Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part III

A trick of the light, a moment of distraction, what ever it was, I did something wrong.

In a heart stopping, bug-eyed, “Oh CRAP” moment, I was cutting the wrong way; not down to the next flag, but into the dark woods. Back then, no one wore a helmet when they skied. It simply didn’t happen. We didn’t even think of is as being “wimpy” or less manly or any of that, because you just never saw it. You would have been just as likely to think, “Hey, no one here in the swimming pool is wearing shoulder pads” as you were to think, “Wow, no one on the slopes is wearing any head protection.” It simply wasn’t on our collective radar. The only time I ever saw a helmet on the slopes was during an actual competition, and even then, it was for only for competitive jumping, not slalom. We would have been as surprised to see a unicycle going down the trail as a person in a helmet. It goes without saying that my knit hat wasn’t going to do me much help in this situation except maybe keep the smaller skull fragments from flying loose on what was looking like a highly likely impact. For that split second, I was truly terrified.

Looking into the trees, I knew one thing. If I went in, I wasn’t coming out. Not breathing, at any rate. I was going perhaps thirty miles per hour or better, could barely make out the trunks in the dark and shadows and it was all unbroken, deep snow. Somehow, at the very edge of the trail, I managed to pull my skis up and redirect myself back onto the course and into tree free territory. I missed a bunch of flags, botching my high speed run, barely missed the coach as she rolled out of the way when I whipped by her at the finish line and came to a stop a short down the slope, completely freaked out.

It took me a while to calm down and let the adrenalin subside. Somehow, I screwed up enough courage to hike back up and make the other two required passes, but this time, my speed was horrible. I practically coasted down and I remember the coach being ticked off at my obvious lack of effort. I don’t think she understood how I, at age sixteen, had come face to face with my own mortality that night and the very powerful effect it held over me.

I didn’t make the A list.

I stayed on the team for a while longer but I decided that there just was no way I was going to get near that situation again, and the coach new it. I only actually raced once and, surprise, surprise, didn’t win. Honestly, I don’t remember if I finished the year out with them or not. If I did, it would have only been as a bench warmer.

One of the unforeseen side effects of my skiing this hard and pushing my self to achieve more and more ability was that skiing with my father had changed for me too. Skiing now, even at what I considered sedate speeds, I was far faster than Dad and outstripped him quickly, often loosing each other for an hour or so and cooling my feet at the lift line while scanning the crowds for his familiar hat or coat. The other problem was a classic catch-22. I didn’t want to ski at full throttle, on the outer envelope of my abilities any more, so I didn’t. But now, the slower pace and wide, meandering trails that I had enjoyed before, now bored me.


Image from Skiernet.com

Skiing had lost its allure. Other than the good company and the spectacular views, I just didn’t find it much fun any longer. I’d still go with Dad, but we went less and less as I found excuses not to go. I knew he still enjoyed it, so I’d go from time to time but honestly, I would have been just as happy to spend the time with him doing just about anything else.

When I went away to college, I mostly stopped all together. There were a few times here and there, but they were pretty few and far between. When I moved to Maine, I stopped entirely. When I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire, there was fantastic skiing to be had about forty minutes away and a half-day ticket was eleven bucks. Today, we’re more than a two hour drive from anything that could be called a real mountain and once you add in having to get off the island into the mix, you are talking about one serious time commitment. That, on top of a lift ticket fee that will make your heart stop and your wallet try and scurry down your pant leg and into your boot, and I just haven’t even been tempted.

I had been spoiled by proximity,cheap lift tickets and abilities that ruined me for anything slower than ludicrous speed.

Short Stack, on the other hand, hasn’t. This was being brought up to me again, first by my own mother a few weeks ago and now separately by Action Girl.

“I was talking to a friend of mine who’s taught ski school and he says that Short Stack is old enough to learn. We should give it a try!”

