(Please excuse the lack of proper ski terminology. I only went skiing once.)
One winter when I was 13 years old and my brother was 14, we took a family trip to New Hampshire. To ski. Because my brother really wanted to. He had been on a few ski trips already with school and friends and was dying for more. He promised he would teach me how to ski. My Dad, an avid outdoorsman and sports enthusiast, had never, however, in his long life, skied, and was wary of its potential dangers involving bone protrusions and close encounters with trees. But he agreed to take us despite.
Dad did all the worrying for the whole family. My mother never worried. She cared, but she never worried. We called my father “Disaster Dad” because he would always imagine the worst case scenarios of even the most innocent activities, and rattle off statistics that would make an EMT cringe. My brother took to leaving the house with a cheery: “Back in a bodycast, Dad!”
So there we were in North Conway, NH, home of Mount Cranmore, a welcoming, innocuous, tiny bump of a mountain in the summertime, with lethargic little red electric sleighs that carted you up the mount for a breathtaking view of other tiny mountain bumps. Many years later, flying out to Southern California, I was flabbergasted by the size of the mountains (which the plane was flying almost level with) and felt like a total Back East small-state yokel.
But when the snow flew, Mount Cranmore might as well have been one of the Himalayan peaks. A formidable, looming white challenge, daring you to conquer its craggy, slippery heights. Our first day skiing (and MY last), my Dad stayed at the motel because he was too worried, and my mother came with us because she never worried. My brother got me all situated with my rental skis, boots, poles. My brother, Ralph, took me to the “bunny hill” I think it was called, where both small children and first-time adults could practice their downhill technique. Technique! Right!
Ralph tried to teach me how to “herring bone” it up the hill, basically walking duck foot with your skis on to give you traction, but I found it too exhausting. So I removed my skis and trudged up the hill in my ski boots—tres uncomfortable!—and when we finally reached the top, I dropped a ski. It skittered (with admirable technique) all the way down to the bottom of the hill. Back down the hill I huffed, getting shin splints on my shin splints from the unyielding molded plastic of my ski boots. When I reached my brother again at the top of the bunnyhill, the soles of my boots were encrusted with ice that had to be chipped off before we could fasten my skis on.
Ralph tried to teach me how to turn. For you skiing uninitiates, “turning” is the most important thing to learn. Remember that. If you don’t master turning, you will be reduced to “bombing.” Bombing down the mountainside against your will and against all laws of inertia and sanity. Turning—from side to side—is a piece of cake when you’re going at slow speeds, but next to impossible when going fast. At least it was for me. I was either born without the muscles to accomplish this feat, or they had atrophied from hours of sitting in my beanbag chair reading. “Turning” is also how you stop, similar to ice skating, only in ice skating it’s called a “hockey stop,” which is much easier to execute because the skating rink is not on a 45 degree incline. Another option is the “snow plow” stop which involves maneuvering your skis into a pigeon-toed position and bearing down. Theoretically, you will come to a screeching halt. Untheoretically, you will do a cold, gritty face-plant on the crest of the newfallen snow.
When you fall wearing skis, which for me was very frequently, your legs do terribly unnatural things that would make Gumby balk. All I can say is: Man, those skis are LONG.
After only 15 minutes of Jack and Jill—I was the only one taking the tumbles—my brother decided it was time we hit the Big Kid slopes. We started with a medium slope that featured a lift called the T-bar which alone required some serious skills to get on and stay on. It was a series of spaced out vertical pipes with tiny round seats at the bottom of them which the pipe attached to right through the center of the seat. Now you neophytes need to know that ski lifts don’t stop for any reason. They are going up that mountain with or without you. Come hell or highwater. The universe doesn’t care? Well, the universe must be a ski lift.
Ralph told me how I was to position my fanny, or rather wrap my legs around the flying saucer-like seat from behind as it came by. That wasn’t the hard part, though. The hard part was sitting down properly, or rather NOT sitting down, because if you actually sat down, the whole vertical pipe would swoop forward violently and dump you on your back in the middle of the track in order for the skier behind you to pierce you with their long skis and/or ski right over you. The object of the T-bar was to brace your knees in a slight crouching position, hang on to the pipe with your hands at face level, and let the seat drag you to the upper altitudes by the back of your thighs. Whoever designed this lift deserved a SADISTIC ENGINEER OF THE YEAR AWARD.
