“When hell freezes over, I’ll ski there too.” So goes the corny epigram that’s plastered on mugs and T-shirts in Western resort towns from Taos to Telluride. Texas is not quite hell (although it depends on whom you ask), nor has it frozen over (yet, anyway). But I’m still about to ski there.

It’s early February, and I’m perched atop Mt. Aggie, a 130-foot-long man-made ski slope at Texas A&M. It sits in the shadow of that higher peak known as Kyle Field. On this day, across the rest of the state, Texans are worried about an incoming winter storm that might cause the electric grid to fail again. Here, no one wants a prolonged weather event either. But a short freeze? That might be nice. Just a thin layer of ice could coat the hill’s artificial turf—a synthetic product more commonly used in these parts to break the falls of eggs as hens lay them in factory farms—and make skiing down it slightly more like, well, skiing.

Mt. Aggie has existed in some form since 1972, when a health professor concocted the idea of teaching a ski class and was forced to innovate. He borrowed Astroturf from Kyle Field and blanketed a hill in Spence Park. Two decades later, in 1998, Mt. Aggie (or, more precisely, its name and some turf) migrated to its current location, by the university’s tennis courts. Prior generations of Aggie skiers have tested out snow machines on the mountain, but in this weather, on this turf, fake snow isn’t much better than water.  

At almost any other slope, gray clouds in February would promise a powder day. Here it’s sixty degrees. Mike Hanik, a Canadian who came to College Station in the early 2000s to teach kinesiology students how to ski, explains to his 32 students (and me, a guest) atop the hill how to stop on a slope without sliding down it. Access to Mt. Aggie is restricted to students in the class, and many have dressed with the dignity demanded by real downhill skiing, wearing jackets and even knit beanies with pom-poms. Others stick to sweats or boot-cut jeans. I’m in a short tracksuit—skiing, in Texas, after all, is as much a summer sport as a winter one.

More than half of the students have skied on a real slope before, and about 20 percent are seasoned skiers, according to Hanik. The rest are about to experience for the first time the thrill of gliding and, maybe if not the agony of defeat, at least the embarrassment of falling.

At the top of the mountain, I scope out my ski line. I’ve been going out to Colorado and Utah all my life and am confident I can handle the terrain, but hubris has felled even American Olympians. I cannot let this be the slope that tears my ACL, lest I suffer worse problems such as shame or ego death. In some spots the white turf has torn or stretched, like acne scars, and you can see through to the layer of foam beneath, or even the plywood beneath that. I’m a quick study: I decide to avoid those spots.

Eventually, I tilt my weight over 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 down. It’s harder to carve on the turf than on snow—even though it’s been thoroughly hosed down with water, it doesn’t yield as easily to shifts in weight—so I bomb the hill. Five glorious seconds later, I’m at the bottom.

I pop off my skis, trudge up the mountain again, and plan my next run. An aphorism suggests you can’t step in the same river twice; either it’s changed or you have. So, too, might be said of traditional ski slopes; minute shifts in temperature affect the snow cover, other skiers carve moguls into the mountain, and a slightly different line can take you over terrain you might not expect. At Mt. Aggie, you can do the same run ad infinitum. I bomb the mountain again, then a third time. It doesn’t feel like any skiing I’ve done before, but I’m positive I’m doing it well. You might get to Carnegie Hall with practice, practice, practice. You get to Olympic gold with runs like whatever I’m doing.

skiing at Texas A&M
The author stopped mid-slope.Courtesy of Ben Rowen

None of the other skiers seem as impressed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who kept a list of rules when he was serving in President Ford’s cabinet, apparently often offered his staff this admonition: “When you’re skiing, if you’re not falling you’re not trying.” That means I either haven’t been trying or haven’t been skiing. So on my fourth run I start to carve the mountain, testing the seams where strips of turf don’t neatly meet. The surface groans beneath me as I carve, less the swish of a typical snowy mountain and more like radio static. I almost lose my edge on a hockey stop and, like one of those reckless snowboarders who haunt the West, nearly bowl over one of the students downhill. I save myself just in time.

