You must have been there. It's the moment when you're riding powder and the world you had known that very morning completely evaporates. Cutting through the snow, gliding along the surface of the mountain, between the trees, under the sky, with the snow and the wind blowing all around. It's new. It's beautiful. It's almost spiritual, you might say.
Neil Elliot will tell you that it's absolutely spiritual - for this Anglican minister has earned the world's first PhD in snowboarding, with a thesis focusing on the spirituality of the sport.
Elliot, a minister at St. Andrew's Anglican Church in Trail, B.C., began riding about 15 years ago - right around the time he became a priest.
"I got hit by the bug really bad," he says. "I found on a news group people talking about soulriding and having some kind of transcendent experience while they were snowboarding and I realized that it was something that I had had, but I hadn't realized that I had until people started talking about it."
Soulriding is part of the snowboarding vernacular but Elliot says it isn't a particularly well-used term. He became obsessed with it, and having been caught by that bug while living in the flatlands of Birmingham, England, he found an excuse to take some time off and head to the mountains.
"I thought this was the perfect thing for me to investigate as a PhD, also because it seemed to talk about spirituality in contemporary society, which as a religious professional, is a big deal for us," he said.
"What's going on with religion? Is there a future? Personally, for me as a priest, has my job got a future or should I go find something else to do pretty quick?"
He interviewed 35 snowboarders from Canada and the U.K. for his project. In the course of his research, Elliot found that in the academic discipline of sociology of religion there was a key debate about what people mean when they say that they are spiritual but not religious. This study was able to tackle that issue by looking at the spiritual components of an activity that might otherwise be scoffed at in theological circles.
"There are a lot of people who are getting something spiritual out of snowboarding," Elliot says. "One take on it is that there are people who are doing it purely for snowboarding itself. They're not doing it for any other reason. There are soulriders and there are tech riders, and the difference between them is that tech riders go to the mountains to snowboard and soulriders snowboard to go to the mountains."
He says that the more that he comes to understand the spiritual elements of snowboarding and religion, the more he comes to understand how similar they really are. They are simply two avenues of getting there, like musical performance or meditation, to reaching that spiritual otherworld.
"What people said to me in my interviews is that this is about spirituality but this is not about God. It's not about structure, it's not about all of that kind of stuff," he says.
"The experience of really getting into worship in a deep way, or riding in a deep way, is very similar."
In his thesis, he argues that the experiential side is merely one of three dimensions of spirituality, which also includes the exterior dimension - an awareness of nature, of death and a feeling of escape and freedom from the confines of regular life - and identity.
This extends beyond snowboarding and there are other avenues where people can gain that same experience, whether it be through music or meditation or religion or dance. Snowboarding is just one avenue for this, albeit a very effective one.
"I think that snowboarding has a particular and very special set of elements that make it much more possible probably than most sports for us to get that spiritual experience," said Elliot.
"We're in nature, first thing. The flow in snowboarding is huge, and not just the turning but also the way we're turning."
He adds, "There's purity about what you're doing. You're there to be in the mountains, to be in the moment snowboarding."