So, of course, I sat down on the T-bar. I mean, it just defied logic and reason and thermodynamics that you wouldn’t sit on this thing. SWOOP! The pipe lurched forward and upward and shook its contents onto the ground. Everyone waiting in line sent up collective groan. “SWIFT!” was an insult we used back in the day when someone committed a particularly moronic stunt. The Suzee Chaffee lookalike skier behind me kept screaming: “Get off the track! Get off the track!” as her skis pierced my armpits.
In all honesty, there IS a way to stop the lift, because someone, somewhere was monitoring it, perhaps from a camouflaged duck blind, and a speaker strung up in the pines bellowed: “GET OFF THE TRACK!” and stopped the T-bar. Easier said than done, pal! The Shanghai Contortionist Triplets, the Bolshoi Ballet AND Gumby now had nothing on me. I think at this point, my brother may have helped slide me to the side, much like one removes a disabled car from the middle of the highway to the shoulder. There may have even been some clapping involved.
After successfully riding the T-bar to the top of the bigger slope, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was on the top of the world. Literally. But, alas, pride comes before the fall. Literally. I pushed off. I was weaving nicely, smoothly from side to side, actually “turning” my skis 180 degrees from one direction to another, switchblading back and forth across the downward course. This was a cinch! But I was also picking up speed, and was soon completely out of control. Unable to turn. Bombing. “LOOK OUT!” I shrieked to everyone in my way. “Everyone” wisely moved. Except the two little nine-year-olds. Just standing there in the middle of the slope, chewing the fat. “LOOK OUT!” Through my tearing eyes I could see a look of utter joint disgust shooting my way from the two immobile snow princesses.“I CAN’T STOP!”Like it says on the hypochondriac’s tombstone: “I told you I was sick.” Well, I told those ski brats.
WHIZZ! I sliced over the backs of their skis. At this point I was going SO fast and was SO seized with terror, that I had to stop myself the third way that one can stop on skis: wiping out. Basically, you just sit down. Going 100mph. Rumpety-bumpety-bumpety-bump. (You don’t stop immediately.) My head was bobbing like a buoy as IT skied down the slopes. My knit hat was left at the feet of Jasmine and Ariel. I was pretty far away from them by the time I came to a complete halt. “ARE YOU GOING TO BUY US NEW SKIS?!!” Jasmine shouted down to me. By the way they were dressed--suited up in Olympian Alpine gear--it was clear that Mommy and Daddy did not need ME to contribute a cent to anything involving their royal highnesses. I crawled upslope on all fours to retrieve my hat.
I proceeded down the slope again, determined to master “the turn.” Nothing doing. I began bombing straight down the mountain like a bat out of hell. “LOOK OUT!” There, approaching fast, was a huge, landscaped pile of New Hampshire granite boulders. Right at the bottom of the course. It didn’t hear me. It was probably designed by the same guy who did the T-bar and who was probably laughing himself sick right now in the ski lodge watching the hi-jinx wrought by his creations. I did what any non-self-respecting ski newbie would do. I wiped out. Again. A middle-aged gent must have had the same idea a bit earlier. He lounged there like some kind of slopekill, covered in those little ice-encrusted snow lintballs. “IS THIS YOUR FIRST DAY SKIING??!!” he inquired far too jovially. I decided against sarcasm. A simple “yes” would do. “ISN’T THIS GREAT??!!” he gushed.
Now my brother, although proficient at “turning,” PREFERS to bomb. I can still see him, a tiny dot at the top of the medium slope, barreling straight down the mountain, poles suspended in the air on either side (never touching down), his open jacket flapping like a manta ray, a look of sheer speed-demon glee on his face, bypassing everyone, skirting the Scenic Boulders, and then managing to stop on a dime.
I T-barred to the top of the slope again with renewed resolve. By this time, a small slalom contest was going on to the left of the slope. Kids the age of Jasmine and Ariel—wearing numbers on their backs-- were whipping around the flags like experts. You guessed it. I couldn’t hold the turning. And instead of bombing straight down the mountain this time, my skis veered to the left like they had a mind of their own. I was heading toward the slalom course. I wasn’t worried about the humiliation of crashing the slalom course. I was worried about the hospitalization of impaling myself on one of the red picket fence spikes that bordered the far side of the slalom course. MUST. TURN. SELF. AROUND. NOW. With Herculean effort, I managed to turn a little to the right. Which meant back ONTO the slalom course. But the stubborn skis wanted to go left again. And so they did. The result was that I was actually DOING the slalom course. Like, skiing around every four flags or so.“WILL THE GIRL IN THE BLUE JACKET PLEASE GET OFF THE SLALOM COURSE!!” boomed the speakers in the pines. I was concentrating too hard to even holler “LOOK OUT!” and had no choice but to finish the slalom. The little underaged athletes sniggered.
