**In honor of the Olympics I unearthed this piece I wrote several years ago–the last time I went skiing. Now I know to just watch other people kill themselves going down a mountain, rather than joining in the folly…
A few months ago when my husband suggested a ski vacation for our family of five, I willingly agreed, with instant visions of being all dolled up in ski togs, sipping hot chocolate fireside, schussing down the mountainside, and gazing admiringly at the wintry wonderland outside, all swirling in my head.
Reality clocked me over the head with a big, fat snowboard as our plane approached the small mountain airport a few hundred miles north of Denver, in the early evening hours.
“Folks, I’ve got some news for you,” the captain reported from the cockpit. “Uh, seems we need a mile and a half visibility to land this thing, and right now we only have a mile. If things don’t change in the next few minutes, we’re gonna have to turn back.”
That would be back to Denver, where we would have to huddle to stay warm in some dreary airport lounge, eating gummy bears for sustenance until clearer weather prevailed in a day or so, while our luggage ended up in Stockholm and our minimal vacation time whittled away.
Not five minutes later, a hurried captain announced, “Uh, folks, seems we have a mile and three quarters so we’re gonna land this puppy, fast.”
With a gulp, I made sure all of our seatbelts were fastened, and braced for the smooth landing I’d hoped for.
As the plane was battered about the sky, I noticed our flight attendant, a large young man, wedged into his flight attendant perch, eyes squinched closed, hands clasped in what appeared to be the universal prayer position. My confidence in the pilot diminished at that point, realizing as I did that even the strapping young flight attendant was sweating bullets.
Fifteen minutes and some seriously gnashed teeth later, we landed mercifully, the jostling of the plane at some point merging with the blare of the engines on the small craft to create a death Zen that assured me that the fiery crash would be painless.
Alas, luck was on our side and we landed into a blizzard–a good sign that we landed despite the lack of visibility, and, as my ski instructor would intone incessantly the next day, whoo-hoo! Snow! was greeting us, in spades.
I’d spent the previous month visiting a physical therapist thrice weekly to diminish the pain from a pinched nerve in my lower back, something that threatened my success on this ski trip. And so it was with some trepidation that I donned my skiwear the next morning to head out into the new foot of snow that had fallen.
But just getting into the outerwear and attempting to put on the ski boots was challenging. At some point I assigned tasks to my kids: one, help get my socks up, please; another, you hook up my boots, mommy can’t bend forward, etc.
Finally, decked out and ready to go, we haul our load of gear down the unwieldy flight of steps and out the back door of our ski-in-ski-out condo, and attach the skis, heading off into the vast winter wonderland.
It’s amazing, the untoward effects of aging on a person’s skiing potential. As I wobbled, propelled unnaturally forward down a narrow isthmus of snow, buffered on either side of me by rocks, brambles and cliffs, feeling as steady as a newborn colt, I wondered why my legs seemed as if they were being warped unnaturally inward by the positioning of the boot to ski.
I also wondered why my butt wanted to jam itself in the sitting position–no doubt a survival instinct honed by millions of years of skiers before me. And then I wondered why, in this day and with my advancing age, I wouldn’t have opted for a sunny Caribbean vacation, where one could so easily slip into a bathing suit–although, truth be known, that, too, is a psychologically damning action for the less-than-svelte me–and just lounge poolside with a good book.
We all signed up for ski school–I knew without that peer pressure, I would have hightailed it back to the condo to hide under the blankets for the rest of the day–and were separated within minutes by skill level.
Now, I don’t take personally a professional’s assessment of my skiing ability–or lack thereof. But the snickering that went on was a little bit unnerving, I will admit.
We were grouped with like-abled skiers, and directed to the first ski lift. As I sat on the icy, slippery lift seat, with no reassuring bar to pull down to keep me from plunging to an untimely death in a crevasse in the mountain, I realized that a skiing vacation is not ideally suited for one with severe fear of heights.
It was bad enough for me back home at our nearby sleepy little ski resort, with the short lifts that don’t lunge skyward at rapid acceleration rates.
