WORDS • Jim Ryan | PHOTOS • Stephen Shelesky
Before we begin, let us first agree on a two things.
Agreement #1. Skiing is useless.
We can trace skiing back to its transportation roots, prehistoric times when skis were the most efficient vehicles for farmers traversing the frozen fields of Scandanivia, Russia or somewhere equally bleak. But those times have since passed. Long has it been since anyone has used skis to do anything vital. Nowadays, things are different: We’re freakin’ recreating out here.
Agreement #2: Art is pointless.
I’ll keep this one short. It feels bad to define art. And “pointless” might be too strong a word, so let’s agree on this: Art does not have a clear, overarching objective. It is not finished when a line is crossed or a battle won; it can not be harvested and put on a scale. There are no winners. Art—as I’ve come to understand it—is the manifestation of reality… as the artist perceives it. Art is a vision of one’s existence brought to life.
Now that we know the rules, let’s combine the useless and pointless and get on with the story…
Thank goodness Stephen Shelesky has photography. He has the resolve of a mormon settler and the cunning ambition of a Wall Street Banker. But he’s gayer than a roller disco at a motorcycle rally—and that lucky combination, paired with a heavy dose of love for the outdoors, landed him in Jackson, Wyoming, as an adventure sports photographer.
Over the past year, Stephen has become a loyal friend and a steady co-worker. We’re both dreamers, but we’re also both capable of executing on those dreams; a poignant combination in our world of adventure sports. When Stephen comes to me with a project, I’m usually inclined to join along. If he has a vision, I want to be part of its creation.
So when Stephen came to me and asked if I wanted to be part of a ski trip to the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, I said “yes” immediately. There was no point in thinking about it too long.
On our trip to Colorado from Wyoming, my partner in the athletic department, in front of the camera, was to be Madison Rose Ostergren. Once my girlfriend, now my friend—a pattern I’d rather not talk about now—Madison is a cherrybomb of a woman, a redheaded firebomb so full of life that she is usually on the brink of overflowing with exciement. She often does. She’s a hugger and chronic nail biter; she grunts like a logger when she climbs; swears like a sailor when she takes a fall; she prefers to ski “with the boys.”
If you’ve had a full night’s rest, Madison Rose might be the best thing to happen to you all week. It’s not uncommon that she will bounce (quite literally bounce) up to some crusty, old curmudgeon and have him in love with her in the blink of an eye; I’ve seen shop owners gift her items off the shelves, park rangers waive their fees, old men offer to adopt her.
But don’t let the spoils of her behavior lead you astray: She’s not some master manipulator. Madison is, simply, happy to be alive–and it shows. Her behavior reminds all who watch her that life really is a wonderful thing. The perfect companion for a trip to “sand ski” in Colorado.
Now add to the team two more characters.. Kristie, my sister—a younger, smarter, tougher version of myself—and Christian, a tall, dark and handsome sketch artist, who has kinda just been around since COVID hit.
Stephen’s plan was this: Drive to the dunes, tow our food, supplies and ski gear on cheap plastic sleds, venture deep into the National Park and then shred. In all his talking, Stephen was careful not to oversell the experience but he was confident of two things, that we were going and the images would turn out stellar.
But the crew didn’t need to be sold one bit. Madison’s crippling FOMO wouldn’t let her miss out on a Kool-Aid party, Kristie still trusts my bullshit, I haven’t said no to a bad idea since 2009 and Christian… well he’s bound to be around, isn’t he?
Upon arrival, the plan went to hell almost immediately. Within ten minutes of stepping on the sand, it became apparent that the principles of friction have not changed during the Corona Era. Like dogs tied to posts, we yanked and strained at our leashes, trying to will the fully loaded sleds up and over the puniest of hills. Our straining got desperate, then our actions became realistic—we started dumping gear.
It didn’t take long to jettison Christian’s skis. And it became apparent that the water—10 gallons in total—was our biggest hindrance. There was a short discussion of dumping some of it, but the desperate landscape surrounding us urged against such rash cuts. We trudged on. All afternoon we labored and sweated, human tugboats pulling on sinking ships in a sea of sand.
I offered to switch sleds with Christian (for he had fallen behind), only to find I had underestimated him—his sled was easily twice as heavy as mine. I wrestled with Christian’s sled for less than an hour before I returned it to him, thankful he had volunteered to join us.
My sister impressed me equally, but it came as less of a surprise. After a lifetime of knowing her, her quiet ability to endure hardship had ceased to shock me, but I still felt a sense of pride growing in my chest as she slogged quietly by my side.
And Madison behaved as I knew she would: working in terrific bursts towards our objective. Despite her enthusiasm, though, it wasn’t long before she was nearly nude and dry heaving from effort. But she smiled through it all.
Sometime after sunset yet before the real darkness of the desert night set in, we arrived. Exhausted, we freed ourselves of our own yokes like human oxen and lay in the sand.
But it wasn’t long before everyone was laughing again. Still too tired to erect a tent, or even sit up, we were laughing. Different as each member of the crew might be, we all shared this in common: an unselfconscious ability to laugh (at one’s self, mostly). And, here, we were doing just that, cracking up over the foolishness of our endeavor, at the level of effort we all contributed to something so plainly ludicrous. And for what?
“I’m really excited to shoot tomorrow; I think these shots are really going to turn out. It’s even more beautiful here than I remember” Stephen said as soon as we all caught our breath again. Oh right, we were here to ski.
The morning brought with it a stunning sunrise and another dose of reality. Skiing on sand is nearly as difficult as hauling shit in a sled. The moment of drop in on my first “line” and the moment of “oh shit, time for Plan B” were simultaneous. Friction proved again to be a worthy advisory–I could barely get going fast enough to turn. This is where my strongest contribution to the group came in handy. I’m a skier, yes, but I’m also a part of a team, a team that makes art, and I know what it takes on my end to create something worth looking at.
“Stephen, we’re going to have to find bigger hills, with steeper faces, and you’re going to have to shoot from really far away,” I said.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” he replied.
We spent the rest of the day lounging in our makeshift tent-shanty or scouting from the tops of the long, sandy ridges. When the day cooled and the evening light returned, we were going to be ready. And we were. Like a five-man combat squad, we flanked each objective with stunning efficiency, transitioning from bare feet to ski boots at the top of each line while our friends watched from a half a mile away. Stephen cooly confirming over the radio that he “got the shot” while we regained our strength at the bottom of each line.
We maintained the half mile distance for the whole session, Madison and I like scantily clothed astronauts circling the Mars Rover, walking slowly in the strange land with an existential objective. It was only after the sun had nearly set that we were able to rejoin our friends. Madison and I each knew that we had done our best and we approached Stephen like grad students approaching a thesis advisor. Stephen waited for us at the edge of camp.
“I think we got what we came for,” he called out.
I have worked with Stephen enough to know what that means, we kicked freakin’ butt. I let a smile creep across my face. Stephen pulled out his camera and captured that, too.
“Let me see! Let me see!” Madison, never the patient one, was somehow finding the energy to jump up and down. It was then that I noticed one more line, not too far away. I pointed, they knew.
“If you want it, I’ll shoot it!”
“Well I didn’t come out here for the tan,” I said.
“You know, I’ll go.” Madison was already picking up her skis.
So we skied one more and it felt just as foolish as the rest. But, together, we made something, something that hadn’t existed before we all strapped ourselves to plastic sleds, something that hadn’t existed before we all piled in a car together, something that you can’t eat, you can’t wear. Art. How wonderfully useless, how terribly important.