(This story was published in 2003).
By: Mike McGinty
I normally enjoy long, stiff wood. Immensely. But snow skis? Uh uh. After three or four less-than-stellar experiences “tearing up some powder” in my 20s, I had sworn off snow skiing for good. I don’t care how ripped or how blond Scandinavian ski instructors come.
So it was not without a little trepidation that I climbed out of my car and gazed up at the slopes of Dodge Ridge, a small, family ski resort nestled in the Sierras in California. Snow covered the mountains evenly, like puffy layers of gauze bandage wrapped lightly around the immovable terrain. Of course I would think of a metaphor that called up injury and pain. I was going to brave snow skis for the first time in ages. My brain was fucking with me.
I watched as chairlifts rode happy skiers up through the mist, their feet dangling skis and snowboards. I don’t want to go way up there, I thought, as the chairs slowly climbed and disappeared, one by one, into oblivion. Maybe I could put skis on and just ride up and down on the lift, enjoying all the pretty scenery until I found enough nerve to tackle a slope. Stroke of brilliance! Then I noticed the chairs coming down; they were all empty. Either they weren’t allowing spineless wannabes like me to ride back down and wave at all the crazy daredevils below, or no one but me lacked the pride to actually do it.
Stop it, I told myself. You’re here for one reason and one reason alone: to become comfortable on skis. Specifically, to learn how to stop without having to make yourself fall like an epileptic snowman, and to learn how to turn without, well, to learn how to turn period.
It's Canada's Fault
Why put myself through this torture? How did I get the crazy idea to strap instruments of death on my feet and careen down a mountainside dotted with trees – every one a concussion waiting to happen – while getting frostbitten fingers and trailing snot as if I had a can of Silly String up each nostril? Well, like the citizens of South Park, who are rarely wrong about such things, I blame Canada.
More specifically, I blame my Canadian friends, Stephen and Peter, whom I met in Palm Springs. See, that’s part of the Canadian Plan, to meet innocent Americans like me in a warm, sunny place such as Palm Springs, then lull them into a friendship which eventually leads to a deceptively innocent invitation to “come visit!” on their home turf. And we all know that a Canadian’s home turf is a snow-covered mountain.
My first ski trip with Stephen and Peter, to Whistler resort near their Vancouver home, went well. It only took me 2 1/2 hours to get down the mountain on my first run. (“No really, Mike, Black Diamond means ‘easy.’ ”) Those Canadians, what tricksters. But I do give Stephen credit for my highly informative, one-on-one skiing lesson, during which he imparted such helpful gems as: “You just go like this” and “You just shift your weight like this” and the enormously effective “You just zoom down the hill like this.” One can only hope that his innocent fifth-graders get a little more explication when encountering the terrors of fractions and American Literature.
After that disastrous trip, which had the entire gaggle of my Canadian friends (that’s what a group of Canadians friends is called, a gaggle) waiting patiently for me at the bottom of each hill as I snowballed down, I vowed that the next time I skied with these folks I would keep up. Femurs be damned, I would take such a quantum leap forward in skiing ability it would blow their fucking minds. Fast forward another year, and I am indeed invited back to the Great White North. I’ll show them, I huffed. And off I went to learn the ins and outs of suicide.
I say suicide, but I knew that skiing could be fun, as long as I wouldn’t have to be preoccupied with avoiding collisions with everyone else on the slopes. I could actually enjoy the sensation of swooshing through the snow with childhood glee, rather than sheer panic.
The Lesson Begins
I was excited when I showed up at the Dodge Ridge ski school muster point. And nervous. But very, very open to the possibilities. Although, I tried not to think that said possibilities included a broken collarbone, a fractured rib or a dislocated shoulder. I pictured my brother’s knee, scarred from surgery following a skiing mishap years ago. Just do what they tell you, I kept repeating to myself: Don’t be a wimp about it. Point the tips down the hill and you’ll be fine. I muttered a prayer to the Knee God and hoped he heard me.
There were seven of us judged to be at a Level 3 skiing ability that morning. To my mind, “Level 3” simply meant “the ability to blink while standing on skis without falling.” Yeah, I qualified. Barely. Two instructors, Ryan and Gary, neither of who were gorgeous and neither of who were Scandinavian, explained what was in store for us in the next 90 minutes.
“First, we’re going to take you up that rope tow,” Gary said. He pointed to the far end of the hill. The rope tow in question only went halfway up a little hill, and very slowly at that. Nothing I couldn’t handle. I breathed deeply.
“Then,” he continued, “we’ll traverse across that trail up there to Chair Lift 1 and take that up.” I followed his finger as it moved across the mountain and up again, tracing the path of the chair lift. It went up considerably higher. I could see the top, though my breathing suddenly became more on the shallow side. But I had come here to learn, dammit, and learn I would.
I gave Gary my best “no sweat, man” smile, and when he turned around I exchanged my best “what the fuck are we doing? look with Betty, one of my classmates and a housewife from Iowa. At least I wasn’t in this alone. But I wasn’t about to let Betty show me up. I decided she would be eating my dust very soon. I found this thought motivating and moved to the head of the pack, right behind Gary and Ryan, our mother ducks.
