I’ve never been to these mountains. It’s day two of a solid snowstorm and the sky has been exactly the same color as the ground all morning. I’ve been following a group of seven skiers, half of whom I just met, skinning across a glacier to the top of this peak. My hood is up, my face scrunched against the blowing snow and I feel - at ease. Months of work, home, and relationship stresses that have been sitting heavy seem so far away. I take a deep breath. This is exactly where I should be.
Craig Anderson, a researcher at UC San Francisco who studies positive psychology, has a name for this experience: awe. “We feel awe in the presence of vastness, of things that we can’t really wrap our minds around for the moment,” says Anderson. “Nature is really good at making us experience that.” His research backs up what keeps us mountain people coming back for more: that the sense of ease during a snowstorm in the mountains is exactly what awe-inspiring moments in nature often do.
It’s good to remember that.
Here in Jackson, in the shadow of the Teton range, snow starts to fall in mid-October; you can count on it melting out of the mountains by July. Winter is long.
Sometime in early January, questions like, “Got spring break plans?” sneak their way into everyday conversation. This adventure town feeds off the stoke of adventure plans, but these questions carry deeper meaning in the midst of winter’s dark months. The questions that go unsaid sound more like: What are you doing to refresh? How are you taking care of yourself?
These are questions to be taken seriously. Teton County School District takes a two-week spring break. The message is: leave; go find some sun. As a school counselor at the high school, this is the time to get away.
Back in October, fueled by the novelty of early snowstorms, three friends and I solidified our own spring break plans: we’d drive further north toward more snow at the end of March for a seven-day ski tour. We were promised 5,000 vertical feet of guided skiing each day in the Selkirk Mountain Range of British Columbia. More snow and more skiing - is this the stuff rejuvenating vacations are made of?
But Anderson would back me up here. His research analyzes stress levels in students and veterans before and after a white-water rafting trip. More than any other emotion, the experience of awe was the best predictor of positive change in stress-related symptoms later on. More than warmth and sun he would say, awe is the active ingredient that explains why nature is good for people.
And so we went.
For seven days, a guide set trail for us across glaciers, around crevasses, and up mountain ridges. We followed close behind, down wide-open snow fields and down steep couloirs, surrounded by arguably the most magnificent mountains in the world. Back at the chalet, our home base, a full-time chef laid out every meal and my only responsibility was to be on my skis by 8:00 each morning. After a week of skiing deep powder in British Columbia I returned to Jackson refreshed and ready for the last long weeks of winter.
Still, if it’s awe that we are looking for, it’s something we can experience in many settings: standing among mountains that are unfamiliar, or being so close to the edge of your comfort zone that you are forced to give in, or being removed from all responsibility so you can’t help but relax. But Anderson says you don’t have to seek out “extravagant, extraordinary experiences to feel awe or get benefits. By taking a few minutes to enjoy flowers that are blooming or sunset in your day-to-day life, you also improve your well-being.” Ultimately, there’s much to be said for the common experience we can find through being inspired by our natural surroundings - and knowing that when we need to let go, find that sense of ease, or take care of ourselves, nature, wherever we find it, is really good at helping us do that.