I went skiing in Texas – Texas Monthly
“When hell freezes over, I’ll ski there too.” So goes the corny epigram that’s plastered on mugs and T-shirts at western resorts from Taos to Telluride. Texas isn’t quite hell (although that depends on who you ask), nor has it frozen (yet, anyway). But I’m still about to ski there.
It’s early February and I’m perched on top of Mount Aggie, a 130-foot-long man-made ski run at Texas A&M. It sits in the shadow of that higher peak known as Kyle Field. That day, across the rest of the state, Texans are worried about an impending winter storm that could cause another power grid outage. Here, no one wants a prolonged weather event either. But a short freeze? It could be nice. Just a thin layer of ice could cover the hill’s artificial turf – a synthetic product more commonly used in these areas to break up egg scraps when hens lay them on factory farms – and make skiing a bit more like, well, skiing.
Mt. Aggie has been around in one form or another since 1972, when a health teacher concocted the idea of teaching a ski lesson and was forced to innovate. He borrowed Astroturf from Kyle Field and covered a hill at Spence Park. Two decades later, in 1998, Mt. Aggie (or, more accurately, its name and turf) migrated to its current location near the university’s tennis courts. Previous generations of Aggie skiers have tested snow machines on the mountain, but in this weather, on this turf, fake snow isn’t much better than water.
On almost all other slopes, gray clouds in February would promise a powder day. It’s sixty degrees here. Mike Hanik, a Canadian who came to College Station in the early 2000s to teach kinesiology students how to ski, instructs his 32 students (and me, a guest) from the top of the hill on how to stop on a slope without slipping . Access to Mt. Aggie is limited to students in the class, and many dressed with the dignity that true downhill skiing demands, wearing jackets and even knitted hats with pom poms. Others stick to hoodies or bootcut jeans. I’m in a short tracksuit – skiing, in Texas, after all, is as much a summer sport as a winter sport.
More than half of the students have skied on a real piste before and about 20% are seasoned skiers, according to Hanik. The others are about to experience for the first time the gliding thrill and, maybe if not the agony of defeatat least the embarrassment of falling.
At the top of the mountain, I extend my ski line. I’ve been to Colorado and Utah all my life and I’m confident I can handle the terrain, but the pride shot down even the american olympians. I can’t let this be the slope that tears my ACL, lest I suffer worse issues such as shame or ego death. In places the white turf has torn or stretched, like acne scars, and you can see through the layer of moss underneath, or even the plywood underneath. I’m a quick study: I decide to avoid these spots.
Eventually I lean my weight onto a lip at the top of the mountain and begin to fall forward. Soon the front parts of my skis catch the slope and I start to slide downhill. It’s harder to trim on turf than on snow – even if it’s been carefully sprinkled with water, it doesn’t give in to weight changes as easily – so I bomb the hill. Five glorious seconds later, I’m at the bottom.
I take off my skis, plod up the mountain and plan my next run. An aphorism suggests that you cannot step into the same river twice; either he changed or you did. The same could be said of traditional ski slopes; minute temperature changes affect snow cover, other skiers carve bumps in the mountain, and a slightly different line can take you into terrain you might not expect. At Mt. Aggie, you can do the same run endlessly. I bomb the mountain again, then a third time. I don’t feel like I’ve skied before, but I’m sure I do it well. You could get to Carnegie Hall with practice, practice, practice. You get Olympic gold with races like everything I do.
None of the other skiers seem so impressed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who kept a list of rules while serving in President Ford’s cabinet, apparently often offered his staff this warning: “When you ski, if you don’t fall, you don’t try not.” It means either I didn’t try or I didn’t ski. So, on my fourth run, I begin to carve the mountain, testing the seams where the turf strips don’t meet perfectly. The surface moans beneath me as I carve, less the rustle of a typical snow-capped mountain and more like a static radio. I nearly lost my edge during a hockey stoppage and, like one of those reckless snowboarders that haunt the West, I nearly knocked over one of the downhill students. I escape just in time.
