preload preload preload preload preload preload
0 Comments | Dec 20, 2011

A Day on the Mountain

Orski fall

Why Skiing is an Especially Apt Metaphor for

Life Itself

What do you get when you combine the annoyance factor of golf, the vast expense of scuba, and the bodily risk of skydiving? That’s right—skiing, a pastime whose origins are lost to antiquity, but which, in all likelihood, involved some Swiss or Austrian misanthrope—let’s agree to call him Gunther—living high on a mountain, who awakens one day to discover he is snowed in by a couple of feet of fresh powder from the previous night’s storm, and on the very day he had meant to go into the village at the base of the mountain for his semi-annual consignment of groceries. Well, shucks, our antiquarian hero[1] says to himself, looks like the only way I’m going to make it into town today is if I strap a couple of boards to my feet, rub a little goose grease on the bottoms to slick them up a bit, and slide down on top of all that snow. And so, for the moment neglecting to consider how he is going to make his way back up the hill with all those groceries, Gunther deftly navigates his way down the mountain and into the village, to the astonishment of his fellow citizens, who stop and stare in awe at the grace and speed with which he speeds down the village’s main street. And thus (at least plausibly) skiing is born[2].

Fast forward a few hundred years and you will find at your typical modern ski resort not socially-challenged mountaineers[3], but half-hour queues, hundred-dollar lift passes, and eight-dollar cardboard hamburgers. But, like a first-day skier staring over the precipice of a double black diamond, I am getting rather far ahead of myself here. I mean to explain all of the nuances of the sport in good time, but first a bit of back story is required, in order that you understand the context of what might otherwise come across as an unnecessarily negative exposition into what is, admittedly, a wildly popular pastime.

It will not be news to those who have participated in a sport of any kind that the earlier in life one begins said participation, the better at it one tends to be throughout the remainder of one’s life, most especially if that early start is augmented with some quality instruction, and if, of course, the individual is amenable to said instruction. All of which is a long and obtusely structured way of suggesting that I achieved none of these objectives, at least as far as skiing goes. The fact that I grew up in Maine probably counts for something in all of this. Goodness knows, I came of age no stranger to snow, though all of the terrain on which its copious quantities lay during my upbringing was unremarkably flat[4].

I not only grew up in Maine, but lived in the same house for my entire memorable childhood, save for a bit of moving about in the first couple of years, of which I have no recollection. Our family was on the decidedly lower end of the economic scale, and we didn’t engage in any of the sorts of recreation that required one to actually pay money. In fact, upon reflection, it still astounds me that I managed to grow up in Maine without once doing any of the things that people travel great distances and spend great sums to come from other parts of the world to do[5]. Oddly enough, I do not even recall having any friends in school growing up who were skiers. I include this apparent biographical digression only to help explain why it is that I first tried skiing at such a relatively late age.

It was only when I got to college, at the lofty age of twenty-four[6], that I first had the opportunity to give skiing a try. Once I mustered the verve to strap on a pair of boards and hit the slopes, I quickly[7] discovered a few things, the lessons of which I mean to impart in the paragraphs that follow. If you have never skied and are keen to give it a try, these insights will, I think, serve you well.

The very first thing you need to know is that skiing is expensive. If there existed a sliding scale that compared the prices of the various athletic and recreational activities available to the average American[8], skiing would easily reside in the upper decile. In fact, there are two related but distinct components that comprise the overall budget for ski gear. The first has to do with the skiing itself, i.e., equipment needed to make one’s way from the top to the bottom of the mountain[9]. The second tranche of expense has less to do with skiing per se, and more to do with surviving the abysmally cold temperatures during which most skiing takes place. Into the former category fall three primary items—skis, bindings, and boots[10]. Bindings, for the uninitiated, are the items used to connect the former to the latter, and whose secondary but equally important function, is to facilitate the separation of you from your skis in the event of a spill, on which topic more and copious details will soon follow. Without getting too deeply into the recondite technological details here, suffice it to say that a respectable set of new ski equipment can easily set you back in excess of a thousand dollars, though it can be had for a good deal less through judicious shopping[11].

