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Après-ski: Considering privilege at school and on the slopes - The Metropolitan

In Our December, 2017 Issue:

Après-ski: Considering privilege at school and on the slopes


I’m finally looking down on someone. He stands but a hundred feet below me, panting, sweating, resting on his ski poles. I’m doing the same. We are both following a wide white path cut through the Aspen National Forest, and it’s much harder than we thought it would be.

For the last few days, the people out here have been looking down on me. So for me now to be in their position? It feels good. Really good.

Joel Vaillancourt captured this view from the top of Aspen Highlands in Colorado in March 2017.

I’m at Snowmass, part of the Aspen Resort group which also includes Aspen Highlands and Aspen Mountain. I came out here because the word “Aspen” is synonymous for snobby, rich, better-than-thou. Aspen is a human zoo where the wealthy can be observed in their natural habitat. It’s the American nucleus of money and snow, and I needed to journey into the heart of it.

I spend only an hour in the actual town of Aspen because, frankly, it is just too much. Too fake, too expensive, too aggressive. The small airport’s runway has private jets coming and going constantly, full of rich people much more powerful and important than myself. How I wish I could afford to fly directly into Aspen, rather than Denver International and forgo a three-hour drive with a hoard of other tourists.

Being physically near these people on the streets of Aspen has made me want to head for the mountaintops. I need to just go out and ski and be by myself. I’ve skied a fair number of places across the U.S., and the rich are the same everywhere. At every resort exists a cadre of upper-crust people who are obviously having much more fun than me because they are staying slopeside and eating tapas or fondue or grass-fed elk every night and their kids get private ski lessons and drink Starbucks lattes and can ski better at five years old than I’ll ever be able to. I admit I’m jealous...

... but right now, up on this mountain, I’m above it all. I am in better physical shape than the man below me, and I recover faster at the high altitude. I pull my goggles back down, skate for a few feet, and fly past him. His Arc’teryx jacket and Visa Infinite credit card are nothing now. I’m younger, faster, and more fearless. I leave him in the dust—or snow—to be more accurate.

I float on two skis composed of wood, fiberglass, and metal beneath my feet. Once I reach the bottom, I stop and look back up at the mountain. No sign of the rich guy. I won the race.

Skiing is my favorite thing—much better than any food, place or experience I’ve ever had. I’ve been skiing since I was four years old. I took my first run in 1999 at Giants Ridge in northern Minnesota. My parents never paid for ski lessons, so I had to figure things out for myself. From the start, it has been a supremely private, unpretentious activity for me. It is my space where I can go fast and thrill myself.

Now, in my college years, I take a single week each year to explore a different hill or resort somewhere out west. Colorado seems to win out most of the time. Skiing is my way to de-stress from school. I leave the fall semester behind and don’t think about spring classes. I don’t meditate or do yoga, but I don’t need to. I have my week of skiing.

I spent my freshman year at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, a small town about 150 miles northwest of Denver. Steamboat is nowhere near as snobby as Aspen, but there is certainly that cadre of upper-class people. I come from a middle-class family, but a large portion of my classmates were out-of-state trust fund kids or rich kids who’d grown up in Steamboat. They got to eat out at restaurants in town and drive nice cars while I was stuck eating Sodexo cafeteria food and scraping together three bucks for a gallon of gas. I don’t want to sound too jaded and whiny though. I was lucky enough to spend nine months in a beautiful town and ski my heart out. It just got hard to see peers with so much at their disposal who just take it for granted.

Now I’m back in Minnesota as a student at Metro State. The most beautiful thing about Metro State is the lack of snobbery or class difference; we are all in it together. I may not have the mountains at my doorstep anymore, but I have something I believe is just as good: a welcoming community of learners. When I am snowed under by school work, I take heart that I am surrounded by real people. Middle class, poor, old, young, scientists, writers, social workers—we are all one. I’ll take that over Aspen any day.

Vaillancourt is an Individualized Studies major focusing on reporting, history, political science and sociology. He will graduate in 2019 and plans to pursue a career in journalism and writing.