The students gain confidence and bomb the hill too. One of them, a freshman from Bastrop who goes skiing every year and took the course last semester, gives advice to the others: they don’t turn their hips fast enough in the turns or they lean too downhill. Another, Christian Jaquez, who’s from El Paso and has never skied before, tells me that if he gets to those runs enough, he’ll be able to ski in New Mexico next season. Hanik says many beginners follow his class and decide to try real slopes. It’s a natural impulse: as John Muir once wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
There is nothing else like a mountain, the most insistent of metaphors, to challenge men. In human terms, it is a symbol of stubbornness. In the geological field, reinvention: the most impressive mountain range in Texas, the Guadalupe Mountains, was a coral reef 250 million years ago. Unfortunately for Texans seeking inspiration or a challenge in the hills, their state’s mountains, while beautiful, aren’t cold or wet enough to sustain skiing. Ecologist and author Edward Abbey once described the Guadalupe Range as “a harsh, dry, bitter place, lonely as a dream.”
So it’s perhaps no surprise that, for decades, Texans have tried to reverse John Muir’s words and bring the mountains to them. In the mid-2000s, a group of investors, including former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, announced plans for a $700 million project in Fort Worth to complete the impossible: create a ski mountain in the Great Plains. Called Bearfire Resort, it was to be a 650,000-square-foot outdoor mountain covered in artificial snow year-round, complete with a six-hundred-room ski lodge. The heat of North Texas was considered a virtue: the destination would give Texans a place to cool off during the summer. But that never materialized: the project was discontinued September 2008 around a land dispute.
A year later, nearby Grapevine investors announced they would build the Texas Alps, a 590-foot-long indoor track. But the project withered as the economic downturn deepened. Five years later, Grand Alps Resort DFW announced plans to build a $140 million indoor mountain and $75 million hotel in Grand Prairie, twenty miles away. The group obtained the full support of the city managers, who granted a 100% abatement of the property tax during the first seven years of the installation and a 75% abatement of the hotel tax for ten years, and have authorized the use of tax increase financing funds (designed for projects in underdeveloped areas) for the project. Defending the proposal against critics who called it chimerical, Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen said, “If the economy hadn’t stagnated in 2009, we’d be skiing Grapevine right now.” But in 2015, developers shocked city officials by pulling the project over an email.
So, for decades, Texans had to go somewhere else — usually at least a thousand miles away — to ski. Like New Jersey pilots and New York barbecue, Texas skiers have become the metonym for what locals don’t want to encounter on the slopes. “On stormy days, you’ll often find the Texan huddled in the lodge, complaining about the weather and wondering why Shiner Bock isn’t sold at the bar,” said the Denver Post wrote once in a brief ethnography of the Texan skier. They bombard every hill. They take their first après-ski aperitif, well, before ski.
But could Texas become a haven for skiing? With warming temperatures, the average snow season in the West is now a month shorter than it was in the 1980s; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that by the end of the century, seasonal snowfall could decrease by almost a third. Heather Hansman, ex–ski bum and environmental journalist at Out magazine, written in his book Powder days that “psychologists say the best way to deal with climatic grief is to go to the places that restore you, to remind you of the tenacity of our connection to the earth. But it’s even more painful when those spots that are supposed to support you can no longer hold the snow.
Soon, as we live in an endless summer, students learning to ski at Mt. Aggie will begin to dry up. Some resorts, especially in neighboring New Mexico, will not have enough snow to sustain full seasons and will close. Texas, however, carries none of the pain of once holding snow. As the ice-capped peaks disappear and the Great Plains begin to burn, Mount Aggie’s artificial turf will remain. And millennia from now, as other unman-made mountains bend to the vagaries of tectonic activity, the peak is still expected to persist.
Hansman notes that for centuries, skiers have cherished the first runs, seeking pristine routes to make their own. In the future, they may remember the final descents more fondly: the last time a mountain trail was skiable. I was never good enough to go out into the backcountry and claim a first race for myself. But first I will keep one, in perpetuity: many years later, faced with the smoke of a forest fire, I will remember that distant afternoon when my editor told me to discover a mountain without ice. I will remember burning my tongue with my après-ski coffee at a McDonald’s in College Station. And, most importantly, I’ll remember the time I tried to stop at the base of Mount Aggie and lost my balance on a lip of grass and almost ate it, like someone learning to skiing for the very first time.