As counter-intuitive as it may, at first, seem, the sartorial expense associated with skiing can easily surpass that of the equipment, particularly if you’re the fashion-conscious sort. It’s actually surprising how many people will scrimp on gear, but then break the bank buying the down jackets, pants, socks, thermal underwear, hats, helmets, gloves, scarves, face masks, backpacks and endless other accoutrements[12] that are (possibly) necessary in order to survive a day on a fourteen-thousand-foot mountain. But the critical thing to keep in mind about these decisions is not so much the fashion element, though this is by far the bigger driver of cost. Rather, the principal concern should be the efficacy of one’s purchases. How warm will that five-hundred-dollar jacket keep you when you’re sitting on a stuck chair lift, in a twenty-knot wind, fifty feet up in the air, for fifteen minutes on a cold, cloudy day? Will your socks bunch up in the toe of your ski boot? Will your mask fog up just as you’re approaching a bump at high speed? Unfortunately, many of these critical questions are unknowable until you’ve committed to the purchase and are actually out there on the slopes freezing to death and cursing the salesman back at Sun & Ski who assured you that this was the finest jacket money could buy because of its synthetic Argentinian beaver-skin lining and state-of-the-art solar-cell rear panels, or whatever. Suffice it to say that judicious research and active solicitation of the opinions of knowledgeable friends can save you from some very pricey and frustrating mistakes down the road.

Having outfitted yourself appropriately, your sense of anticipation will, no doubt, have risen to a fever pitch as you try to sleep the night before your impending assault on the mountain. Once the big day arrives[13], the first thing you will notice about the skiing experience is that it takes a rather extraordinary amount of time and effort to actually assemble all of that clothing and gear you’ve spent the past few weeks gathering. Indeed, the first significant challenge for any new skier is that of getting from the car in the parking lot to the point where you’re in a position to actually join a lift line, on which more shortly.

Indeed, getting from the car to the lift is sufficiently challenging to almost qualify as a sport in its own right. It goes something like this. You pull into your parking spot, daunted perhaps for just a moment by the sound of the tires crunching and squeaking on the hard-packed snow. Understand that by this point you’ve typically been riding in the car for a good long while[14] after having stopped at McDonald’s and quaffed a couple of egg McMuffins and a quart or so of coffee. You’re comfortable, warm, and likely half asleep. When you reluctantly push open the car door, the first sensation that hits you is the biting cold and rarified air of what is already a pretty high-up place, even at the altitude of the parking lot. You grudgingly step from the car, remove your ungainly skis from either the roof rack or back of the car, taking care in the rapidly growing cold not to ding the cars around you (or your own) with those freshly sharpened edges. You then proceed to spend five minutes or so zipping up, buttoning down, tying together, and generally ensconcing yourself in all of the clothing you purchased in preparation for this adventure, but which you did not wear in the car on the ride up. At some point, as you’re wrapping yourself in layer upon layer, it will occur to you that you finally understand why that little boy in “A Christmas Story”[15] couldn’t get back up once he’d fallen over into the snow bank near his house. The first sobering lesson that the new skier discovers at this point is that it is a challenging thing indeed to walk across an icy parking lot wrapped in several layers of winter survival gear while carrying skis, boots, poles, and a backpack. The second insightful thing you learn is that skiing has, as one of its more charming attributes, the very real possibility of your becoming completely exhausted before even beginning the sport proper.

Having made your way safely into the lodge, two new and daunting obstacles await[16]. The first is that you must get your boots on. The seasoned skier will make this look easy. If, on the other hand, you are an infrequent skier or totally new, this will be the moment when you get your first inkling of how the rest of the day is going to go. Assuming you were prescient enough to have brought with you the same socks you wore when you tried on your rental boots back at the shop, you should be okay. If not, you may well end up with boots that are too tight or too loose. Without belaboring the point, suffice it to say that you can expect to spend ten minutes or so getting the boots to slide on, figuring out the byzantine clipping mechanism that holds them closed, and finding the precise sweet spot at which the ski pants and boot tops will meet without pinching your ankles, cutting off circulation to your feet, or allowing snow to get inside. If, once you’ve got everything jammed into place, it turns out you have gotten boots a size too small, or put on one too many pairs of socks, you can look forward to poor circulation in your toes all day and a resulting case of frozen lower extremities.

