully unaware of how quickly the chairlift is shuttling it’s passengers along. The trail is familiar, it’s my after work, and sometimes before work, winter standby. I’ve skied up in the dark, skied up it in white-out blizzard and skied it up in a white-out blizzard in the dark, but this is the first time I’ve decided to try and do as a sprint.
At the top of the first sustained uphill, I’m breathing heavily, sucking in cold air that burns by throat ever so slightly. By the second one, I’m starting to curse my decision.
The trail winds back towards the resort, carefree chairlift riders flying through the sky above me. I need to be faster.
At the second to-last big vertical section, the trail turns to ice. I try to zig zag up, but the snow wont hold and edge. I unbuckle my bindings, throw my skis over my shoulder and start to bootpack up the hill, kicking steps up the steep, slippery face.
By this point, I’m sucking wind and sweating profusely. People on pleasant Sunday snowshoe outings are giving me dirty looks while their snowsuit clad children cling to their legs in fear.
I sprint up the final hill and nearly collapse over the ridge onto Brockton Point. The clear skies reveal a panoramic view – Vancouver Island to the west, the Coast Range to the east, Grouse and Cypress Mountains to the North and, shrouded in grey storm clouds, Mt. Baker to the South. I feel like I’m about to barf.
In the end, it took me 38 minutes to make the sprint, more than five times slower than the slowest chairlift should have. It left me light headed and feeling nauseous, drawing more than a few quizzical looks from the people taking in the view atop Brockton Point. It was, by all accounts, a really stupid idea, probably the least pragmatic way to get up that mountain. It was also really worth it.
In our lives, and in our politics, we’re obsessed with pragmatism. All roads trend towards it, as the pragmatic approach is also the one most often considered the path of least resistance. But honestly, fuck pragmatism.
Pragmatism might be faster and easier than, say, sprinting up a mountain on a pair of skis, but smooth and easy don’t automatically mean good or right. Fast food is smooth and easy, but it’s almost never as good as a meal you have to wait for, that someone has to cook the right way.
Skiing uphill is hard. And, the truth is that I’ll probably never beat a chairlift in a race, but I still think chairlifts are over-rated. Being un-pragmatic is even harder, because there’s a fine line between not being pragmatic and being un-hinged. That line is the difference between trying to sprint up a mountain on skis and trying to sprint up a mountain on rollerblades. Skiing may be hard, and not the path most people take, but it has a pretty good chance of working. Rollerblading up a snowy mountain is impossible, and just kinda dumb.
The process of getting up a mountain, the grinding repetition of moving uphill, is rewarding in part because it’s not the easy way. The work, the struggle, and knowing that you earned the summit isn’t for everyone, but it teaches you a lesson that pragmatism never will, that doing things the hard way can matter, sometimes more than we know.