Crash Course

There's nothing quite like downhill skiing.  The wind in your face.  The sound of your skis swooshing through powder.  The feeling of control as you glide over the pristine white landscape...  Okay, maybe not the feeling of about the illusion of control.  The illusion that threatens to shatter at a moments notice, with each bump, ice patch or god-forbid mogul that crosses your path.  That's a little more like it.  The euphoria of standing on a sloping sheet of ice, but moving at the same time.  And adding to the excitement, there are at any given moment, at least a dozen other people within a few yards of you.  And each one of them is moving with a velocity and direction essentially random relative to your own.  Some of those vectors are executed with the same lack of control, perhaps even ineptness, as your own.  Others demonstrate a command of the skill of downhill maneuvering that borders on godlike.  Ironically, the members of the former group are the less dangerous.  The worst thing they can do, short of running directly into you, is to somehow get in front of you, and then stop.  But the latter group.  The one's who appear to know what they're doing.  Those are the ones to worry about.  They cut back and forth at random, they leap into the air.  They rush passed the beginners, cutting the encounter as close as possible, using them as moving slalom course markers.  And don't even get me started on snow-boarders!

As you can probably guess, I am not an accomplished skier.  Even at the height of my ability, which only came at the end of a three-day ski trip to several ski hills, I only reached a level of ... passing competence.  I have never jumped (at least not on purpose).  Moguls remain a treacherous hazard to be avoided at all costs.  Icy patches continue to unnerve me.  And I still get cold sweats as I try to maneuver into position for any interaction with a chair lift.  And perhaps the most unfathomable thing of all, is that I can traverse a steep incline (as long as it isn't icy) by cutting back and forth in virtual horizontal paths across the hill, but each time I have to turn to the right, I go into a brain-lock in which I run the risk of forgetting how to move my feet to complete the turn.  This lapse usually occurs just as the skis point straight downhill, and the speed starts to increase!  So like I said.  I'm not very good.

I really should have taken lessons.  Even that single morning crash course at most hills would have been better than the method by which I became acquainted with the sport of downhill skiing.  Any accredited individual would have sufficed.  But instead I turned to ... of all the responsible people available at the time ... I selected ... my brother, Steve.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  He had been skiing before.  He had even coached a good friend of his earlier that same season.  By the end of one day under my brother's tutelage,  his friend was hopping from mogul to mogul on the nastiest black diamond run at the lodge.  A fact that many of the lodge-loafing snow bunnies can attest to, as they watched his unconscious body skipping down the embankment like a stone on a pond.  I had heard about the incident, and even winced at the story of how the collarbone had cleanly snapped in two places.  I knew my brother had instructed the unfortunate boy in how to ski.  I failed to realize that the day of learning and the day of injury had in fact been the very same day!  But Steve had learned his lesson!  He assured me that under no circumstances, would I be approaching the collarbone-hungry black-hearted run known as Big Bear. 

We arrived at the hill ... I say hill because I am fully aware that the ski-runs we have in the Midwestern United States are not, despite their colorful names, mountains.  They are hills.  They can be traversed in a single run of a chair-lift, you don't feel your ears pop during your descent, and there is no need to employ St. Bernards to wander the slopes with barrels of rescue spirits tucked under their strong chins, as nobody is ever really out of sight of the lodge.  But I digress.  Suffice to say, that we arrived and procured rental equipment for myself (my brother had his own skis, which for some reason that eludes me today, meant that he knew what he was doing then).  The first thing my knowledgeable instructor did was inform me that all rental equipment was crap.  The second thing he did was to assure me that it was okay if my skis were crap, because I wouldn't be doing anything that required good equipment.   Thus reassured, I donned the bright orange rental boots and walked out of the rental office with two long sharp pieces of crap gripped in a bear hug.  Each step in those boots was like ... like walking without ankles ... which is a stupidly obvious thing to say, because that's exactly what it was!  But I'll dispense with the trivialities of putting the skis on my feet, and jump right into the lesson.

Right outside the rental office, is a tiny slope.  This is known as the "bunny hill".  You reach the top of the bunny hill by holding onto a rope and getting dragged up the hill.  My brother pushed himself down the slight incline toward the base of the bunny hill.  He used his skis in much the same way as an ice-skater moves across the ice.  He then turned the skis perpendicular to his direction of motion, leaned sideways, and did a snow-spraying hockey-stop about thirty feet away from me. 
"Now," he commanded, "Push yourself with the poles until you start moving."
I dutifully did so, feeling my first sensation of ski motion as I moved at near-snail-like speeds across the uneven terrain.  My brother deftly maneuvered his feet so the tips of his skis pointed in toward each other.  "You see this?"  He called,  "This is called snowplowing.  If you do this, you will stop."
I looked down at the skis, and I swear, you probably could have gotten a visible reading on a stopwatch of how long it took to travel the length of a single ski.  But I pointed my toes toward each other.  The tips of the skis touched and my forward momentum instantly died.  I had stopped!
"Okay, now try it again.  But this time, try to get a little more speed."
I straightened the skis, pushed forward with the poles, and then feeling reckless, pushed again!  I was now going twice as fast as before, and had nearly reached my brother.
"Snowplow!" he called.
The tips turned in, and miraculously, I coasted to a stop.
"Alright!"  I said, now quite giddy.  "How do I use this rope thing?"
"You don't."
"Then how do I get up the bunny hill?"
"You don't.  Tow-ropes are tricky for beginners.  I don't know why they even provide them.  Follow me."
With that, Steve skated off once more, heading toward one of the ski lifts.