But let’s say, just for laughs, that you’ve managed to get your boots on with a minimum of aspersion, there isn’t too much pain, and you aren’t sweating that profusely yet, despite having put forth the effort while wearing a full ensemble of Arctic clothing that precludes nearly all joint flexure, and all in an eighty-degree ski lodge. When you first stand, you will notice an interesting and slightly awkward sensation. Your boots have been designed so as to force you to bend your knees slightly forward all the time, whether you want them to bend or not[17]. For now, this is merely fascinating. It will be a couple of hours before it starts getting irritating. At long last, the time has come to exit the lodge, step into line, and buy your first lift pass.

Which is not a good time to realize that you left your wallet back in the car. Because if that is the case, you now face the unenviable choice of walking back out across the icy parking lot in ski boots or swapping back to the shoes that you had on to begin with. It’s also not a good time to realize that you, in fact, have your wallet on you, but it’s in the back pocket of your jeans, which, of course, means that it’s under your ski pants and your jacket. If, however, you have managed not to fall prey to any such neophyte faux pas, you will, eventually, make it to the front of the line, where you will make the unpleasant discovery that purchasing a lift pass for a single day of skiing is, these days, about on a par with purchasing an airline ticket. Standard daily rates are now in the seventy-five to one hundred dollar range, depending on which mountain you are visiting[18]. And, to add insult to injury[19], it’s not even like you’re really buying a full day of skiing. The lifts typically don’t open until 8:30 or 9 a.m., and they’re generally closed by 4 p.m. Subtract time for lunch, and you’re really paying for five or six hours on the slopes. It also will not help your frame of mind at this point to dwell on the fact that you got up an hour and a half before sunrise and drove three hours for the privilege of laying out all this money.

If you’ve never skied before, take a moment to read that paragraph on the back of your lift pass, the one with the indecipherably tiny font. It’s hard to read for a reason, i.e., because if people read it closely, the popularity of skiing would doubtless suffer somewhat. In short, what it says is that skiing is fraught with peril and that if you hurt[20], maim, or kill yourself, either through your own actions/inactions[21] or the actions/inactions of others, the resort is not at fault and that neither you nor your designated heirs/survivors may sue the resort since you were presumably well-warned in advance. And you don’t get to check a little box or otherwise acknowledge that you voluntarily accept this state of affairs. The fact that you chose to get in line, pay for the lift pass, and affix it to your person, constitutes your acceptance of full responsibility for whatever happens[22]. And finally, the disclaimer says that you can’t get your money back if, by nine-thirty, you’ve decided the whole thing sucks, you’re cold, and you just want to get back in the car and go home[23].

But you, of course, are made of sterner stuff and have decided to go through with it. After all, you drove all the way out here. You paid for the lift pass. May as well see what the fuss is about. How hard can it be when three-year-old kids are flying past you[24] and effortlessly sliding into the back of the lift line like they were joining the lunch queue at their elementary school cafeteria? Well, pretty hard at first, as you discover the first time you click your boots into the bindings and promptly fall over before you’ve even had a chance to start moving forward. Every ski resort has this relatively flat area at the bottom—pejoratively known as the bunny slope—where neophytes can begin to get the hang of things without exposing experienced skiers to the hazards of their ineptitude. That’s the idea, at any rate. In actual practice, most bunny slopes are nothing but a relatively flat area at the bottom of the hill, that last section between the steeper upper sections and the lift line toward which all skiers regularly return. Which means that what you really have on most bunny slopes is a bunch of horrified, stumbling newbies interspersed with experienced skiers flying through and between them. What could possibly go wrong?

This is as good a spot as any to digress for a moment and remark on an important psychological issue associated with skiing, particularly first-time skiing. It’s not so much about putting mistakes behind you as in golf. Nor is success on the slopes based on a killer competitive instinct like, say, football or basketball. Introductory skiing is primarily about tenacity. Depending on your native level of athleticism, getting to the point where you can credibly get into the lift line and make your way up the mountain can take anywhere from fifteen minutes to several days. In fact, it’s difficult to learn much on the bunny slope, because they’re generally not more than a couple of hundred feet long, so that if you do manage to start moving at something faster than walking speed, or even carve out a half-decent turn or two, the whole thing is over almost as soon as it begins and then you’re crawling back up the hill on the rope tow or tee bar that serves most beginner slopes[25].

