Tao Te TJ
An Interview with TJ David:
Describe: skier. When you ask this east coast born, exclusively plant eating, human powered human, TJ David will not only answer, he’ll elucidate. He’ll not only partake, he’ll philosophize. He is as descriptive, and as thoughtful with his language, as he is adept at finding pow stashes, and these introspective meditations extend to his attitude on the mountain, his past, and what it means to be a skier.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally in whatever way they like.” Lao Tzu (from his work: Tao Te Ching)
On the ground, TJ sounds almost Taoist in approach:
“I never force the moment, rather, I try to let it evolve. In turn, I evolve alongside it: through a readiness to adapt to changing conditions, through an awareness of my partners’ own interpretations of experience (separate from my own), as well as through a keen self-awareness that allows me to pull back should I find myself out of sync with the moment, with nature, or with the mountain.”
TJ was born in New Jersey — a bit farther south than the usual east coast ski meccas — and as a result began adapting for his sport at a young age. He spent his youth in migration, to that bucolic land of rolling green hills, occasionally variable conditions, slightly brutal weather, and snow accumulations that accumulate on their own damn time: Vermont. It was here that his ability to evolve with his environment found its genesis.
In his teens, TJ’s skiing home was Sugarbush. Here he developed a love for the mountains through the gentle slopes of Lincoln and Ellen, with the occasional organ grinding bump run thrown in. As he grew, he moved south to Killington, a more convenient commute from Skidmore College in upstate New York (where he was also a varsity athlete on the tennis court). Now, Vermont may not boast the most powder days on the planet, but the lack of bluebird skies and champagne freshness do not leave Vermont bred skiers wanting. Rather, these factors give way to strong fundamentals, solid technique, and dynamic creativity. TJ is a product of this frozen learning curve. But it wasn’t the racers that drew his gaze.
“It was from freestyle and mogul skiers that I began to draw my early style.” TJ looked to these skiers as the best on the mountain, with what he saw as flawless technique as they adjusted their skiing to the variable terrain around them. “My friends and I always tried to emulate them…and our goal was simple: get faster and quicker in the zipper lines.” Yet as any skiing obsessed young person knows, steeps and more challenging objectives seem to always beckon. “When I was 18, it was a big deal to ski Mount Washington. Getting above treeline in the east is rare, so on Tuckerman and Huntington we could really hone in our skills.”
The love of the mountains was a family affair. TJ’s parents, avid skiers in their own right reveled in sharing their love for mountain worlds beyond the northeast with their young son. By the time he graduated college, TJ had a solid chunk of big mountain ski experience under his belt. With an eye to further acquaint himself with the steeper ranges he met in his youth, TJ headed west. He landed in Alta, where he spent a season traversing Powder Capital USA with several friends from college. But as the snows receded, he faced a trying decision: go to law school, or continue on a path of skiing… TJ found himself in Aspen a few years later.
It’s now been seven years since arriving in Aspen, and TJ’s love of progress and challenge has only heightened. In the beginning, it was the Elks and the San Juans that served as his primary points of study. He reveled in this new frontier of dynamic mountain puzzles that combined greater exposure with more sustained vert and complex terrain. He found he loved going uphill. Nowadays, while he still recognizes the ranges of western US as problems to be solved, his sites have shifted north to Alaska, and across the pond to the French Alps to find his new peaks, bigger lines, and more challenging descents.
But as way leads on to way, larger projects necessitate greater awareness, and a heightened ability to make the no-go call. “This” TJ says, “has been the most difficult part. To have the awareness when the moment isn’t right. To know when it’s time to go home. To never allow your ego to force a decision, and to leave the objective for another day. It’s simple. When we force, we make mistakes.”
Despite the inherent risks — and narrow margin for error — of steep skiing, for TJ the heightened levels of consequence are matched with a heightened level of understanding.
“Few other activities naturally place you so directly in the present moment, while allowing you to maintain an ungrasped awareness of possible future outcomes. The skier, without even realizing it, has a mind that acts like a mirror. The skier’s mind doesn’t refuse what it sees. It simply can’t. The skiers mind also doesn’t ignore what a mistake might mean, but rather works to not grasp onto prospective future outcomes. Instead, as the image in the mirror morphs, the skier’s mind evolves with it. And when everything is in sync, and the skier is focused solely on the moment, in the flow of events as they unfold, the natural byproduct is better performance. You’re not letting your mind dictate to you what is possible or impossible, you let your actions do it by being completely there, in the now.”
TJ continues: “I think this is why we often see so many new skiers and snowboarders excelling so quickly with the basic fundamentals of how to ride. They are just enjoying a day on the hill.” Contentedly focused on the task at hand, adjusting where need be, with a smile on their face whether they are trekking up to Aspen’s Highland Bowl, or on the bunny slopes of Sugarbush.
A taoist approach indeed.
Words and editing by Christian Johansen