I grew up in the South and didn’t make it up to a real ski mountain (Crystal, in Washington) until my freshman year in college. But in a way that late start was a gift. Falling in love almost immediately, I started making up for lost time by moving west, working at a ski resort, and getting used to 40+ days on the slopes (that’s more like it!). Whole seasons of riding.

This had a deep effect on my life. Over the past 15 years I’ve lived in different places (the Front Range, Seattle, Patagonia), all of which had their own entry points to otherworldly realms.

As with everything else that gives profound access to a certain part of the world (surfing, paddling), being on the mountain becomes less a “sport” than a way of life. Although it starts with the body, the muscles, the clumsy motions you make learning to turn, what you learn to exercise the most on the mountain (or in the river, the ocean) is your mind. When you get good enough, you see lines, openings, possibilities where other people only see “scenery.” And this is perhaps the ultimate life lesson of those days you spend on the hill — you build a relationship, an appreciation for the place itself.

Whether you’re considering bringing your family to a ski area or you’ve already raised a pack of rippers, here are some life lessons from the hill — both philosophical and practical.

1. Start early.

This lesson permeates every level:

  • Start learning early: You’ll be further along your progression at a younger age.
  • Start your day early: You’ll get the best conditions, the untracked pow.
  • Start your turns early: Initiate your turns way ahead of when you think you need to. The steeper the terrain, the earlier you need to start.
2. Give respect, get respect.

Q: Who is the the best rider on the mountain?
A: The one having the most fun.

People who are aware — aware of their abilities, aware of the conditions, aware of other riders / skiers on the hill — are the ones who give and get respect. The ones who are stoked. Riding terrain beyond your ability, or flailing, bulldozing big swaths of pow, getting in the way of other riders — this is how you lose respect on the mountain, and in life. More on this below.

3. The greatest playground is outside.

It’s weird speaking from this side of the generation gap, but as a kid in the ’80s and ’90s we were always outside. After school it was neighborhood BMX bikes or skateboarding or hoops or soccer. This still seems the case when I travel in Latin America, but somehow it’s changed here in the US. Where are all the kids? Everyone stays inside.

Being on the mountain, with the endless ramps and berms and waves and glades, being able to carve turns through that realm, to float above it on lifts — it’s a pretty rad playground. Feeling your legs burning, your fitness level tested, your breathing pushed to the limit…a good day on the mountain teaches your kids that being outside all day doing something super fun makes you strong, healthy. It makes you feel incredible. Compare that with how you feel after five hours of looking at a screen.

Burton: Learn to Ride

Photo courtesy of Burton: Learn to Ride

4. You don’t just wake up good at something.

And speaking of screens, kids growing up right now are used to immediacy. Every conceivable piece of information or music / movie / TV / media selection is instantly available via the internet. There’s also just the good old cultural conditioning we’ve grown up with here in the US that says to get things done NOW.

The mountain offers a different lesson. It rewards patience. Not just an external — “dang I wish this lift-line would move faster” — patience, but the internal patience that underpins your progression as a skier or snowboarder. Your kids may be fast learners. Or they may get frustrated easily. Either way, help them understand that their time on the mountain is its own reward. No fall is wasted — that’s how you get better. You don’t wake up good at it. You have to pay your dues.

5. Certain things you can’t fake.

Whether it’s a peeling ocean wave or a snowy glade, water is a perfect mirror. It reveals your exact level of skills and control. It shows to the exact degree whether you’re riding something beyond your ability. It reflects your timidity or aggression, your creative potential with the terrain and conditions.

And what’s especially cool about the mountain is that for a brief while, you leave a record of all this for everyone to see — your lines there on the snow. As you ride back up the lift, you can see exactly the arc of your turns, the places where you sprayed powder, or aired over a gap. The places you faceplanted. The lesson: Own your progression. Ride the terrain that you can style before moving on to a situation where you’re out of control. The mountain will always call your bluff. Life tends to be the same way, right?

6. Your lines only last a second.

The whole reason it’s cool to see your lines serpentining down the slope is that they’re impermanent. Within a few days they’ll be snowed over or slashed to pieces by a thousand other riders. And eventually they’ll all join the same rushing meltwater that if you’re lucky you’ll be paddling / surfing in your kayak!

The lesson is to be spontaneous. To go for it. While learning on mountain (and in life) seems to reward patience and control — well thought- and planned-out lines — the true breakthrough moments come when we make unexpected spontaneous moves.

7. Appreciate the good days and places.

So much of our attention gets sucked up by our workdays, our routines. Think it’s any different for our kids? How many hours a day do they sit at desks? How many of their potential adventures go unrealized each season?

Our lives tend to become so insulated that we forget the world is a big and very rad place. Just the scale of the ridge as you approach has an effect. As does the ceremony of getting the gear together, of checking conditions, of looking at the trail map, of talking about the runs and lines. The whole process of moving out of the normal everyday routine to a day on the mountain can be a massively important lessons to your kids that, every now and then, you have to hit the reset button. To appreciate being out there as much as you can.