For me, there was the first time I went rappelling, and nearly leaned off the fifth floor of a parking garage without being clipped in. Or, when a car tagged my back wheel as I biked through downtown. Or, when me and my white-as-can-be best friend and I took a wrong turn in Portsmouth and ended up on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Somehow we survived. So you'd think (as my father did) that strapping myself onto four-foot carbon fiber blades and careening down icy mountains lined with trees and blissfully unaware six-year-olds would be sure suicide. Somehow I survived, and I learned to ski.
Let me just say that my wonderful girlfriend had been looking forward to this for weeks - not just because she got to ski herself (she's quite good) but because she would get to watch me fall on my butt all day long. I was forewarned that this might be a terrible day of bruises and snow-munching, in which I might learn to turn eventually if we were all lucky and, like, on the bunny slope, and in which I probably would not have fun. You know all those skills that are "A moment to learn, a lifetime to master"? Like that Othello game? Skiing aint' one like that. Skiing, apparently, takes three or four grinding days on the slopes before you even enjoy yourself. You have to persevere.
It's not easy, standing up on an icy hill with four-foot slippery plastic duck feet. The skill comes only with an awkward struggle. But when you first figure out how to stand, without motion or flailing about, it's an important moment. You stand. You look around at the mountain, glorious in snow and evergreen coat and the sheer magnitude of the sky overwhelms you. "Here I am!" you may think. "Standing on skis! On a mountain!" Strong work, ski-standing guy. But of course that's hardly the fun of skiing. The fun is in whooshing about, swooping down the slopes and kicking up great plumes of snow for the sheer delight of it, carving cursive nonsense in the bright, smooth snow with a twist of the hips. It's beautiful. But again, there are lessons to learn.
The first lesson was the snowplow, or, as it's called, the "pizza slice." This is because you get a wide stance and point the tips of your skis together, which naturally slows you down without making you face-plant. Actually, the face plant is probably the first lesson: if you are about to die by tree, pole, precipice or fellow skier, face plant lest you complete the deed. Beginners' skis have their bindings (the interface between ski and boot) set really loose, so if you fall your skis pop right off without destroying your ankles. Mine popped themselves off embarassingly easily. But anyway - after the face plant, the snow plow. It's a more complicated maneuver than it seems, too. To do the ideal snowplow, you bend your knees, stick your butt out, turn your ankles in, don't cross your tips, lift your toes slightly, invert your feet, and lean onto the front of your ski boots. All this is designed to force the inside edge of the front of your ski into the snow with great pressure, which, yes, plows quite nicely. I barely got the hang of it in an entire day.
The third lesson in skiing is the turn. Once you learn when to face plant, how to pizza slice, and how to turn, you are officially able to not kill yourself when not under direct supervision. Basically, it's possible to get down almost any slope (no matter how steep) as long as you can zig zag your way down with turns. It's analagous to tacking in the sport of sailing, or switchbacks on a hiking trail, or that thing NASCAR drivers do right before they start the race. More turns = more distance = better ability to control your descent. Simple enough, eh? Right. Except in skiing, a turn is made by putting your weight on your down hill - and therefore, outside - ski. This is completely different from anything you've ever done. It makes little to no intuitive sense that in order to stop going downhill during a turn, you have to put more weight downhill. And that to turn more tightly, you have to put more weight toward the outside of the curve. I learned this the hard way, as I guess everyone has to. There was one steep hill I basically fell my way down, turning too slowly because I was trying to ski like I bike, weight inside the turn.
My girlfriend tells me that it's all about making your edges bite instead of where you're turning around. In fact, the next and better type of turn is done simply by rolling your skis so the proper edge bites. And, she says, ski instructors can assess your level of beginner-ness by asking how you turn. Pretty cool.
Once you can turn, there comes a long period of practice that helps you gain confidence. I call this the "Mario Brothers" phase. Mario Brothers was a game I could play for any number of levels until it came to the dreaded clouds or trees-in-the-sky-with-moving-things level, and then I'd be done. For some reason, my fear of heights and falling from them to a gorey death manifested itself as extreme fear of Mario plummetting from the airey realm of flying turtles to his disturbingly invisible death below. I just couldn't do them. SO you kind of have to get over that because - guess what - you ski on top of the biggest hill you may have ever been on. On all sides, the ground is either covered in pines or slides away, sometimes at such an angle that you can't see off the other side. My brain knows that, if there is a deadly cliff awaiting skiers, there will be a fence or at least some netting to forewarn them. But it also knows that on the other side of that hill was a winged turtle, mindlessly chomping its aerial patrol, and my only course of action would be to ski directly onto its precarious, icy, evil turtle back. It took a while before I could let go of that and I still snowplowed very carefully around the more uneasy of slopes.
Also, there were the ski lifts. On one, I literally wrecked out myself and my girlfriend's parents, and we collapsed in a heap, my skis blithely gliding free of their devil-may-care bindings. I didn't use that particular ski lift much after that.
But all in all, I neither killed nor injured myself - nor any others! And I had a great time, which no one really expected. My girlfriend's family were impressed that I was able to get down the slopes on my own before long. Thankfully I was the exception to that rule.
We'll be back.