By now my corduroy Levis were covered with snow from wiping out. The snow was turning to water and the water was turning to ice water and the ice water was turning into ice against my skin. My brother looked truly sorry for my misery. “C’mon, Helena, we’ll just do the other slope once. You’ll love it!” I knew what I would really love was the ski lodge. It was just steps away. (About 10 regular steps, about 110 steps with ski boots on.) A warm fire, warm cocoa…. “We’ve come all this way. You don’t wanna miss this, do you?” Ralph was speaking to my inner Happy Hollister, my inner Trixie Belden, my inner Charlie’s Angels, none of which were ever very active (except for Farrah’s flip). “Well, OK.” I mustered my anemic sense of adventure and followed him to the…chair lift. We were going to the top of the mountain. But what did I know? No alarm bells went off in my head. I was trusting him. And ironically, he was trusting me! My brother has always assumed that people are as a great as he is. As adventurous as he is. As fearless as he is. As honest as he is. As kind as he is. As resourceful as he is. As smart as he is. He thinks the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle is easy. He’s a Master Mechanic. He has never missed a day of work in 23 years, not even when he had the chickenpox (as an adult). He just put a sign on the door: “Chickenpox inside. Enter at your own risk.” He really thought I was about to have fun.
On the way up, I still wasn’t getting alarmed because I’m not great with depth perception or perspective. I couldn’t tell that the slopes below us were WAY steeper than Bunny Hill and Scenic Boulder Slope. Ralph was preparing me for how to get off the chair lift. How hard could it be, I thought? I had tamed the wild T-bar! Getting ON the chairlift was a breeze, it just scooped you up by the butt. I didn’t have to do anything! But what goes up must come down. Sometimes the hard way. He told me to scoot to the edge of the chair, look down, keep my skis pointing straight ahead, and when he said, “Go!” to stand up and push off. Child’s play!
The moment arrived. “Go!” he commanded. I looked down. It was not level ground. There were two icy ruts for your skis that immediately hurtled you down a sizeable, cliff-like drop. Ralph shot to the bottom. I froze, still perched on the edge of the chair. The chair began to lift back up in the air. “Go!” Ralph urged from what was beginning to look like a snowy little Whoville down below. By now the lift had completely passed over the cliff and was heading to the turnaround to go back down the mountain. Although I knew nothing about skiing, I instinctively knew there was an incredible shame attached to going back down the ski lift because you were CHICKEN. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. “Go!” sang the little Whos in unison who had gathered around my brother, craning their necks skyward. So…I did. I literally just dropped myself out of the sky. And landed sprawled on my back like…well…like a swastika. Gumby was FORCED into retirement. I did not land on snow but on ice. That kind of unfrozen, refrozen, unfrozen, refrozen ice that is harder than ice. I momentarily had the wind knocked out of me and all went black. I heard a girl exclaim: “SHE KILLED HERSELF!”
When I came to, my brother look VERY concerned for my misery, and I began cursing him out. Not that I used curse WORDS, because I was a good Irish Catholic girl from cultured Belmont, Masschusetts, and cursing was not part of my personal code. But I spoke LIKE I was cursing. I don’t remember what I said, but I was ticked. And I don’t get easily ticked. And then I got more ticked because I realized we were on the TOP of the mountain and the only signs were for the “EXPERT--BLACK DIAMOND--COWABUNGA —ONLY SWISS PEOPLE NEED APPLY” SLOPES. That was the only way down! I could endure the shame of stopping the T-bar, crashing the slalom and wiping out, but NOT the shame of taking the chairlift DOWN. I still had some pride.
My poor brother. He stayed with me all the way down: Go a few yards, wipe out, chew Ralph out, repeat. He was truly penitent. I stormed off to the lodge and stayed there for the rest of the day with my Mom, shivering in my wet Levis and getting chilblains on my chilblains. My mother, who never worried, didn’t ask me what I learned from the experience, but I asked myself. Here’s what I came up with:
1. I will never go skiing again.
2. You can’t be good at everything
3. I don’t like speed that doesn’t involve a gas pedal.
4. In spite of everything, the mountains were GORGEOUS.
5. I’m still a snowbaby. Just not a breakneck speeding snowbaby.
6. Skiing is a spectator sport best enjoyed during the Winter Olympics.
7. Bonne Belle wild cherry lip balm is very comforting at times like these.
8. Get a snowsuit for all snow-related activities.
9. It made a great story.
10. Life is all about the stories.