The students are gaining confidence and bombing the hill, too. One, a freshman from Bastrop who goes skiing every year and took the class last semester, gives others advice: they aren’t flipping their hips quick enough on turns, or they are leaning too far downhill. Another, Christian Jaquez, who is from El Paso and hasn’t skied before, tells me if he hits these runs enough he’ll be able to ski in New Mexico next season. Hanik says many first-timers take his class and decide to test real slopes. It’s a natural impulse: as John Muir once wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

There’s nothing else like a mountain, the most insistent of metaphors, to challenge men. In human terms, it’s a symbol of stubbornness. In geological ones, reinvention: Texas’s most impressive range, the Guadalupe Mountains, was a barrier reef 250 million years ago. Unfortunately for Texans seeking inspiration or challenge in the hills, their state’s mountains, though beautiful, aren’t cold or wet enough to sustain skiing. The environmentalist and author Edward Abbey once described the Guadalupe range as “a harsh, dry, bitter place, lonely as a dream.”

So perhaps it’s no surprise that, for decades, Texans have tried to invert John Muir’s words and bring the mountains to them. In the mid-aughts, a group of investors including former U.S. House majority leader Dick Armey announced plans for a $700 million project in Fort Worth to do the seemingly impossible: create a ski mountain in the Great Plains. Called Bearfire Resort, it was set to be a year-round, 650,000-square-foot, open-air mountain covered in artificial snow, accompanied by a six-hundred-room ski lodge. North Texas’s heat was spoken of as a virtue: the destination would give Texans a place to cool down during the summer. But it never came to be: the project was abandoned in September 2008 over a land dispute.

A year later, investors in nearby Grapevine announced they would build the Texas Alps, a 590-foot-long indoor slope. But the project withered away as the economic recession deepened. Five years after that, 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 got total buy-in from city managers, who granted a 100 percent real estate tax abatement for the first seven years of the facility and a 75 percent hotel tax abatement for ten years, and authorized the use of Tax Increment Financing funds (designed for projects in underdeveloped areas) for the project. Defending the proposal against critics who called it quixotic, Grand Prairie mayor Ron Jensen said, “If the economy had not tanked in 2009, we’d be skiing in Grapevine right now.” But in 2015, the developers shocked city officials by withdrawing the project via email.

So for decades, Texans have had to go elsewhere—usually at least one thousand miles away—to ski. Like New Jersey drivers and New York barbecue, Texas skiers have become a metonym for what locals don’t want to encounter on the slopes. “On stormy days, you will often find the Texan huddled in the lodge, complaining about the weather and wondering why Shiner Bock isn’t sold at the bar,” the Denver Post once wrote in a brief ethnography of the Texan skier. They bomb every hill. They take their first après-ski drink, well, avant ski.

But could Texas become a skiing refuge? As temperatures have warmed, the average snow season in the West is now more than a month shorter than it was in the eighties; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that by the end of the century, seasonal snowfall may decline by nearly a third. Heather Hansman, an ex–ski bum and environmental journalist at Outside magazine, writes in her book Powder Days that “psychologists say that the best way to deal with climate grief is to go to the places that restore you, to remind yourself of the tenacity of our connection to land. But that’s extra painful when those spots that are supposed to sustain you can’t hold snow anymore.”

Sometime soon, when we live in an endless summer, the very slopes students who learn at Mt. Aggie dream of skiing will start drying up. Some resorts, particularly in neighboring New Mexico, won’t have enough snow to sustain full seasons and will shutter. Texas, however, carries with it none of the pain of having formerly held snow. As ice-capped peaks disappear and the Great Plains begin to burn, the man-made turf at Mt. Aggie will remain. And in millennia, as other non-man-made mountains fold to the whimsies of tectonic activity, the peak should still persist.

Hansman notes that for centuries skiers have cherished first runs, seeking virgin routes to stake as their own. In the future, they might be more fondly remembering final runs: the last time a mountain trail was skiable. I’ve never been good enough to go backcountry and claim a first run for myself. But I’ll keep one first, for perpetuity: many years later, as I face the wildfire smoke, I’ll remember that distant afternoon when my editor told me to discover an iceless mountain. I’ll recall burning my tongue on my après-ski coffee in a College Station McDonald’s. And, most of all, I’ll recollect the moment when I tried to stop at the bottom of Mt. Aggie and lost my balance on a lip of turf and nearly ate it—like someone learning to ski for the very first time.