By “we” she means “me.” Action Girl knows how to do a lot of outdoorsy things, but alpine skiing isn’t one of them. I’m sure she could do it, but she has none of the equipment and, regardless of how rusty and neglected it is, I do. I’m starting to think about it in a positive light. I love spending one-on-one time with my kids and this would be a unique thing I could do with my son, at least until Lulu Belle gets old enough to want to give it a try. We wouldn’t have to go to the big mountains for him to learn, but rather the small, old fashioned, groomed hill near Action Girl’s folks house. We could even spend the night there and thus have plenty of time to recover before heading home.

Against my initial reaction to the idea, I’m warming to it now.

It’s been almost fifteen years since I’ve gone skiing and I’m willing to bet that my abilities have eroded quite a bit, along with the edges on my once cutting edge, racing skis. Perhaps too, my memory of what it was like to be able to fly along like a fighter jet down the face of a ridiculously steep, ice covered slope has faded enough to let me again enjoy a leisurely, weaving ski down a broad, open trail.

Maybe it will be fun again.

I think Short Stack and I will go and see. He’ll need boots, skis, poles and naturally, a helmet, but I’m kind of getting excited to try. There will be a lot to show him. How to snow plow, how to turn, the right way to fall down and then, how to get back up again. I anticipate a very long day with lots of snow filled jackets and pants. I think it will be worth it though, in the end.

And later on, when we are sitting in the lodge, enjoying our twenty dollar cup of American chop suey, I’ll tell him the story of Dad versus the T-Bar. If you happen to come looking for us on the mountain though, we’ll be in line at the high speed quad.

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Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part I

As the snow falls in quiet, blanketing quantity on the already buried yard and roof, Action Girl and I scurry around in the kitchen in an effort to get food on the table for the kids before blood sugar levels start to droop and turn the light hearted laughing in the living room into maniacal cackles followed by periods of lavish crying. It’s always a challenging race.

“You know,” My wife paused as she got the various drinks ready. “We really ought to look into getting Short Stack into skiing. Reflexively, I grimaced a bit but then quickly conceded the point. She continued, “ There’s a place right up by my folk’s where he could give it a try and see if he likes it. It’d be good for him.” I tried to be noncommittal, but upon being pressed to define my neutral sounding mumbling, I agreed out loud with the idea. It’s not that I don’t approve of skiing or anything. It’s more insidious than that.

I’m spoiled. Poisonously so.

When I was not much older than Short Stack is now, my father decided to initiate me into a great New England tradition and take me alpine skiing. Skiing was introduced to American here in the northeast and has been enthusiastically embraced ever since. My Dad was really excited and partly due to his own enthusiasm, I was pretty revved up as well. I got to have new, never seen by me before, equipment and a day out with Dad. What could be better?

I actually remember the day quite well. After a short drive early one wintry morning, we arrived at the base of the mountain. Cars lined up in a snowy lot as kids wearing orange safety vests waved small flags directed us to our spot amongst all the others. I clambered into my red snow suit, was wedged into the most uncomfortable boots I had ever experienced in my short life and then tromped off like a miniature Frankenstein’s monster, following Dad to the lifts.

The lifts were, to be frank, imposing as hell. At the age of four, I felt that I had pretty much mastered the art of sitting down with out assistance, but this was a totally different situation. The chairs and benches I was used to didn’t move of their own accord on an endless loop and I rarely worked with a live audience waiting to see how I managed. We stood there and watched it for a while and then, just as I was getting used to the idea, Dad redirected me to something totally different.

The T-Bar.

Nowadays, we are firmly in the era of high speed quads and even fully enclosed gondolas. They might as well have mini bars and wait staff in comparison to the T-Bar. A T-Bar, and its slightly eviler cousin, the J-Bar, are simply a bit of pipe with a backless, armless seat, all hanging from a moving cable that zings along at a speed that seems way, WAY too fast. The biggest difference between a regular chair lift and one of these monstrosities is that there is no “lift” aspect to the ride. It’s all “chair.” Your skis never leave the ground but instead are used to “steer” you up the side of the trail, or in my case, to certain doom. They do build in a spring mechanism into it up where the pipe attaches to the cable, and this is intended to make your transition from zero to “Oh my GOD!” a little bit easier to take. For me, all it did was prolong the moment of impending faceplant so I could savor my terror a bit longer. My first attempt did not go well.

