Prospect, Refuge and Skiing

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Prospect, Refuge and Skiing

What is the value of something so frivolous, something so important?

The first snow of the year came at the end of October and blanketed the small Colorado town I live in with 14 inches of sparkling fluff. A preseason storm like that always stokes my flame of ski excitement but this year it felt like a bottle rocket; a short first screech followed by a lackluster sputtering pop. Among all the things that could happen this year and beyond, skiing seems to be quite insignificant. In a year like 2020, it even feels that excitement for skiing is a bit inappropriate and flippant. But maybe skiing is exactly what we all need. 

There’s a theory that is used across numerous fields—psychology, art, landscape architecture—that I think we should employ for the upcoming ski season: Prospect and Refuge. The theory contends that the environment or emotional state that appeals to us most is one that provides a feeling of personal safety and sanctuary while also giving us an uninhibited view of our complete surroundings. Have you ever noticed that when you camp, you pitch the tent by a tree or a rock outcrop, set up your chair, take in the view, daydream and feel cozy? Or how good it feels to sit on a bench against a wall that looks out across a never-ending vista? That’s Prospect and Refuge.

Geographer Jay Appleton described the theory as satisfying our innate desire—our evolutionary survival drive—to situate ourselves within spaces that give us a sense of choice while simultaneously feeling protected. When the theory was first described to me, I pictured a cowboy seated in a dark corner with one eye on the front door and one eye on the back exit—a nervous, trail-hardened dude with pistols at the ready, his gaze darting around the room. But that’s a slightly ominous image. Plus, that cowboy doesn’t have any real Prospect and Refuge because there’s no safety or freedom in fear. 

PHOTO: Adam Gearing | LOCATION: Revelstoke, BC

I’d rather picture the Refuge of skiing; those moments we’ve had countless times yet still come back to, like stopping in the trees to bathe in a moment of quiet, watching our friends and family arc turns through flawless powder, laughing uncontrollably with face shot-fueled, unadulterated joy, the sense of community in the whoop-n-holler eruptions of powder day lift lines. Nostalgic, familiar moments like that make me feel safe, like I am in a place of insulated well-being, and that is a feeling I miss. 

I miss skiing’s gift of Prospect, too. We poke our ski tips over the edge and look out beyond ourselves, toward the horizon that dips into the unseen and unknown and, even if we’re scared, we push off into it. We move toward the horizon not with a sense of doom but a sense of opportunity. No matter the conditions, the obstacles, the unexpected, we have faith in our ability to artfully handle whatever comes next. So we release ourselves into a dance between the mountain, the snow and self, until the boundaries separating us from the natural world are so blurred we can’t tell where we end and the rest begins. And then it’s there, a swath of deep snow that we can curl into until it explodes around us like confetti. And we spring from turn to turn with that great sense of uninhibited freedom and unshakable knowledge that there is more joy to come just ahead of what we can’t see.

This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of FREESKIER (23.2). Click here to subscribe to FREESKIER magazine.

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