But here in Steamboat Springs, the lifts thrust us upward and fast, easily two hundred feet off the ground, and with the dreadfully slow ratcheting along those mammoth support poles that are the only thing between me and death, I gain a true sense of how very far it is to the ground, judging by the height of those towering poles. In my head I think happy thoughts: bunnies, kitties, puppies; but then my thoughts are transformed into a more macabre scene: bunnies, kitties, puppies, splattered along the boulders below, victims of the slippery seats of the ski lift.
Eventually, despite my fears, we arrive at the top of a mountain, only to learn that we must take another lift to get to the top of the mountain. As if one top wasn’t high enough. This day promises to be a real challenge to my psychological stamina.
Fifteen minutes later, we are at the summit. I feel like Sir Edmund Hilary reaching Everest. Well, not exactly. But still, as we arrive at the top, we all notice that the sunlight has disappeared. As has the sky. As have any people beyond five feet of me. We are lodged in a soup of fog so thick that I can be certain my plane would not be able to land, even with our ambitious pilot.
“Whoo-hoo!” Our instructor enthuses, in only a way that someone with an unnatural proclivity for an untimely death can. “Well, everybody, looks like it’s gonna be a foggy day.”
I look up and see that chunks of snow are beginning to drop from the sky, not little baby flakes, but tufts of snow the size of clumps of hair being pulled from an unwilling head.
“Whoo-hoo!” Our instructor trills. “Snow!”
She then announces that these are, without doubt, the worst and most dangerous conditions in which to ski for intermediate skiers of our level. It seems that beginners are smart enough to not get themselves into such hot water (or rather, bitterly cold blizzard), and advanced skiers take it as a healthy challenge to their demonstrable skills, and boldly tackle the elements.
With that little boost of confidence, we’re off. Flailing effortlessly down the mountain, with no more control than a pubescent boy with his hormones atwitter, my body jerks side-to-side, my butt, with a mind of it’s own, thrusts back, no doubt preparing to be landed upon, and I slam into snow pile after snow pile, fully confident that I have no idea how to get to the bottom of the mountain, and scared to death for that reason.
My thighs burn like the forest fires I imagine alight in these very same mountains during the summer months. I think how warming those fires might be right about now, as my fingers are so cold I can’t feel them.
We encounter a wet, barefooted snowboarder, who’d proudly jumped a cliff into a creek. Would he do it again? We ask. “Dude! You bet!” he beams.
After several hours of professional training, after which time I feel no more confident in my skiing ability, I call it quits and head to my scheduled massage, something my physical therapist insisted I have.
I sit down in the waiting room of the spa, relaxing to the dulcet tones of nature, as recorded and studio-mixed by someone who thinks that nature should sound like this. The plink-plink-plink of the mandolin between bird tweets and waterfalls makes me feel almost relaxed.
The masseuse beckons me into the room, and as I stand up, I realize that I can’t stand up. My muscles are frozen in position. She must recognize this condition, as she laughs and comes over to help hoist me from the couch. How embarrassing.
To me it is no small feat to return at the end of the skiing day intact and injury free. I feel the blood of relief pump through me when I can successfully count each of my brood back from their treacherous journey.
Apres ski involves my family jammed into a hot tub with at least twenty five other people from around the world, carting along with them every bacteria, virus, and parasite that can be transmitted by hot, bubbling unclean water. The relieving Petri dish does wonders for my aching bones, but I close my eyes after I see one too many unidentified floating objects tumble past me beneath the water’s surface. I hope that we all don’t end up with some horrible communicable disease, or at least that impossible-to-cure without liver-toxic medicines toenail fungus they show us on t.v. when we don’t want to be grossed out.
It’s been more than a decade since I last skied out West. Back then I was admittedly more fit and vital than I am today. And so I was ill-prepared me for the level of fatigue that was to befall us all by day’s end.
