I went skiing with my wife and two kids––eight and six. Only my wife had gone skiing before. So of course, it was a great idea for us to skip ski lessons. Because that makes sense. My wife had skied plenty of times before, so she would teach all of us together.
My anxiety started the night before. Then it continued through the morning drive up the mountain and grew worse as the day progressed. Having never skied before, I didn't know what to expect. Normally it's the fear of the unknown that is the worst part. In this case, when I got more details as to what we were up against, the fear was made worse.
The first fear of the day was reserved for public shame as I put on the rental helmet. They make sure the rental gear is anything but fashionable, to make you have to shell out more money to buy the normal looking stuff. And the helmets are huge. It's like the normal ski helmets are made of strong, resistant material to protect your head, but the rental helmets provided safety solely through sheer size. Wearing that bowling ball on your head is like a giant beacon to the other skiers that you're a first timer. And that you're beneath them. In every way. Which didn't help anything when, in the chaotic rush of putting the ski clothes on the kids, I never pulled my ski pants down over my boots, creating the knickerbocker effect. Fortunately, no one told me to fix it.
We stopped by the information booth and asked where the bunny hill was. "This is the last week of the season. The bunny hill is already closed." Oh. That means we'll have to learn to ski on a steeper slope. Cool. We might be winning some Darwin Awards today. But we've all got really, really big helmets on, so we like our chances. As we left the information booth, there was a small, barely sloped area between the parking lot and the first chair lift. By necessity, this became the place where we learned to stand on skis.
The first major challenge was getting the skis on. I got mine on just fine. Then I looked as my wife tried helping the kids. Pure chaos. My son is too excited to listen. My daughter is too confused to succeed. She gets frustrated. My wife gets frustrated. My son gets frustrated because he just wants to ski––not learn how to. At one point, one of the kids was lying on the snow, crying. Of course my wife is no help with her descriptive powers. Her idea of explaining how to put the skis on was, "Just do it." Well that's pretty clear. So she tells me to go back to the information booth and pay for ski lessons. The only problem was that they said the next class started in two hours. Not really a good option to kill two hours when we're only there for the day. So she's back to teaching all three of us.
The next lesson was stopping and that was best learned by going down. I decide that the best thing for me to do is to figure it out myself as quick as I can, then I can help the kids. Because in my first fifteen minutes of skiing, I had to become an instructor. So I practiced going down the small slope next to the parking lot. The descent was exhilarating. The mountain air rushing past my face. The feeling of truly being alive. And then my one-half-mile-per-hour slide down the twenty foot slope came to an even slower stop as my skis met the blacktop of the parking lot. I’m…Skiing! The problem with learning to stop on that course was that I thought my pathetic 'pizza slice'-stop-routine was actually working when it was really the combination of gravity and a horizontal surface that did the trick. This gave me an unfounded confidence that would soon set me up for failure. But for the moment, I thought I could ski. So I switched into instructor mode for the kids, which essentially meant I just started yelling, "Pizza slice! Pizza slice!" at them. As you would imagine, it only took a few minutes for them to become experts too. Now it was time for the next lesson, the chair lift.
The chair lift was very close to where we were practicing. Maybe thirty yards or so. However, the thirty yards were at a slight incline and we hadn't learned how to go up a hill on skis yet. So this created an unsurpassable area for us. We may as well have been trying to rappel up the Empire State Building with rollerblades. I got my first taste of going down the mountain backwards––an occurrence that despite happening frequently, I never fully got used to. The only way I was able to go up the hill was by the use of my ski poles. I would harpoon the mountain with a pole and use all my upper body strength to pull myself a few feet up, before harpooning again. I don't think that was the intended use of the poles. So the kids and I were exerting an unbelievable amount of energy, while the other skiers just marched past us on their skis. "How are they doing that?" I didn't realize that we should've budgeted more time for that part of the day. It was like we needed a chair lift to get to the chair lift. The kids had to take off their skis and just walk up the hill. Which repeated all the 'getting the skis on' drama.
When we finally got to the chair lift line, the pressure mounted. In line, we had to struggle while in close proximity to all the normal people. From the back of the line to the front was only a few short glides. They all made it look so easy. We made it look extremely difficult. I can't imagine how my wife felt having to be with us. When we finally got to the front of the line, the stress is overflowing. Having never been on a lift, I just knew I was going to screw this up. I didn't know how, but I knew it was coming. There's the fear that I don't get on right and I go up the mountain hanging by a boot, upside down. Or the fear that one of the kids doesn't get on and stays at the bottom of the slope as we disappear. I didn't realize that they can stop the lift if one of those things happened. So I call out to the lift operator for some help because this was our first time. As if he couldn't tell.