But, because we’re all optimists here, let’s fast-forward again and imagine that you’ve mastered the bunny hill and successfully made it through the lift line and onto the chair lift.[26] During the five-to-ten minutes that it typically takes to get to the top of most mountains[27] you discover the first pleasant aspect of the sport[28]. Assuming that it is a decent day and you aren’t skiing in the middle of a blizzard,[29] you will find that the views from the lift can be spectacular[30], particularly at the bigger western resorts in Colorado and Utah[31]. In fact, during the lift ride up, you will encounter numerous interesting, sometimes even humorous, sights. You will see skiers below you who make it all look terribly easy, moving with grace and skill like they’re auditioning for a Warren Miller documentary. And you will see some making their way feebly down the hill, appearing to know no more about this thing than you do, which is always heartening. You will see occasional pieces of abandoned ski equipment—a glove here, a pole there—that will make you curious about how they came to be there.[32] You will gaze upward in wonder at many of the hills you will later have an opportunity to ski down.[33] You will see the tops of trees going by your chair, from which you will frequently see hanging all sorts of incongruous items, the two most common of which are Mardi Gras beads and women’s underwear. Apparently there is a sub-sport associated with skiing whereby bored people on lifts play a sort-of ring toss game with the tops of the trees and their partners’ under-garments. I haven’t looked into this too closely yet, but it may make an intriguing essay in its own right. And, as you ride upward, you will eventually, inexorably, see, to the horror of every new skier, the station where you must exit the chair.

The reason why all new skiers regard this moment with terror is that they’ve been instructed to do so by the experienced skiers with whom they’ve made the trip that day. However, unlike all the other lies your friends may have told you down through the years, in this assertion they are correct. This is a very good time to be afraid, or at least thoughtful and prepared. You are about to embark upon the first serious challenge of skiing, getting off the chair.

Removing oneself from a chairlift, while not inherently dangerous, does present a couple of difficulties to the uninitiated. You are required to do several new things, all more or less simultaneously, during which effort events are going to unfold quickly and inexorably, whether or not you are actually prepared.  As the exit approaches, you must lift your ski tips, so as not to jam them into the rapidly approaching snow, whose distance from the bottom of your skis is fast diminishing. You must then, in a reasonably controlled manner, rise from your seated position and ski—actually ski—down a very small hill, where small could be a couple of feet or ten feet, depending on the particular mountain. This hill, though very short, will almost certainly be a good deal steeper than anything you encountered on the bunny hill, now a few thousand feet below you. Almost everyone falls the first time they attempt the dismount from a chair lift—which wouldn’t be so bad in its own right, seeing as how you haven’t really gone very far. The problem is twofold. First, when anyone falls, their natural human tendency is to grab at something, anything, in an attempt to arrest the fall. In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases when getting off a chair lift, that something is the skier next to you. And this skier, even if experienced, has an excellent chance of falling as well, since he isn’t really expecting to be pulled sideways during his otherwise uneventful dismount. So now he starts falling, grabs the person next to him and…well, you get the idea. Typically, the result of all this will be a pile-up at the bottom of the little hill, comprising however many people there were on your chair[34].

Which would be bad enough if there wasn’t another full chair heading up the mountain about ten seconds behind yours. On rare occasions, the tangled morass of skiers, at least one of whom[35] has no idea what is happening, can manage to untangle itself and get out of the way before another group exits their chair and skis into the pile[36]. More commonly, an alert lift attendant will notice the calamity unfolding, and will, with great exasperation, stop the lift and walk out to help untangle things, while everyone else on the lift swings impatiently in their seats, getting cold and wondering what pinhead crashed at the top of the hill and interrupted their skiing.

The good news about this embarrassing chain of events is that you’ve unwittingly accomplished one of your key goals for the day, your first fall[37]. And believe me, it’s better to have your first fall occur on the top of the hill at slow speed than when you’re flying down the hill, out of control, screaming at the top of your lungs[38]. In fact, falling is an inherent aspect of the skiing experience. Trying to ski without falling is akin to trying to swim without getting wet.

