Bark Sandwich

WORDS • Leslie Anthony | PHOTOS • Mattias Fredriksson

Here’s the thing: high-speed groomers are fun; dropping couloirs, rad; and bouncing down pillow lines, divine. But what I love most about skiing is being in the trees in winter.

Whether it’s Japan’s beech forests, Europe’s larch, Norway’s dwarf birch, British Columbia’s giant hemlock and cedar, or Aspen’s… well… aspens, skiing in the trees offers a different aesthetic than skiing open runs or unimpeded natural features like bowls and chutes. And eastern tree skiing—lacking the West’s fuzzy warmth and cathedral spires—is different altogether.

Growing up skiing in Ontario, Quebec and Vermont, I spent a lot of time in the trees, whether on my downhill or cross-country boards. In addition to being a way of enjoying the simple beauty of a winter day, I was communing with the forest at what seemed its most essential—outside of the flamboyant botanical pageantry of summer. I’ll admit that eastern hardwoods weren’t for everyone I skied with. They were kind of like the rough bouncers at an exclusive club, ready to repel anyone who didn’t belong and offer a girded honor-guard to welcome those who did. But if you liked powder at all, it was a club worth joining—just ask the skiers at Sutton, Jay Peak, Mad River Glen and Stowe.

SKIER: Sofia Forsman | LOCATION: Sicamous, BC

Though skiing hardwoods feels like moving through a state of suspended animation, there is plenty going on around you—stories being spun in the woods of hibernating critters and burrowing insects to hormones coursing through roots ready to send sap racing upward at the first hint of warmth. And, yet, save for an occasional creaking in the wind, all this industry is carried out in silence. Moving among trees in winter is like entering a realm populated by beings whose sentinel nature is their very allure—as if they both conjure experience and bear witness to it. Perhaps they do.

I’m fond of reminding people that the human genome contains some 20,000 genes, while a poplar tree boasts 45,000. What does it mean when the complexity of the human brain is governed by fewer genes than a block of wood? Perhaps only that when it comes to DNA, the traits of wisdom, stoicism and vigilance may be more hard-won than mobility. As it turns out, scientific research is now showing us that trees can learn and communicate through their roots via underground mycelial networks—and not only with trees of their own species. Since the root-mycelial connections function much like the neural networks of animals, skiing trees is like moving through something akin to a large-scale communal brain.

SKIER: Elle Cochrane | LOCATION: Myoko, JPN

In British Columbia, where I now live, not only do I love skiing trees, but I also enjoy the myriad forms they take—from hunched snow ghosts to towering alabaster arrows of improbable symmetry. It would be easy to view such statuesque embodiments as living things that have simply stalled out from daily existence for a bit, their weighted encasements a measure of the force of winter, as in the old Lewis Carrol quote:

I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” 

But such a view would be a mistake. The winter forest is very much alive and welcoming.

For skiers, trees are shelter in the storm. For the snow that finds its way into them, they are both fragrant filter and natural preservative, minimizing the effects of wind, sun and freeze-thaw. Microclimates also help: A mountain that spends a lot of quality time in the cloud deck, with its peak perpetually shrouded, tends to pull down significantly more snow its neighbors. Where such places are found—and I’d count my home of Whistler among them—it’s the turns beneath the branches that rule the mountain’s personality.

SKIER: Mark Abma | PHOTO: Nagano, JPN

Hitting treeline as you descend from the alpine is an interesting introduction to the forest, zigzagging around a welcome mat of krumholtz and other tightly packed manifestations. But as you move downslope and larger trees prevail, things open up… though never enough to make the next move completely obvious. And this is where the “game” takes over. Even where you can see around them, tree skiing is still all decisions, discovery and endless permutation. You make a turn around one, a new line comes into view and suddenly everything looks different; your next turn repeats the trick; then it happens again, much like a high-speed video game testing both your reflexes and processing powers. All the while the slope uncoils over the natural contours of the mountain, connected by lines that follow the logic of topography and water—a logic, you learn, that trees follow as well.

For many years I was guilty of what I alluded to above: simply skiing through these snowclad trees, looking for lines and paying little attention to what I dismissed as a silent yearning for spring. But a few years ago, more reading on tree biology delivered a different impression.

SKIER: Olle Regnér | LOCATION: Airolo, SUI

The statuesque nature of our mountain trees, it turns out, is less about the current weather than millions of years of evolution and the selective power of ice ages. You see, the West Coast’s fir and spruce and cedar—even the mighty redwood and sequoia—are snow trees, exquisitely evolved in form and function to deal with and make use of the white stuff. With a heavy load, their apical symmetry sheds just enough to allow the branches to bend but not break. In cold weather they’ll hold enough snow to protect buds. And the melting snow from branches drips in a circle, feeding roots that require a steady moisture supply over winter. Indeed, the entire story arc of a snow tree’s spring, summer and fall is being written as you ski by them in winter.

In a sense then, many of the trees I spend time with have evolved to like snow. And if that can’t make a skier love them even more, nothing can.