Up the rope tow we went. Across the hill we traversed. Up the chair lift we rode. And over my stomach churned. Once at the top, there was really nothing for it but to do what I had promised myself I would: I pointed my tips down the hill, and followed Gary and Ryan down, mimicking their every move. After all, they were the experts in the pretty blue-and-yellow ski outfits of which, on top of their effortless skiing abilities (they were skiing backwards to watch and evaluate us as we came down – backwards!), I was profoundly jealous.
I must have picked up a few pointers from my Canadian friends after all, because this first trip down, a nice, slow descent, was actually pretty easy. No turns, just snow plowing. At the bottom, Gary and Ryan divided the seven of us into two groups. Two went with Gary because they needed more work. The rest of us stayed with Ryan. He called us the “advanced” group, which made us laugh, until Betty lost her balance and dominoed all of us to the ground. That shut us up pretty quick.
Class Takes a Turn
Ryan took us up Chair Lift 1 again. This time, I didn’t feel as if I had two monstrosities attached to my feet. I was beginning to feel comfortable. Halfway down the hill, Ryan stopped the group. “Mike, come over here. The rest of you can go on down and we’ll meet at the bottom.”
“Shit,” I thought. “I’m going to be demoted to Gary’s group. I suck so bad I need remedial ski school. Special Ed for skiers. I hate this!”
“You’re ready for paralleling,” Ryan told me. “This is a really simple technique that will teach you to turn better.”
Paralleling?! Turning?! I’m not being demoted. I’m the Star Pupil! If an avalanche had come at that instant, burying Ryan, Betty, the whole damn resort, and me I would have died happy.
“You start by thumping through the turns like this.” He lifted the back of one ski up and down as he glided diagonally across the hill, like a rabbit warning of impending danger. When he reached the point where he needed to turn, he stomped his leg down and immediately began thumping with his other foot. The effect was an instantaneous and fluid change of direction: a turn! The Holy Grail.
“See?” he said. “As you thump, the tail of your uphill ski comes closer to the tail of your downhill ski and they stay parallel. That’s where you want to be. Now you try.”
I felt like an idiot doing it, especially with all the others watching from the bottom of the hill. How could I possibly remember to thump through the turn, flex my hips, bend my knees, keep my ankles soft, hold my poles up, lift my head, and shift my weight? It was too much! But as that thought entered my mind, Ryan yelled “Switch! Thump with the other ski! Keep thumping!!” I followed his instructions without thinking, and cried out in amazement as I found myself facing the opposite direction I had been just two short thumps ago.
“I did it!” I yelled. “Did you see?!”
“Yeah, that’s the way,” Ryan said. I beamed at him and suddenly, through my happy tears and foggy goggles, he took on all the physical beauty of a Norwegian god.
It had been incredibly easy. So easy, I couldn’t understand why I had had so much trouble turning in the first place. I eased down the hill, smiling and showing off my newfound skill to the others the whole way, and feeling far superior to them until Ryan had to go and spoil all the fun by showing the entire class how to do it. Soon, all of us (except for Betty, who never could get the hang of it) were thumping away like the cast of “Stomp.” Only in goggles.
After the lesson, I hit the slopes on my own and practiced my thumping. My beginner’s lift ticket only allowed me to ride the chairs on the lower part of the mountain, which made me flash back to my childhood, when the cutout clown told me I wasn’t tall enough to go on certain rides. But what did I care? A hill’s a hill when you’re just starting out and before long I was executing the occasional turn without needing to thump at all. Why thump if you can glide?
By the end of the day, not even the obnoxious, pimply-faced teens on their snowboards resting in the middle of the run could upset me. I merely thumped in another direction and skied around them. I could do it now. I wasn’t a helpless projectile careening out of control, poles flailing and eyes wide. I could even stop like Picabo Street in a Chap-Stik commercial. Swoosh!
At dusk, I left the mountain very reluctantly, wanting to keep riding up and thumping down, riding up and thumping down. When I got home, I was so full of joy and adrenaline I couldn’t sleep, even though I was exhausted. My knees throbbed so much, I thought my legs might fall off. I wanted them to. But I had accomplished my goal: I had learned to control myself on skis. It was another athletic achievement that had eluded me my entire life. I felt like a war hero.
Now, when I tell non-skiers about how I learned to love the sport, I encourage them by saying “If I can do it, anybody can.” But I don’t tell them about poor Betty from Iowa. So Betty, honey, if you’re out there, don’t give up! Keep on thumping and remember: Sometimes you can conquer a mountain without going anywhere near its summit.
Mike McGinty is a Clio-award-winning ad copywriter living in San Francisco with a love-hate relationship to sports. His last column for Outsports was on Little League. His work has appeared on Gay.com and in the Noe Valley Voice newspaper. He is a regular contributor to "San Francisco Bride" magazine and this spring will be published in "Naturally" and "Whispers from Heaven" magazines, as well as SiliconMom.com. He much prefers writing personal essays to coming up with ad headlines for hemorrhoid cream.