He slows the lift down and helps the kids get on with us. I rode with my daughter. My wife rode with my son. Exhale. OK––we survived the loading of the chair lift. We can breath again. Nice and easy. Except the distance between the chair and the ground kept getting bigger and bigger, until it reached the 'definite injury and/or death' distance. So it was 'the fear of falling's turn to ruin my day. It was really just like flying in that regard. First there's the anxiety of missing your flight, then getting through security, then making sure you don't crash during takeoff. Then you get to cruising altitude and although everything has gone smoothly so far, you know you're always only forty-five seconds away from crashing into the ground. My daughter was having a great ride up. She thought what we were doing was so cool. I kept telling her not to move. Our chair might be hanging by a loose screw and the slightest vibration could send us to our deaths. She said she wanted to ride with her mom the next time.
If skiing out of the chair lift is an art, then that is a medium I do not work in. I got off the chair lift the way bags of trash leave a garbage truck. My daughter fared no better. I guess you could call it an idiot dump. The four of us gathered together at the top of the slope. Of course this wasn't the top of the mountain, so there were other courses that led into ours. This meant that there were other skiers flying past us. My wife gave the orders. We were to go down slow, together, and staying off to the side. Good plan. Turned out to be a terrible execution. The slope was considerably more steep than our previous course, the parking lot. We hit the slope like the Allies storming the beaches in Normandy––3 out of 4 of us immediately went down. I'll let you guess who stayed upright.
My initial problem was steering––or lack thereof. We were supposed to stay on one side. I drifted to the other side like a D.U.I. So when you're going out of control, you slow down, right? Well this was when I learned that my 'pizza slice' had no stopping power. You see, for that method to work, you need to have your legs spread pretty wide. This gives you more stopping power because there is more area on your skis that is perpendicular to the slope. I didn't understand this concept. To be fair, I wasn't properly trained. I barely had my legs spread at all. Just a normal standing position with knees bent. Which meant that I had very skinny 'pizza slices' that didn't do much to slow me down. To make matters worse, trying to do a pizza slice when you're legs are too close together makes your skis touch. When your skis touch, you crash. When you're a moron, you do it over and over again. It was a tedious trip down the mountain. That slope should only take ten minutes to get down. We clocked in at forty-five. Lots of crashing, getting up, slowly starting to go, then crashing again.
I decided to abandon the pizza. I'll stop the way all the other adults are. Their method was to turn their bodies off to the side until they came to a stop. Works great. Except, in my case, right before I come to a complete stop, I guess I turned too hard, because the backs of my skis would begin to be pointed down the slope. That means I go down the slope backwards. I can't even figure out how to ski when I'm going forward. Fortunately or unfortunately, I didn't ski any worse backwards. Basically my ski experience was filled with moments of finding myself lying in the snow, in strange positions, and then sitting up and taking inventory of my equipment, to see what pieces were no longer with me. "Ok, this time I only need to find a ski, two poles and my dignity." It was like having lots of scavenger hunts.
My son just about killed me from stress twice that day. The first time was when he crashed into a tree. No punchline here. Just a purely miserable experience. He turned out to be completely fine, but that didn't mean I was. It was a moment of sheer terror as I rushed to him and checked to see if he was ok. He was just lying there crying, which didn't help me think he was uninjured. But luckily, he was. The second time came on one of the last runs of the day for us. We rode with each other on the chair lift. Not that I had really mastered falling off the chair lift or anything, but my skills were light years ahead of his. He had been reluctantly getting off the lift, but that's not something you can do slowly. It doesn't give you the luxury of indecision. So I was telling him the whole ride up that we were going to get off together, that he needed to get up when I told him to, etc. Then we watched his mom and sister get off ahead of us. "That's where we'll get off." We get closer. "We're going to get off when we get to that hill right there." We arrive. “OK––let’s go!….Get up!…..Now!" I don't know why he never moved, but he never moved. I was halfway off the chair but still just sitting on the edge, looking at him. We needed to get off two seconds ago. The mound that we should easily slide off onto was quickly disappearing. Every instinct in my body was to get off. But he was still on. In a split second, I thought about him staying on the lift by himself, going the whole way up the mountain, alone and afraid. I thought about what he might do in that situation––would he panic and jump off? I thought about my wife, divorcing me over leaving my 6-year-old son on the ski lift by himself. Something had to be done. I acted. I grabbed my son with one hand and we went off the chair lift. In the time that all of this took, the chair lift never stopped moving, which meant that we were no longer able to just slide down. We fell about eight feet straight down. Now eight feet may not sound like a whole lot, but it felt like a whole lot. It was like we recreated a Jackson Pollock painting with skis, poles and imbeciles. I looked at my son––he was alright. I was alright. I looked up and noticed that the chair we had just left was still over our heads, and not moving. That's when I learned that they can stop the ski lift. Oh cool––stopped the entire chair lift for knickerbocker man. I looked back at the ski lift operator from that station. Then I noticed the skiers that were on the chair lift chair right behind the one we just left. They were all looking down at us––in more ways than one. Pretty much summed up the day.