Neither did my second.

On my third, I hardly screamed at all. I was making progress!

At some point, with my snow suit having been forcibly crammed with roughly eight pounds of slushy-snow mixture from all the mechanically induced white washes, I managed to get up high enough on the hill to try out the skis. It was “go” time!

As it turned out, all I could go was about six or seven feet until my brain would take over and yell, “What the hell are you doing?!? You’re gonna DIE! Fall over now before you get going too fast!” and obediently, over I’d go.

WHAP!

I got terrifically good at this as my Father did his very best to dredge up every ounce of patience he had available to him. To his extreme credit, I can not recall him at any time speaking through clenched teeth during the day as I listened to his instructions, lined up on the bunny slope and then promptly fell over for no readily apparent reason. The good part about collapsing in a heap mere moments after starting a run was that I didn’t have to take my chances with the T-Bar all that often. One ride to the top of the slope was good for at least eight or nine falls!

We did this all morning and by lunch, we were starved, wet to the skin and both feeling pretty frustrated and we decided to let the cafeteria’s American Chop Suey and hot chocolate do it’s best to cheer us up. As we munched away on our lavishly expensive ziti in cheeze and meat sauce, I kept thinking about all those times spent flat in the snow and what I needed to do differently to remedy that. Dad, I’m guessing, was focusing on the idea that at least he was out for the day with his son and that was all that mattered. The skiing was unimportant. I’m betting that he thought about this looooong and hard, possibly repeating it like a mantra.

“Hey, Buddy. What do you say? Want to just go home?” His comment caught me off guard. Dad didn’t give up on anything easily and the offer, though I knew it to be sincere, was out of character for him. I actually found it a bit unsettling. Yes, I did, but that wasn’t the point.

“Let’s try just one more time.” Was the only answer I had. I wanted to go home, but it just didn’t seem right to throw in the towel now, no matter how snowy and ice encrusted it was.

We suited back up into our damp outerwear and after another pitched bout with the infernal T-Bar, I found myself looking back down the slope that I had grown to know intimately at toe level. Dad gave me one last pep talk and asked if I wanted to hold onto his poles as he went down backwards. “Nope. I’ll try by my self.” And with that, down the slope I went… all the way, and most importantly, on my skis rather than under them. The rest of the day, the two of us skied happily together and other than a few more flops in the snow followed by quick recoveries, I had it nailed.

As the years went on, Dad and I went skiing quite a lot. It was our winter “father/son” thing to do and we both enjoyed it immensely. I wasn’t too bad, and gravitated toward the wide open intermediate trails the most. Mostly free of moguls and as wide as a football field in places, they allowed me to get into a tuck and fly like the wind. I’d smile all the way down, hooting like a lunatic where appropriate. We were fairly evenly matched in skill, though I always seemed to have more of a need for speed than Dad did, but it worked our well. I’d bomb ahead at crazy speed, almost wipe out and then come to a semi-elegant stop blasting up a tidal wave of snow in the process. There, I’d wait for my father to come into view and once visual was established, bomb off to the next logical place to stop and wait. The system worked fine.

Anyone who knows me at all knows one thing for sure: sports don’t interest me in the least. I never played Little League, never tried out for track and field and simply never wanted to. It wasn’t my idea of fun. When I got to high school, as a non-sports player, I stood out; especially since my uncle was the head coach of the highly acclaimed school football team. In a moment of weakness I bowed to pressure and signed up for the only sport that held any appeal to me at all: alpine skiing.

Big mistake.

More later…

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