Community September 26, 2017

Senior Projects 2017 – Ski Culture Ethnography

From Sun Valley to France
Editor’s note: From a simply educational point of view, high school senior projects provide an opportunity for students to apply skills and knowledge they have acquired over four years to achieve a specific goal. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that they often inspire students to pursue their true passions, some they may not have known they had before embarking on a senior project.
In a series of articles, we present excerpts from some outstanding projects of the 2017 graduating class.


High School: The Sage School

Project Title: Ski Culture Ethnography; Sun Valley to France

Post-graduation Plans: Bates College, Lewiston, Maine

I spent nearly two months in France conducting an ethnographic study and comparison of ski culture in Sun Valley and in France. I traveled to Chamonix, La Grave, and Serre Chevalier and lived with host families that I arranged through the help of people in our community. The entire project was self-directed and created. I lived with people who are part of French ski culture in each destination and was welcomed into their ski culture; I skied with them, ate with them, shared stories with them, and became friends with them. I was able to work with ski patrol in Chamonix and Serre Chevalier, and tail guide in La Grave.

I set out to discover the inner workings and components of ski culture. My working definition of ski culture is as follows:  Mountain ski culture is a societal meshing of nature, mountains, snow and the sport of skiing in individual lifestyles and is connected to built environments, and the community’s collective attitudes, perceptions, practices, and behaviors. I achieved my intentions through conducting ethnographic fieldwork that consisted of taking part in and living in the culture of each place, meeting and interacting with people at the centers of these cultures, conducting formal interviews with open-ended questions (about 60 altogether), and observing the daily attitudes, customs, and relationships.

La Grave, France

La Grave, France at sun down. Photo by Jake Michael

Ethnography is a branch of cultural anthropology dealing more specifically with the customs and individual peoples of a culture. Through my experiences, I found that the people in each place had unique attitudes and perceptions while also sharing some overarching ideas, and perspectives that were unifying across many ski cultures.

Based on my study, my thesis reads:

Regardless of the differences in national cultures and historical significance of skiing, the people who make up ski culture are rooted in their cohesive and universal love for snow, skiing, and the mountains, driven by a desire for freedom, awareness of personal boundaries, and the allure of the sublime that validates ski culture as a valuable subculture for humanity. It’s not just skiing, it is ski culture.

The desire for freedom pushes you to face your fears, which expands your personal boundaries, awakening a deeper personal knowledge and sense of accomplishment. Knowing your boundaries, and facing fears head on, can lead to greater self-awareness and a richer life. For many skiers, taking risks and pushing their boundaries is an essential part of their lives. In my research, I found the sublime to be a powerful force that drew people to take risks and simply spend time in the mountains.

The sublime evokes the concepts of awe, deep emotion and psychological inspiration, a danger of the unknown embodied in nature’s grandeur and yet an irresistible force drawing one to a precipice of the unknown that lies beyond rational thought. Ineffable force moves us to push our boundaries to gain a deeper sense of what life has to offer us.

Bald Mountain

Baldy, Sun Valley. Photo by Jake Michael

The pure, indescribable joy of carving a long arcing turn across a smooth groomer, or the soul-fulfilling bliss of being engulfed in a white cloud of powder as you sink in and bounce out again of deep untracked snow is a physical sensation that elicits the sublime. The French call it “la pleasure de la glisse.” Although there is no phrase in English that embodies these feelings as completely, the sentiment of the phrase is a shared feeling among all those in ski culture. There is a presence felt, a connection or, at least, the longing for a connection to nature and to yourself when you are on snow in the mountains. Your body moves with freedom, the speed exhilarates you with sensations flashing through your body, and you are alive.

The expression of skiing as something more than a sport, closer to a way of life, is an attitude I felt expressed in each place I visited, and here at home.

Once these sensations have been experienced, you are aware of what makes you happy and what inspires you at a soul level. These experiences can be translated into everything we do; the sensations we seek can be found in other endeavors besides skiing. Recognizing this indicates you are on your own right path.

To do what makes your heart soar, to understand your boundaries, and learn what it means to be happy, is a truly unique and special thing in our modern world. My father died doing what he loved-—skiing in the mountains. The snow swallowed him, holding his story in the memory of the mountain. I have an even deeper understanding of his connection to the snow, the mountains and skiing thanks to this journey I have had the good fortune to experience. Those of us who still clip into our bindings feel the presence of those we have lost as we leave tracks in the powder for them.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.