Are we the sum of our past?
True to at least some extent, most agree. Yet pick apart the concept and you run up against a conundrum. If our past dictates our actions, then how much free will do we really have?
Examining that question too carefully can drive you crazy as rebuilding an engine and discovering you’ve got one small part left over. But “Hand Cut,” the new ski flick from Sweetgrass Productions, at least got me thinking about it. And throwing a few brain cells that direction was perhaps worth a blog, or two?
The only narrative in Hand Cut is from a couple of old miners and coal locomotive operators talking about ancient days. The rest of the flick is high quality ski porn that’s definitely top tier, turns set to music, no captions, no narration.
First impression: What an odd combo. I mean, are not all these guys (film makers and young skiers) environmental wackos to whom mining (not to mention coal) is the devil, and such a past to be denied or at least vilified? Yet the idea filmmaker Nick Waggoner is presenting — that our mountain culture has a past which at the least enriches what we do, and perhaps is why we do it — is a worthy thought experiment.
Think about it. In the physical sense, mountain towns such as Telluride or Truckee birthed from mining. Such town’s parentage informs their spirit, if not makes it. Self sufficiency, hard work and hard play. All leading to our North American style of backcountry skiing, which differs from that of Europe in its emphasis on self sufficiency and the elevation of human muscle power to an almost religious virtue.
Indeed, the PR for Hand Cut makes sure you know that all the skiing was done with human powered vertical. No helicopters, no ski lifts. Hearkening back to 1800s miners mucking out the gold with calloused hands as hard as their shovel handles.
What’s more, now that industrial tourism and the construction and amenity economy is showing its true colors in places such as Aspen, does anyone with at least half a mind wonder if having a few mines and fewer second homes might be a better mix? Most certainly not the land rape of the late 1800s mineral era, but some modern holes to balance things out? After all, as the saying goes, if you can’t grow it you’ve got to mine it — and our mountain towns now do precious little of either.
Here is the thing. Many of us seek context for the recreation lifestyle we live in our mountain towns. Some begin to doubt or at least sense it as worthless hedonism, and even turn to drugs or alcohol (or ever more risk) to give recreation the edge they seek. Indeed, it’s easy to criticize our lifestyle as little more than a house teetering on a shaky foundation.
Answer: For better or worse in the modern world we’ve created a high pressure society that needs pursuits of freedom to escape the press of day-to-day job and family. Those of us in mountain towns are one group that leads the way in that recreation. Brought up as mountain boys and girls, we go on to become guides, writers and the like, or we simply participate in social networks who shovel the recreational gold. Only we dig it with tools such as skis, bicycles and climbing shoes. Personally, I’ve come to see value in that, and to avoid an almost inevitable descent into anomie I’d suggest any alpinist should do the same.
As for the power of the past, perhaps we muck the white gold out of choice rather than predestiny. But when you drive the same roads those miner’s built, hike the same trails and live on the same land, you have to admit those guys have an influence.
For example, we live in a 100+ year old farmer and coal miner’s house. Not a week goes by that I don’t think of who might have been here before us and what hard work they might have done that created what we have. Indeed, it’s said the silver mined up in Aspen and smelted with Carbondale coal a century ago is still in use around the world for industrial chemistry and coins of the realm. Feeling the foundations of that under my feet makes my day better, causes me to get off my rear and go do stuff, and causes me to think about how I might share what we do with others.
Handcut is beautifully crafted and has a rich tapestry created by its historical component. Interestingly, the film’s athletes receive subdued billing as to their names — perhaps to emphasize the past behind them? In all, a compelling mix of powder and coal. Recommended. HandCut website
World Premier is this coming Friday evening, September 12, Wheeler Opera House, old mining town of Aspen. CU there?
Oh, one other thing, if you like Delta blues the soundtrack for this thing is phenomenal. We’ve been listening to the John-Alex Mason songs for weeks (2015, John Mason is deceased, defunct link removed).
Comments? Are we predestined to ski or just shovel coal?
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.