An exhaustion blankets us all as if we’d just wandered through a field of poppies in Oz. Yet mine is to remain an unrequited exhaustion, as sleep eludes me. For that matter, sleep eludes us all, for my daughter has sprung a dry relentless cough that refuses to be tamed by even a codeine-based cough suppressant. Throughout the night–and day, for that matter–she hacks away, each sound causing a reflexive flinch for the rest of us as the poor child tries desperately to breath unimpinged.
I awaken about fifty times due to the uber dry Rocky Mountain air and the altitudinal adjustments that my body doesn’t seem to want to make. I feel like I’m suffering from the worst hangover of my life, every drop of moisture having been sucked from me by atmospheric conditions beyond my control. It’s as if I’m some vacuum-sealed version of myself, freeze-dried for eventual defrosting come spring. I’m pounding water at the rate of a gallon an hour, and the only thing this makes me do is have to pee continually.
By morning, I am so poorly rested I feel a sense of despair. Trying to rise out of bed requires a crane, or at least the optimistic manipulations of a chiropractor. Alas, I don’t have one of those with me. As I creak from room to room, retrieving the myriad articles of ski gear I need to start this torturous routine all over again, I wince from pain in places I didn’t even know existed on my body. My back, well that goes without saying. But my glutes, my knees, my shins, my feet, my thighs, my hips, wrists. I think even my teeth hurt. About the only thing not hurting right now is my left armpit.
But it’s my duty to go out and ski again today, and so obligingly, I do so. Plus, I don’t want my family to see me as the weenie I’ve truly become. Today is even harder than yesterday, because not only do I not have much of an improvement of skill level, but also I have the muscular failure of yesterday taunting me.
The sky is the cerulean color of a bluebird, my favorite bird. I take this as a good sign. The fir trees atop the slopes are adorned in gowns of glimmering snow. Were it not for the fact that my stated goal is to mount and then ski down slope after slope and that I am freezing my ass off, I would almost enjoy myself, based on the natural beauty of the place alone.
I run into my ski instructor on one of the slopes, and she enthuses to me, “Whoo-hoo! Today’s what we call and ‘ego ski’ day! You get to show off your stuff in prime ski conditions.”
I can’t help but wonder whose ego is to benefit from these conditions, because I know it’s not going to be mine. Rain or shine, blizzard or not, I look like one of those ballerina hippos from Fantasia on the slopes. Graceful, I am not.
Today the fir trees atop the slopes are adorned in gowns of shimmering snow, contrasted starkly against a cerulean bluebird sky. Distant stands of trees cast a five o’clock shadow on the mountain face: some a youthful brown, others an aged ice-grizzled. It’s exquisite.
From the lift I can see vistas I had no idea existed yesterday. Whereas then I could see just as far as my instructor’s face, today I can see far enough to realize we are so bloody damned high up from sea level that my nose should be bleeding. Strewn below are the littered remains of naively ambitious skiers and overly confident snowboarders committing gravity-defying acts of insanity, and I shake my head in dumbfounded wonder. Do these people know something I have not been privy to? Unlikely, I reassure myself.
No doubt they are charter members of the convocation of the Let’s Get Together and Die Young Club, soaring down the mountain on boards not much wider than my thighs (alas), seeking huge mounds of snow and steep precipices from which to launch themselves into the nebulous space before them.
Meanwhile, my kids are drunk on youthful invincibility, unconcerned with risking life, limb and orthodontia in pursuit of the perfect run.
Yet I’m poisoned with a toxic dose of maternal paranoia, knowing that it’s hard to retrieve missing white teeth from equally white snow.
As they negotiate the mountain, I say a little prayer. Who, I wonder, is the patron saint of alpine mountain sports? Saint Bernard?
Now I know why those dogs carry rum casks on their collars: so that people like me will return to ski another day.
A family photo at the summit delivers the final blow to my fantasy: Dashed is mental image of Jen as snow bunny; in its stead is Jen as Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Where’s that St. Bernard when you need him?
By trip’s end, we remain mercifully injury-free– except, perhaps my bruised ego.
Would I do it again, you ask? Dude! You bet!