PHOTOS: Amado Stachenfeld, Max Houtzager
We are great at something that gets us nowhere. We are artists of avoidance. We fall, but not down. We keep our faces out of the snow and the gravel out of our teeth and make our falls last longer than gravity might, but not always.
Yvonne Chounard branded us “conquerors of the useless”. This is far more generous than the monikers some have bestowed upon us. When we get high, we don’t take shortcuts—neither chairlifts nor substances will get us there. We earn every step and celebrate every graceful foot we fall.
Galileo tried to prove that a feather and a brick fall at the same speed, but still they say that the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The only way to know for sure is to try it ourselves. Some of us seek the high of reaching the top, others chase the thrill of racing to the bottom.
Skiing, snowboarding, downhill biking, paragliding, and log racing are all glamorous forms of falling. After all, they are just protracted means of getting us from a higher elevation to a lower one.
It is not natural for us to fall. Whether it’s tripping over a shoelace or peering over the edge of a cliff, our stomachs turn and our hearts flutter at the thought of hitting the ground. We learn to ride bikes with training wheels because our parents are so worried about us falling. When we grow old, falls are dreadful because we may never get
Still, none of us can deny the allure of topography. Mountains stand to make us look small, to make distances look shorter than they are, and to let us see where we came from. They give meaning to walking and teach us how to fall with dignity. They gather snow so we can ride it instead of rue it and they give us a hand so we can see what clouds look like on the inside or what our cities look like from the outside.
We peer over the precipice and contemplate the descent. Wheels with full suspension make falling more fun in the summer, boards and skis make it better in the winter. They give us a means to conquer mountains and machines alike. We use machines to handle mountains, and mountains to prove that we are masters of our machines. Conquering them may be useless, but it is often the only thing that gives our days meaning. It is more than a means, more than an end.
They call it ‘falling in love’. To most, this gives a somewhat positive connotation to the notion of falling. Of course, you can fall out of it, too, so love is a sort of bidirectional dream chasm, a mountain you can descend twice. Falling implies a lack of intentionality, but that is why we have climbing. To fall, you must first get up.
Falling is a choice. Perhaps the greatest disservice we’ve done ourselves is forgetting just how hard that is. Lifts and Jeeps and choppers help us avoid one of the most symbolically rich acts man can achieve.
There will always be those who hike the back bowl so they can lay first tracks, those who pedal to the top so they can earn the fleeting ride back to the bottom. And they understand that it’s not a question of easier or harder, of up or down. It’s simply different: a yin and a yang, a night and a day, a sound and a silence. We need both to know one.
But most of us compartmentalize. There are mountain climbers and there are downhill skiers: those we celebrate for the heights they reach and those who we cheer for the speeds they achieve as they fall thousands of feet in mere seconds, the fewer the better. Those who have mastered the art of getting high and those who are expert fallers.
There is no sport that measures a successful climb and a stylish descent, no trophy for the greatest up-and-down. And perhaps it is better this way, that those who prefer to earn their rides do not seek accolades but perspective. First tracks instead of first place. First flag planted instead of insert-your-est-adjective-here. It is easy to do things for a prize, rarer and more commendable to do them with a singular purity that wants no reward. Whether you started from the bottom or the top, it’s good to think about how you got there and where you’re going next.
There are plenty of ways to measure a great fall—a race to the base or a weave among slalom markers—but precious few to put it into context. I once heard a story from a Colorado Mountain Rescue member who said his favorite activity was racing cars down the top two thousand feet of Mount Evans, where switchbacks and innate acrophobia slow automotive progress. By foot, they’d simply take three clumsy steps and slide in the scree, tempting gravity and fate before taking three more steps to stay one ahead of a graceless fall. Cutting the switchbacks and coming one step closer to freefall, those sliding saviors could beat cars down the side of the mountain, at least until the road straightened and the pitch grew less steep. There was no trophy where the switchbacks ended, just a free beer at the base of the mountain for winning the bet.
A version of ‘Art of Falling’ for online only. Read the extended version in Terasu Vol 01 | Early Hues.