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The 5 Stages of Grief: How to Get Over This Ski Season

Written by Renee McCurdy.

It’s a weird world out there for outdoor enthusiasts. Here’s my personal anecdote of what I have learned from my peers in the outdoor community about feelings and things to do in these unprecedented times: 

Stage 1: Denial

Oh COVID… It happened like falling in love, slowly and then all at once. Except instead of a happy ending we were dealt a bad breakup that most of us didn’t acknowledge was coming. Resorts shut down their lifts overnight but it was ‘okay because at least we can still ski tour’. Next thing you know, ski touring becomes bad form. It’s a shock to the system for a ski bum. For myself, the end of a season meant no chance at redemption after a lackluster start to the competition year. It meant my coaching job was over in the blink of an eye. 

 

I moved from a mountain town to a new city for a great opportunity to jump-start my nursing career just after social distancing began. With Whistler closed for the season, parks and outside spaces closed to the public, and social distancing preventing me from making new friends in a new place, it’s hard not to feel a bit lost. Skiing is always that thing that gets me through adversity, and holy heck the world is tossing up a whole lot of adversity these days.

Stage 2: Anger

I know I’m not the only one who is motivated and stimulated by challenges. In the world of snow sports, you’re always pushing for the next line, a new trick, to be faster, to be better. So much of my life and my values are rooted in mountain environments. Days off are dedicated to objectives. So adapting to a stay at home life is a struggle. 

Mountain towns are limiting their traffic and exposure and for good reason. It’s very hard to be an outsider when so much of your identity is tied to these mountain environments. Just a few weeks ago, I lived in a mountain town, and now I’m being told I can’t visit them? I found myself getting salty about people who were still visiting mountain towns and using their services. It felt like a stab in the back when I was staying home and practicing social distancing, while also facing the ramifications of this pandemic in the hospital setting. There was a lot of resentment towards people who were disobeying the suggestion to stay home. Nobody likes being told what we can and can’t do. But this isn’t about us, it’s about our communities and a greater collective.  

Step 3: Bargaining

When it comes to the outdoors, there are a lot of opinions going around about what is okay and what is not okay right now. Anything and everything we do has some degree of risk involved – from driving to the grocery store, to asking someone on a date, to skiing that spicy line. Acceptable risk is a grey zone and different for everyone. So many people look at snow sport athletes and think we are crazy for doing what we do. I know guys who could backflip in their sleep, but the same is a surefire yard sale if I were to try.

Safety first! Photo by Zoya Lynch.

For me, acceptable risk varies on any given day, based on how I’m feeling, what the weather is like, etc. Big mountain skiing is always an exercise on acceptable risk, so I think I’m pretty adept at it. The tricky part is then what society deems acceptable risk. At the end of the day, skiing is a risky sport. The worst-case major injury scenarios for skiing are  avalanche involvement, head injuries, and spinal injuries. To regular society in a mountain town, any activity that could take up a hospital bed can be seen as an unacceptable risk.

I think we all agree that while nobody wants to require a rescue, it is currently frowned upon to use those services, not to mention the aggressive public shaming from keyboard warriors for every avalanche involvement we’ve seen in the past month. My hometown bike community has coined the phrase “chill the shred, save a bed”, and I think this is applicable to us when skiing in the backcountry becomes an option again with respect to the terrain we are choosing and the way we are skiing it. 

Shredding Lake Louise. Photo by Leonardo DiMaggio.

Stage 4: Depression

An aspect where I see outdoor folks struggling (myself included) is with this notion that our mental health is tied to outdoor pursuits and the outdoor environment. It’s no secret that being outside is good for mental health. Despite the current times, I do believe that doing something outdoors is a priority and it is essential. But it has to look different than what we have become used to. Give your send levels a dose of Valium and keep it chill out there!

Photo by Zoya Lynch.

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to feel helpless about the situation. Recognize when you feel lonely and sad and disconnected. We are human and we feel feelings. But there is a common ground and that common ground is that while we all feel this struggle in our own different ways, we feel it together. Check-in on your friends and don’t be afraid to reach out. Mental health is important. 

Stage 5: Acceptance

I’d been on a roll of skiing for 18 months straight and was aiming for a 100-day season coming out of nursing school. As awesome as these goals are, a lot of our goals in the outdoors are arbitrary. There’s no distinct unit of measure and oftentimes no distinct reward. Ski x number of days, months in a row, number of peaks, vertical feet. At the end of the day, these goals don’t have any particular value or meaning. But these goals motivate us to be better versions of ourselves and give purpose to what we do. The moment these objectives take away from our mountain communities, these same goals are no longer healthy. Not having any goals didn’t seem like a great option so I asked ‘the people’ AKA my Instagram followers, what they were doing to stay busy during social distancing, and what their goals looked like now that we can’t ski. Here are the results:

  • Video games or online games with friends
  • Knitting
  • Baking
  • Reading books
  • Netflix
  • Adult paint by numbers
  • Listen to music and podcasts
  • At home fitness and yoga apps
  • Running
  • Ride your bike
  • Cook new recipes
  • Facetime/Zoom happy hour
  • DIY projects
  • Gardening
  • Call your grandma
  • Take a free online course

Another part of the acceptance piece is testing the waters and being realistic about what things are going to look like when we start to get back out there. It’s going to be different, and it’s not going to go back to the normal we’ve become accustomed to. We’re headed for a new ‘normal’, and I don’t think anyone quite knows what this looks like yet. Like a variable condition snow day, we have to be adaptive. 

Renee in her happy place. Photo by Zoya Lynch.

I value my outdoor community. We are all in this together, and we all feel this struggle. This time has allowed for us to slow down, to think about what really matters, and to be grateful for what we have. It gives our wild spaces a break. We will ski again. It will be epic. Hang in there, Winter 20/21 is going to be where it’s at pals! 

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