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Giving Voice to Mountain Culture

The most tangible souvenir of the season might be a gift that's completely invisible - a story

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Kris Kaiyala’s daily commute takes him through a labyrinth of building blocks and Dr. Seuss books. There’s usually a traffic stall at the foosball table, which his 18 month old has developed a recent predilection for, before he can park himself behind the laptop of his Seattle home and begin the day’s work.

The freelance writer and Powder magazine contributor is not only a house-dad, he’s also at the helm of the buzz-generating Aspect Journal (www.aspectjournal.com), an on-line magazine that is making waves in the snow-and-word-loving community.

In the two years since it was launched (making it the middle sibling in Kaiyala’s brood), Aspect has grown from about 10 stories celebrating the essence of mountain culture to nearly 115. Eschewing profiles of the latest bros and boards, Aspect focuses exclusively on grass-roots ski literature, and has published industry scenesters like Leslie Anthony, Mitchell Scott, Tom Bie and Steve Threndyle.

Pemberton’s Dave Steers, whose day job finds him, catalogue in hand, stocking up Whistler-Blackcomb’s retail outlets, is taking a leaf out of Dickens’s book and using the site to publish a chapter-by-chapter murder mystery set on the World Cup circuit in Whistler.

Says Kaiyala, "The content is squarely focused on quality storytelling – the feelings and experiences that skiing and being in the mountains grant us. It was more or less created as an alternative to existing magazines, and mostly for writers – writers who, like me, wished for a blank slate. Aspect publishes the kind of creative writing you won’t normally find on a newsstand. I’ve set the bar very high for Aspect. The really good submissions I publish as I receive them, others I roll up my sleeves for. I want them to shine. I use – sometimes abuse – the term "literature" to describe our content because we’re aiming for something well beyond consumer journalism."

The journal provides a forum for mountain-junkies to strip down to the poetry that snags and holds them, whether physically or psychically, in the mountains. Submissions have come from all over North America and Europe, threaded together by the sense that something happens to us in the mountains, something that takes us deep.

Toronto psychologist and ski pro, Lisa Shatford writes in How to Ski With a Broken Heart:

On this epic blue morning in early December when you feel like you are stealing a secret, you notice once again how the mountain swallows up your knots and opens up your wonder. Winds of psalms gust through your heart. You stand in a jagged stunning cathedral, a life reminder, a check of time, and you feel your best self flying strong.

In Storm Cycle, California-based ski-gear designer, Ron Shevock pedals his way though knee reconstruction rehab and nurses a broken heart.

This morning's rain falls like fists.

Lefts. Rights.

Jabs.

Liquid hammers beating a drunken march on my eardrums.

Uppercuts.

Hooks.

I duck and weave, back into a bruised corner, and dive under the sheets.

Aspect is not just creating a forum for writers to expose their work, but a place to dig deeper into the essence of mountain culture.

One-time Whistler lad, Mitchell Scott, Editor-at-Large to Powder and Bike magazines, edits what may be B.C.’s sacred text of the mountain vibe, Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine. Scott was an early contributor to Aspect. "Any venue for people expressing themselves is positive. What Kris is trying to do and what we’re trying to do with KMC is to articulate the voice of mountain culture."

Scott sees that voice right now as confused, as the culture evolves into something more than just lifestyle, more than just a season of ski-bumming before returning to the real world, more than just a second home and a fantasy to dabble in.

"There’s a whole massive spiritual side of things," says Scott, citing Ptor Spriceniks as emblematic of someone who understands the essence of being a mountain person. "A lot of people are looking for that and it could take them a lifetime to see it."

Scott, who grew up skiing Blackcomb, took a long time to come to terms with his own spiritual self. "I called myself an atheist at school. It was really about being anti-establishment, but it took me a while to realize I do believe in something. Being outside with my friends. Watching the weather patterns. If I’d been able to read some of this sort of stuff earlier, I might have worked it out more quickly."

In a recent piece in Adbusters, David Nicholson-Lord writes of the newly coined "nature-deficit disorder." Up to 93 per cent of Westerners’ lives are now lived indoors. 99 per cent of Americans spend less than one day in a lifetime in conscious sensory contact with nature. As a species, our disconnect with the natural world is getting wider and wider.

No wonder coming to the mountains blows people’s minds.

Nicholson-Lord argues, "We need to reconnect with nature before it connects, terminally, with us. Get a relationship going with a tree. Watch a pile of leaves when the winter wind hits it. Drink fresh snow."

Our reaction when we experience something deep, that moves us, that gives us those glimpses and flashes of insight into something bigger, is to hold on to those moments. To make them tangible in some way. For the tourist, watching the hours of their holiday tick away, this desire turns into shopping sprees for everything from souvenir T-shirts to time-share.

Storyteller Mitchell Scott offers an alternative. "The most tangible thing we can do is have stories," he says.

When we walk away from a powder day, a love affair, a journey, with a story, we don’t feel empty-handed. If we can spend the whole winter telling stories, we go more eagerly into the cave. When we gather around the body of a loved one and share stories about their life, the loss is easier to bear, the stories somehow pad the sharp edge of desolation.

And the chance to share stories, on a chairlift, in the bar, kicking back with a magazine, or scrolling through an on-line forum, about our quest for the perfect line, might really be about our collective fumblings towards the divine. Might, in fact, be our only hope.