America's ski areas are full of secrets. Hidden in the woods between ski runs are hundreds of makeshift chalets—humble wooden shacks formed mostly out of downed trees and found wood. Some are as simple as a small A-frame built over a wood platform; others are more elaborate and feature multiple rooms and levels. These chalets hardly ever have a door and are open to anyone who wanders by.
Usually, it's only the stoners that find them.
That changed in early 2014, when these stoner shacks converged with our country's first legal pot sales in Colorado. While most journalists investigated pre-rolled joints in Denver, producers for Inside Edition, that televised tabloid show, went into the mountains for their own exposé. They installed hidden cameras in one of these secret chalets at the Breckenridge Ski Resort, and, much to no one's surprise, they caught snowboarders smoking weed in the multistory shack. "Inside, it's a pot smoker's haven—where we found these skiers sharing a joint!" the reporter breathlessly exclaims in the prime-time video.
The show figuratively blew up the concept of smoking weed and riding (and, after the subsequent controversy, caused the stoner shack in question to be literally blown up).
The story spread around the internet, thanks in part to how incredulous the reporters were about seeing people smoke pot on a mountain. Fox News joined the chorus, reporting that mountain managers were worried families would soon be skiing through a "cannabis cloud" and were trying to get ahead of "what could be a dangerous fad."
But here's the thing: Smoking pot while snowboarding is neither a fad nor particularly dangerous. People have been combining cannabis and snowboarding for as long as snowboards have existed. Pot even played a role in the invention of snowboarding. Those Bellingham stoners who helped pioneer snowboarding at Mount Baker were certainly getting high while they figured out how to ride.
Now, nearly 35 years after joints were first smoked at Mount Baker's Legendary Banked Slalom race, we actually have some scientific evidence to back up why snowboarders like to get high.
Pot's compounds, especially THC and CBD, are some of the strongest natural anti-inflammatory drugs in the world, meaning they help reduce how sore you feel when you do strenuous activities like snowboarding. This sounds like some ridiculous stoner fantasy, but spending time with a joint in a hot tub after a long day of strenuous skiing is actually exactly what the doctor ordered. Pot might not help you jump higher, but it certainly helps reduce how sore you are when you land.
The mental effects of smoking weed can also be helpful while you're still on the slopes. I want to argue that smoking a little weed can help people learn how to snowboard. I want to argue that weed isn't just good for post-snowboarding relief, it can make you a better snowboarder. But my editor on this piece won't let me. He tried to learn to snowboard a few years ago, and he went to the mountains many times over a few months, took classes, etc. Even though he knows how to ski, he never got anything out of trying to learn to snowboard except a bunch of injuries. He now blames all the weed he and his friends smoked before hitting the slopes.
Maybe so. Or maybe he's just an idiot? My thinking is: Beginners almost always struggle with the awkwardness of trying to navigate a steep and slippery slope while both of their feet are firmly attached to a stiff piece of fiberglass. Figuring out how to ride a snowboard is essentially a mental riddle. Since snow is just frozen water, snowboarding is the art of manipulating a flat plane against water.
Thinking about it in a different context may help. Imagine you are standing in a pool while you swing your arm in a circle around your body with your hand flat against the surface of the water. Every slight change in the angle of your palm and fingers results in your hand moving up toward the air or down into the water.
This is the same thing that is happening as your snowboard moves down the mountain, only the water is frozen into snow. Figuring out how you want to solve this riddle, which angle and direction you direct your snowboard's flat plane above the water, is the question that every snowboarder answers moment by moment as they slide down the mountain.
My editor would like to remind you that smoking pot impairs response time, and that even a microsecond matters when barreling down a mountainside on a piece of fiberglass. Nevertheless, for me, smoking pot helps me visualize how this system works. It unlocks more creative ideas for manipulating the snow and more interesting ways to turn. It creates a stronger connection between my mind and the muscles in my body, the material in my snowboard and the snowy medium that I am riding on.
And it helps remind me to enjoy the surreal surroundings of a snowy forest in the Cascade Mountains. It's a weird place to be, and smoking pot makes it even more enjoyable. But maybe my comfort with being high in the mountains is because I'm a good snowboarder and a seasoned stoner.
But I'm not the only person who has found that I ride better when I'm slightly stoned. Some professional snowboarders are also publicly showing their support for cannabis. Pot companies are giving snowboarders sponsorships, and the legal pot company Oregrown even sponsored an entire snowboard movie released this fall.
Canadian Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliati is probably the most famous person to combine pot and snowboarding. He won gold in the snowboarding giant slalom in Tokyo in 1998 when he was 26, but shortly after leaving the podium he was stripped of his title after a drug test showed he had THC in his system. Rebagliati claimed he hadn't smoked pot in 10 months and the test result was from secondhand pot smoke, but the Olympic Committee said they didn't care.
Eventually, the Olympic Committee gave him his medal back after they realized THC wasn't actually on the list of banned substances. But that wasn't until after the world made fun of him—including a ribbing from Jay Leno, who called the snowboarder "Nickel Bag-liati," and joked that "unlike Clinton, you inhaled but didn't smoke."
If only Leno was in on the secret that inhaling pot smoke makes the slopes that much better.