As we waited for our turn at the chair, my brother begain with a quick pep-talk in how embarrassing it would be if I screwed up getting on the lift so badly that they had to stop the lift.  Then he proceeded to tell me how to get on the lift.  The idea is this.  When the people in front of you go stand in front of the moving chair, you line up.  As soon as the chair hits them in the ass, start "walking" forward.  By this time, your predecessors are safely and sanely on their way up the hill, so you take their place on the starting line.  Then make like you are getting ready to sit down, because when that chair hits your thighs, that's exactly what you're going to do.  So I did as instructed and soon found myself standing with my butt pointed backward and trying to get the ski pole strap out from around my gloved hand so I could use my hand to hold onto the lift.  I turned around to see where the chair was a split second before it hit me across the back of the thighs.  I instinctively sat down, and reached out with a flailing pole-clad hand to grab the support post.  The chair seemed to bounce wildly, causing our skis to alternately float over, and then slap down on the snow-packed lift track.  My brother reached out and steadied me, while simultaneously giving the lift operator a cheerful thumbs-up.  A-OK  Nothing wrong here.  We're all fine.  Just keep us moving.

I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking "That's it?  You didn't fall?  What the hell are you telling this story for if you didn't fall?"  I can only tell you, dear reader, that not only did I not fall at that moment, but for the duration of this story I will not fall.  I will not break bones and I will not be injured in any meaningful way.  And it is in the heart of that essentially inexplicable fact, that the point of this story lies.  Because let me tell you.  If anyone deserved to fall ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

We arrived at the top of the hill.  I put my tips up.  I alighted on the landing pad and even skied down the burm to the apex of the ski-hill proper.  I felt unsteady, and flailed my arms wildly, but I succeeded in coasting to a virtual stand-still at the nexus of ski-run heaven.  A half dozen different trails snaked off from this point.  Three were marked with the ominous black diamond.  Two had a cautionary blue square.  And one run had a cheerful little green circle and bore the name "Maple Syrup".  I pointed my skis toward this last one and began pushing with my poles.  Steve spoke up immediately.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"The beginner slope."  I replied.
"You don't want to do that."  he replied shaking his head.
"Why not?"
"The beginner slope is always icy.  And it's too narrow.  We'll go on the intermediate run over here."
"But...", my protest was ignored as he turned and skated off toward the starting point for the ski-run with the dubiously cheerful name of  "Sunrise". 
Steve coasted forward until the level starting area began to slope downward toward the crest of the hill.  He then hockey-stopped again and gestured for me to follow.  "Come on!"

Now you have to understand.  From my point of view, all I saw was a well groomed gentle slope of snow, that ended in a sharp horizon line, upon which my brother was perched.  Behind him, was nothing but blue sky and the distant landscape of pine forest below.  But from where I was standing, there was no hill behind my brother.  There was no sign of the bottom, or the lodge, or even treetops.  There was nothing but a cliff.  "You've got to be kidding."  I said.
"Just push yourself over here and stop.  It isn't as bad as you think.  Trust me."
I looked around.  There were a couple people hanging back behind me, as if they knew what was going on, and didn't want to miss it.  I couldn't back down now.  I glanced longingly at the cheerful green circle to my right, and pushed myself toward my brother.

As I moved along the snow, I was acutely aware of the unevenness of the terrain.  Every ski track caused my feet to shift.  Every little bump caused my body to sway.  And yet, as I moved toward Steve, I could see the horizon behind him get slightly more tame.  The closer I got to him, the more the hill sloped downward, and the more of the run I could see.  At the same time, the steeper the slope got, the greater the effect gravity had on me became.  I was now moving at a noticeable clip as I wended my way toward my younger sibling.  He stood before me with a look of glowing pride and satisfaction that I was accomplishing the goal we had set for ourselves today.  "All right." He said cheerfully, "Stop right here next to me."
With a confidence born of experience I pointed the toes of the skis inward, just as I had done at the bottom of the hill.  To my surprise, my forward momentum did not change in the slightest.  I was now only a few feet further up the slope than Steve, and the smile on his lips faltered.
"Stop now, Mike".
I turned the tips a little more sharply.  The backs of the skis turned out.  "I'm trying."  I said in a slightly higher voice as I slid right passed him, my speed beginning to increase as I moved closer to the true incline.
"Push out with your heels!"
"It isn't working, Steve!"  My speed was now reaching serious levels, and with it, my panic was beginning to grow!
"I can't"
"Then turn!"
I remember this part clearly.  For just a moment, the world grew silent.  It was as if nature herself had paused a moment to acknowledge that most reasonable of commands.  I turned my head around in a vain attempt to lock my gaze on his.  "You haven't told me how to turn  yet!" 

