It is April when the multi-million dollar quad chairlifts will be shut down to swing gently in the afternoon breeze. Here and there will be a small patch of not-yet-melted snow that is left over from the piles of man-made snow shot from guns last winter.
Spring is the time to contemplate “the last time you did something for the first time.” I sit here in my studio on a mountainside in Montana watching a sequence in an old ski movie of mine. It focuses on the children in a small village in India, which is tucked up against the border of Tibet. They all lived in this village near a summer resort called Manali. The average family income here is between two and three dollars a month. However, it is a village without poverty, and is also a village where they don’t need or want what you and I take for granted in order to ski. None of them had ever seen a rope tow, much less a chairlift.
The skiing coach told our camera crew that the kids sometimes climb as high as 15,000 feet and ski down the powder snow. At that altitude, these small kids are getting less than half of the amount of oxygen that you and I get at sea level.
Their ski equipment had to be seen to be believed. Their skis were between 30 and 40 inches long, an inch and a half to two inches thick, and two to three inches wide, made out of a single piece of heavy walnut. That’s right: walnut. It was the only wood available locally and strong enough for skis. Apple wood is too brittle, and a pair of 35-inch-long skis is about as flexible as a bar of steel of the same dimensions. The coach had somehow been able to get the worn out band-saw blades from a lumber mill for their metal edges. The cut-up pieces of band-saw blades were a little wider than the skis and about five inches longer. The extra five inches was turned up in front and became the tip for the skis. The kids had to be careful, because once the length of the ski and the band-saw blade were matched up, the blade was screwed to the bottom of the walnut ski. One edge of the skis was quite smooth and the other edge was simply the teeth of the band-saw blade.
Their ski boots were 12-inch-high rubber galoshes, and their bindings were made out of vines that they threaded through a hole in the ski and then are wrapped several times around the galoshes. This gave the kids some extra support, and at the same time, more edge control while skiing. However, the children had to be extra careful making turns on the saw-tooth edge side of the skis.
Ski poles were just that, poles. The kids cut off a straight sapling, trimmed off the branches and used them without baskets or handles. There was not a single pair of gloves of any kind among the dozens kids who skied for my cameraman, Brian Sissleman. Their jackets were all the same color and the same size. It was as though all of the unsold 1958 Nehru style jackets had wound up in Solang.
The young boys and the one girl that was allowed to ski with them, jumped off of the roofs, made turns and every week had a mass-start downhill, which was a sight to behold. The first prize in the weekly downhill was a used bicycle inner tube. It was quite a valuable prize because the winner could cut it up and make better, more modern bindings than those he had made of dried vines.
The most impressive part of the group of young skiers was the size of their smiles. They didn’t need, want, nor have anything that you and I consider essential for a fun day of skiing. The next time you complain about a two-minute wait in the lift line, or have to stand in line at the mountain-top restaurant, think about the size of the smiles while skiing in Solang, India.
There were no words in the Manali dialect for chairlifts, snow grooming, man-made snow or plastic boots, but there were at least a dozen words that all translated to the same simple three-letter word, fun.
As you search for an exotic ski vacation location for next winter in brochures featuring skis, boots, bindings, snowboards, clothing, accommodations, etc., think about those kids in Manali, India. Do it while you are watching your alabaster-white body turning pink in the sun at some beach somewhere. Are you having as much fun as my young, spring-skiing friends in India?
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