Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Hard-Won Joys of Downhill Skiing

It's no secret downhill skiing is a laborious endeavor. First, there's the getting to the mountain, often in bad weather or on roads that are less than clear. Next you have to either haul your equipment out of the car (and that's just the beginning) or -- if you don't own skis, boots, and poles -- rent them in the shop at the base of the mountain. (For the uninformed, ski boots are clumsy, heavy, and mighty painful if dropped on bare toes. Ouch!) Some people say "no, thanks" to the sport for these reasons because, let's face it, what's involved in skiing makes it a big pain in the a**.

But there's plenty more. The cost is OUT OF THIS WORLD -- the lift tickets, equipment, lessons, clothes. (Don't lose your goggles! Replacing them will set you back about another $20.) Very few of us are lucky enough to live near Jay Peak, Keystone, or Schweitzer. We must drive quite a ways to get to a decent (or mediocre) ski resort, making the expense of the gas involved another big deterring factor. Accommodations are often required. Do I hear a cash register ringing in the distance? And if you want to go to a really awesome place to ski like the Alps, you'd better be filthy rich because you will also be shelling out for a plane ticket/s. (I'm grateful I had the opportunity to ski in Innsbruck, Austria, when I was in high school because I certainly can't afford to take that trip with my kids today!)

You might be turned off by the discomfort. The bulky clothes, inclement weather, stiff boots. I had to laugh two days ago when watching news coverage of the Boston-area teen, Nicholas Joy, found in great shape following two nights alone and lost after skiing at Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain. Someone, probably the anchor, asked the reporter on the scene if this resourceful youth was limping. "No, that's just the way you walk in ski boots," the reporter replied.

Indeed.

Perhaps you get annoyed by the distances you sometimes need to walk while carrying your equipment to get to where you're going -- your car in a faraway parking lot or the gondola you want to ride. Once in a while you end up a heckuva long way from the base lodge on flat ground, meaning you have to trek across the mountain either because you took the wrong trail to the bottom or you couldn't choose the right one on account of it being too difficult. Getting stuck in this manner used to happen to me CONSTANTLY when I was a child. I then became all hot and sweaty inside my ten layers of clothing from the poling I had to do to propel myself to my destination.

Another variation on making an unfortunate choice while skiing is missing the turn onto the continuation of the easier trail and inadvertently winding up on a double black diamond. As you peer down the vertical super-expert run dotted with intimidating moguls, you need to hurry to the side SO AS NOT TO BE RUN INTO before carefully sidestepping your way uphill -- another exercise in perspiration-making, incidentally -- until you reach the trail junction where you can relax, relatively speaking. If you don't care to risk your neck, the other alternative is taking your boots out of your bindings and walking down the slope. That just feels like a cop out to me, so I never do it. (Maybe that's why I got a contusion to my rotator cuff on "Devil's Fiddle" at Killington twenty-five years ago!)

With so much first-class aggravation going for it, why ski? Better yet, why put yourself through the MAJOR HASSLE of taking your family skiing? Because, simply, skiing is the best sport on the planet!

I crave the cool, invigorating wilderness air against my skin; the breathtaking view from the top; the feel of powder (not too much as I am an East Coast-bred skier) underski; and the thrill of carving turns (or bombing my way) down. I am nothing to look at on the slopes, believe me! I attribute this to not taking enough lessons, preferring instead to ski on my own in whatever haphazard manner does the trick. True, I don't have great style, and I don't wear cute outfits. I dress for warmth. But though I've never officially raced, I am fast. I've noticed this tendency throughout my life while skiing with other people. I beat many of them to the bottom without trying. Yet above all, I love the freedom of being on the mountain concentrating on just one, purely exhilarating activity: making it down in one piece while having a blast before coming to a snow-spraying slamming stop at the end of the chairlift line. "WOW!" I blurt out to no one in particular, unable to contain my joy. Those nearby nod or verbally agree because they know what I'm talking about. They feel the same way I do as we are cut from the same cloth.