Actually, the last bit came out more like "tuuuuuurn yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetttttttt", as a result of the Doppler Effect that came into play as my skis hit the true meat of the hill and my speed jumped up several notches.  I was standing stiffly.  Knees locked, body rigid.  Poles out at forty-five degree angles to my side.  The skis, as if finding a will of their own, straightened out, and I shot down that slope like some live action parody of Wile E. Coyote. 

The wind whipped against my face and stung my eyes.  Tears began forming from the blast of arctic air.  I was still yelling the remnants of the last word, like a siren wail of doom.  My doom.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I was leaning slightly backward on the skis, which reduced the drag on them even more.  In fact, I was picking up speed so swiftly, that Steve, who had apparently pushed off and was pursuing me, tucked into as aerodynamic a stance as he could muster, could not catch up!

For some reason, my mind was focused on one thing.  If I fell at that speed, I would die.  And so, I did absolutely nothing that would hasten the act of falling.  I didn't move a muscle.  I blinked a flash-frozen tear out of my eye and looked ahead.  Halfway down the run, Sunrise took a gentle turn to the left.  A turn that I would have to follow, or I would be paying an unannounced visit to a rather inappropriately placed ski-patrol storage shed.  I glanced down at my feet.  The skis were about a foot apart ... mostly.  They actually varied between six and eighteen inches depending on the texture of the snow as it shot passed beneath me.  I looked back at the shed.  It was getting closer.  I looked at the skis.  When they oscillated to a point where they were closer together, I did a quick hip-twist to the left.  Miraculously, my trajectory down the hill moved a few degrees to the left.  With hope renewed I repeated the twisting action again and again.  I cleared the edge of the run by a mere five feet.  If I had been a little slower, I would have found myself on the icy little path that the teenagers on this hill used for jumping practice.  But luck was on my side as I glided back out toward the center of the run. 

Steve was still valiantly pursuing, but the best he could do was keep pace.  My speed, which had faltered for only an instant on the turn, climbed again as I reached the second leg of the hill - the home-stretch which was even steeper than the portion above. 

I remember a series of skeleton jarring bumps right before the hill began to level out.  Somehow I stayed upright.  I vaguely remember the line of skiers waiting for the chair-lift.  I think I passed between several of them, still moving at a fairly good clip.  I hit the burm of snow that marked then end of the official run - a point defined as the last place people hockey stopped before getting in line for another run up the hill.   I don't remember being airborn, but I must have been.

After that the snow became very rough.  I found myself following a path that the snow-cat had used to climb up to the access road.  Climb is the operative word here.  I was now on an up-slope.  And my wild first ski-ride came gently, and majestically to an anti-climactic end.

I was shaking.  There was adrenaline coursing through my system like you wouldn't believe.  There were horizontal streaks of ice coming out of the corners of my eyes.  Steve came running up behind me, whooping, or cheering or some such nonsense.  "You did it!  You DID IT!"
I turned on him at once.  "You moron!  I could have been killed!"
"But you weren't." he replied, "You skied.  You should have seen yourself.  It was awesome!"
"I had no idea what I was doing!" 
"I couldn't even catch you.  I can't believe you didn't fall!"
I paused for a moment.  An unsaid quip locked in my throat.  "..."
"Do you know how cool that is?  You didn't fall.  Your first time down, and you didn't fall."
I looked back at the line of skiers.  I looked at him.  "..."
"You took those jumps at the bottom without panicking."
"You kept your head."
What jumps?
"You've got to do it again!"
"I didn't do any jumps."
"Well...not like most people do."  He pointed up the hill, somebody in a gray jacket and a blue hat took to the air on the last incline of the hill.  No sooner did his skis hit the ground, than he was airborn again.
"I didn't do that!"
"Well, no... you pretty much skipped right over the tops of them.  I almost caught you, but I had to go around."
I looked up the hill.  I looked at Steve.  I looked at the line of idiots waiting for the lift.  Only a fool would go back up there after a run like that.  There was no way I was going to do that again.  I looked at the hill again.  A half dozen brightly clad skiers snaked back and forth down the gentle slope, their graceful turns akin to a well choreographed dance.
"How the hell do you turn?"

"Crash Course", Copyright © 1997 by Michael J. Marchi

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