Papa Hemingway (2nd from left) wants nothing to do with your ski "resort," sir!
In recent history, the term “resort” has come to describe more and more of the places where we ski and snowboard. Where ski areas, ski hills, and mountains once appropriately presented the snow sliding experience as a relatively bare-bones and self-determined adventure in the hardy climes of nature’s winter, marketing departments, possible due to stagnating visitation, have sought to rebrand their facilities as resorts, giving potential visitors the mind’s eye image of being pampered at a spa or having all of their cares and wants massaged by the fingertips of an army of wait staff intent on delivering them to a specific parking spot, ferrying them merrily to a station where bright-cheeked men with a strange resemblance to Santa Claus buckle their boots for them, and delivering a Bloody Mary at the snap of a finger a la Sandals Saint Lucia.
In an unfamiliar past, you would ski at "ski areas" like New Hampshire's Wildcat Mountain, pictured here. They hadn't even invented lift tower pads yet, or even hats!
This coddling term does an embarrassing disservice to the core ski and snowboard population, who seek the sport for the thrill of its self-directed adventure when they’re not enduring harrowing drives through blizzards, stamping their feet to avoid frostbite, or throwing on braces to secure blown-out knees in order to do it. Not to mention that it’s simply inaccurate. After all, what does a trip to Disney World have to do with the experience Ermest Hemingway described in one of his early writings about skiing?
“The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped. It could not go farther, the snow drifted solidly across the track. The gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain had swept the snow surface into a wind-board crust. Nick, waxing his skis in the baggage car, pushed his boots into the toe irons and shut the clamp tight. He jumped from the car sideways on to the hard wind-board, made a jump turn, and crouching and trailing his sticks slipped in a rush down the slope.
On the white below George dipped and rose and dipped out of sight. The rush and the sudden swoop as he dropped down a steep undulation in the mountainside plucked Nick’s mind out and left him only the wonderful flying, dropping sensation in his body. He rose to a slight up-run and then the snow seemed to drop out from under him as he went down, down, faster and faster in a rush down the last, long steep slope. Crouching so he was almost sitting back on his skis, trying to keep the center of gravity low, the snow driving like a sandstorm, he knew the pace was too much. But he held it. He would not let go and spill. Then a patch of soft snow, left in a hollow by the wind, spilled him and he went over and over in a clashing of skis, feeling like a shot rabbit, then stuck, his legs crossed, his skis sticking straight up and his nose and ears jammed full of snow. George stood a little farther down the slope, knocking the snow from his wind jacket with big slaps.”
-An excerpt from Ernest Hemingway,'s "Cross Country Snow," circa 1924
A BRIEF ETYMOLOGY & HISTORY OF THE “RESORT”
The concept of the resort arose not with the introduction of Vail Village and its attempted resemblance to a town in the Bavarian Alps, but rather to history’s most infamously self-indulgent society, the Romans. The emperors began building public bathing facilities that provided leisure opportunities for both the men and women of the time, but which grew to include secondary attractions and services such as gyms, libraries, stores, taverns, and theaters.
Indulge, ye, in history's first proto-resort! Emmanuel's Oberhausen's "The Roman Baths." Date unknown.
After Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by a Germanic chieftain—which marked the start of the empire’s decline the interest in resorts began to wane until the Belgians rallied around the concept a thousand years later. The town of Spa took up the cause, hawking the healing powers of the town’s iron-rich waters to anyone willing to hang up his woolen smock and go for a dip. King Charles II birthed the resort industry in Britain, then soon after the Swiss figured out that they could entice wealthy denizens of the era’s coal and smog-choked cities to spend their summer in the clean mountain air of the Alps, where they’d feast on rösti while enjoying the spectacular views of the mountains.
By the time the resort concept made its way to the Adirondacks and the beaches of North America in the 19th century, the use of the word had peaked, cementing its meaning as “a self-contained commercial establishment which attempts to provide for most of a vacationer's wants while remaining on the premises, such as food, drink, lodging, sports, entertainment, and shopping.”
A brochure for Vermont's Magic Mountain circa the 1960's. Note emphasis on "skiing pleasure."
Before resortism entered the collective conscience of the ski industry, there were ski areas, which, like most of the recreational facilities in Forest Service land, were bare-bones, offering little more than a means of arriving at the top of a mountain, some organized trails, and a bunch of picnic tables to help you further enjoy your cheese sandwich. While Swiss resorts might have kept you in the peace and calm of the valley while enjoying the scenery, these ski areas forced you to go all the way to the top, further exposing yourself to the dreadful elements of winter. The ski resort and its corresponding base village—which Resorting to Madness’s Hunter Sykes refers to as a “land-locked cruise ship”—is a more recent phenomenon brought on by the stagnant income from lift tickets and business folk who saw opportunity in skiing’s quiet and underdeveloped ski area model. The resort focuses heavily on the short-term sale of surrounding real estate and the availability of gourmet restaurants that can also accommodate casual attire and screaming children.
THE SKI RESORT AS OXYMORON
We LOVE Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, but it doesn't bear resemblance to any Club Med I've been to...
Of course, the ski industry has had to undergo some slick marketing efforts in order to adopt the term without a sense of irony, as the guests of ski resorts must confront a reality that guests of other “resorts” typically hope to avoid—including the opportunity to incur extraordinary physical injury or even death. Disney World—the holy grail of the resort model—is able to provide a diversity of experiences for its guests and accommodate their every need. Disney does this all while assuming guests have no abilities beyond eating and lifting a finger to pay the check. Well, then again perhaps Disney does expect guests to do slightly more. After all, it offers bottled water for $17 in order to help guests stave off the heat exhaustion incurred after walking two blocks in the nasty humidity of inland Florida.
For comparison study, please regard this jovial Sandals Resorts commerical. Note differences in your blue test book.
Meanwhile, ski "resorts" must compete to provide a similar experience for their guests, who are expected to but not often capable of negotiating giant mountains littered with trees, rocks, mixed snow conditions, ice, and other similarly negligent guests. These guests must dodge these obstacles without killing themselves or others in order to produce an experience that has no connection to the meaning of the French word’s root: “remedy.” More often than not, less physically agile guests—along with formerly physically agile guests who are now out of shape loafs thanks to years of child-rearing in between daylight hours chained to a desk—succumb to exhaustion, and then injury at said resorts, requiring an entirely different remedy to relieve their pain. I was awfully confused in my own experience with one of these ski "resorts" this very winter. Anticipating chairlift massages and friendly Jamaicans handing out cocktails with white gloves, I instead suffered a birch tree to the chest.
In order to avoid the contradiction in terms, it’s apparent that ski areas need to divvy up their two business lines more distinctly. The “resort” may appropriately refer to the various facilities at the base of the mountain, such as the restaurants to fatten guests up, the bars to get them drunk, the hot tubs to dehydrate them further, and the corresponding hotels in which they pass out in all their clothes due to the effects of exhaustion, dehydration, and altitude. These could all be appropriately considered to be remedies for the effect of the “mountain” or “ski area,” which man-handles its guests with a physically demanding, freezing cold, disorienting, and otherwise tumultuous experience that afterwards requires recovery, thus employing the healing services of “the resort.”
Play your cards right, ski "resorts," and ski bums like Timmy Dutton may yet be in want of your lodging services.
The effort would also be a small if only symbolic nod to the locals, who must suffer the indignity of having based their entire lives as dirtbag amateur athletes around shredding the hell out of one of these “resorts.” While climbers get “peaks” and surfers get “breaks,” skiers and snowboarders are maligned with having their venue of passion be associated with a Club Med. Can we get a little understanding over here?