When I say "free," I mean that literally, though not in the monetary sense, of course. My mother was very overprotective of me, her only child, as I was growing up. I was sheltered and felt confined . . . BUT NOT WHILE SKIING! My parents -- born and raised New Yorkers -- didn't really ski, but they still took me a few days or less most winters from the time I was about seven on, bless their souls. We lived in Connecticut, so the first "mountain" I tackled was actually a hill, Powder Hill. (The name was changed to the more adventurous-sounding Powder Ridge when I was nine.) My godmother and her family regularly took incredible ski holidays, and we were occasionally invited along. Jackpot! Through them, I got to go to Stowe and Bromley, and one winter I did a weeklong ski camp at Sunapee with the youngest daughter. H and I are the same age, and we ended up going to college together as well. The piece de resistance, however, was a trip I took with her and her mother to Bavaria when I was a teenager. It was H's school trip. My mother went with me, of course. She wouldn't have let me on the plane otherwise. I felt her hawkeyed presence keenly, yet on the breathtaking Austrian slopes I was FREEEEE because she stayed behind in the lodge. In typical fashion, I got myself in over my head: I accidentally skied down the Men's Olympic Grand Slalom course from the recent 1976 Games. LOL. It was one of my best early stories: how I got off the chairlift, skied a short way, stopped, looked back, and beheld a giant white wooden board featuring the unmistakable multi-colored linked rings known the world over! YIKES. Also in typical fashion, I managed to get myself down oh, so very carefully yet still completely unscathed. I remember being completely wiped out afterward . . . but also JAZZED BEYOND BELIEF!

It would be a no-brainer then that I would introduce my children to skiing and, God willing, they would take to it as much as I have. Thus far, the first mission has been accomplished, and I'm getting there with the second. Christopher, age nine, adores the sport. He took four group lessons three years ago at Bradford, the small family mountain closest to our Massachusetts home. It was a good beginning. My third-grade football player is solid on his skis. Since then he has progressed to intermediate slopes at that mountain and King Pine, a bigger one in New Hampshire. He generally skis with me but has gone down alone, meeting me at the chairlift line after I veered off onto an expert run. I wanted to check it out to see if I felt he could handle it. Conclusion: too steep at this time. He took a racing clinic over Christmas break at Bradford that was reduced from three days to one due to lack of snow. He wanted to join the mountain's ski team, but we learned that it filled up some two months earlier.

Charlie, almost seven, is coming along nicely. Starting at a younger age than Christopher, he took the group lessons two winters in a row. He's a strong boy yet is turned off fast if things don't go his way. Slightly icy conditions, a fall (or many falls), snow in the mittens, poor weather. It's understandable. I get it. Skiing's a tough sport, and he's young. During our recent vacation at King Pine, I never once bought him a full-day lift ticket because I knew he would bail in under two hours, probably more like half that time. He likes to ski but isn't ready to commit to a long day of it, especially when he can spend part of that day building all kinds of structures in KP's child-care center.

Despite the extra expense, I don't mind too much dropping him off there because it gives me a chance to ski with Christopher on more challenging terrain. Though not as experienced, he doesn't really slow me down, and that makes me very happy. We both skied a race run a number of times at King Pine, and it was an ABSOLUTE REVELATION for me. I loved it. I couldn't get enough of it. I did it FIVE TIMES IN A ROW then -- like Rand Paul filibustering the Senate -- was unable to hold nature back any longer and took a bathroom break. The interruption caused my time on my sixth run to go up, though only slightly. All of us, even Charlie, were given blue ribbons for participating in the unofficial race. (And, yes, Charlie did try it out.) Mine doesn't represent a true-blue first-place win, but I did clock the second-fastest time of anyone I saw during those six runs. What's more, mountain personnel and a child racer I know said my time was "very good," so I am choosing to believe them. My scrappy style won't allow me to excel in slalom events, but I can skid around a gate on a downhill course like nobody's business!

I hope we can ski a few more times before the season is out then take it up another notch next year. We'll try new mountains. Charlie will log more ski hours, and maybe Chris will join a team. As for me, I'll be jonesing to hit more race runs. Watch out, Lindsey Vonn!

Well, a girl can dream anyway.

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