North of Reykjavik, battling a snowstorm, Leslie Anthony and his photographer arrive at a fishing village to meet two men who want to build a year-round ski resort on a glacier-sheathed volcano. They're offered evidence, maps, charts and photos, "the latter revealing strange shapes and peculiar, unnaturally hued light. … Sovar and Arri handled them like religious icons, speaking of the mountain in reverential terms."
The skiing is good, and so is the adventure. Anthony, a veteran ski journalist based in Whistler, B.C., presents a tour of the world in White Planet, the unlikeliest or most-distant snow destinations: Mexico, Lebanon, Iceland. It's the frame for a lively history of skiing over the past several decades, a blend of travel and sport memoir.
He begins in Toronto's Don Valley, on a tiny city hill as a child, first day on skis - "We had fun," Anthony tells his mom - and concludes in Switzerland, speaking with an old veteran of the sport, who answers the question why with: "Because it's fun."
White Planet is a fun read, a light tone meant to channel some of the rollicking spirit imbued in the sport and many of its oddballs/daredevils. The book's appeal is likely greatest for adherents of the sport, though there is definitely enough zest to carry interested non-skiers along. Anthony has navigated specialist niche territory before. The PhD zoologist's first book, Snakebit, published two years ago, explored the planet of amphibians and snakes, in and out of labs, through swamps, jungles and deserts.
In White Planet, as Anthony details the evolution of skiing and skiing culture, the theme goes beyond fun. There are regular religious evocations: baptism, evangelical, convert, prayer. Indeed, it seems the great beauty of mountains and their extremes often evokes a sense of God.
Death is a spectre that floats above, and below, a perfect powder run. With stories of the rise of twin-tip fat skis and X Games, the lives and deaths of revered stars such as Trevor Petersen and Shane McConkey colour some of White Planet's pages. Up close, avalanches are skirted in several scenes and in another, in Japan, one man is swept under and battered by a cataclysm of snow: "punctured lung, 24 skull fractures, and had to have his scalp and chin sewn back on. He looks great now and you'd never know."
Anthony returned to the scene with a different friend years later, to exorcise it. The dead are buried in snow, the living push on. After the delight of a deep-snow run, Anthony echoes the ever-percolating taste of addiction that threads through all his stories. "Powder was the sweet we all craved, and Japan was a giant confectionery."
David Ebner is The Globe and Mail's national correspondent in Vancouver.