I should state, at this point in the narrative, that there are endless tips and techniques that accompany the actual act of skiing, i.e., getting from the top of the hill to the bottom in one piece. It is not my goal to describe these techniques here, as they are copious, highly subjective[39], and, besides, no one ever learned to ski based on something they read on paper. If you’re like most people and you choose to eschew instruction, the basic approach is to point your skis downhill and see what happens. So long as you stick with the easier hills and you’re with someone who’s willing to offer advice on some of the basics[40], you will typically find that within a couple of runs, you’ve rather gotten the hang of it, and might even be having an actual good time. It is typically around this point that the new skier will have his first significant fall.

Falls are a bit of an art form in skiing. Indeed, skiing is where the original notion of the face plant came from, i.e., a fall in which the first part of your body to make contact with the ground is one’s face. Sounds implausible, I know. Yet it happens countless times every day on every mountain. A few other useful fall-related terms that you can pepper your conversation with in order to sound more informed include:

  • Yard sale—Fall involving such excessive velocity that you lose both skis and poles and have to climb back up the mountain to retrieve them, since inevitably your body will tumble farther down the hill than will your unattached gear (which is conveniently designed so as not to travel down the hill when it’s not connected to you).
  • Spread—A measure of fall severity calculated as the maximum distance between any two pieces of your unattached equipment. Typically, higher speeds will result in higher spreads. The higher the spread, the more impressive the fall.
  • Biff—As in to “biff it.” Generic term for wiping out.

There are two principal categories of falls, those you see coming and those you do not. The former are generally those in which you’ve begun to get tired and you feel that telltale burning in your quads or your knees starting to give out, or perhaps you have begun to gain velocity in what is starting to feel like an uncontrolled manner[41]. In any of these cases you at least have the luxury of choosing the manner and, to a degree at least, location of your demise. The latter type, the ones you never see coming, are a whole different animal. These are the falls that happen the moment you think to yourself “hey, this isn’t so hard after all.” Where, just as you’ve gotten up a decent, reasonably controlled head of steam, your ski catches an edge suddenly and tries to rip one of your legs off to one side. Or maybe it’s late afternoon or overcast. Visibility isn’t so hot and you happen to catch a small mogul[42] at precisely the moment your weight is a little farther back than it should be, at which point you will do what, in the skiing vernacular, is known as “catching air.” Under normal, controlled circumstances, catching air is a favorable thing and generally regarded as one of the more fun and impressive aspects of the sport. However, when it catches you unaware and your weight is backward, what happens is that for the entire duration of your “hang time” your entire body will continue rotating backward, no matter the vigor of your thrashing and cursing, so that when you land (as you ultimately will) it will be either on your ass, your back, or your head, depending on various physical arcana like initial velocity, angular momentum, etc. In any event, you will land hard and it will hurt.

Other unfortunate types of unexpected falls include those that involve your fellow skiers. It will not surprise you to learn that there are other beginners on the mountain with you. Occasionally one of them, just like you, will get out of control and ski into you, or perhaps vice versa[43]. The best you can hope for in these circumstances is that the speed of impact is minimal. Another variation on the multi-skier accident scenario is one in which you ski into another skier who isn’t even moving, which, needless to say, that person will find rather unsettling. People frequently stop to rest while skiing, sometimes in places where other skiers can’t see them until the last second, like, for example, just over small rises on the hill.

Whatever the actual cause of the spill, an assortment of interesting things can occur as part of the practice of falling while on skis. One thing you will discover is that nylon-shell jackets are really slippery. If you happen to fall with just the right amount if speed and you happen also to land on your back, you can find yourself in the dubious position of sliding all the way down to the lodge on your back, which aside from looking funny as hell to other skiers, also causes you to endure a long walk back up to get your stuff. You will also learn during falls that the snow is utterly unimpressed with how diligently you tucked all of your sleeves, pant bottoms, etc. into each other back at the lodge, i.e., you will find snow in places inside your clothing that you cannot possibly comprehend. Finally, you will discover, if you should fall hard enough to lose your skis, that getting them back onto your boots while standing on a steeply angled section of the hill can be challenging indeed. For that matter, even standing back up after a fall can be taxing, particularly if, by now, you’re tired and your legs are starting to tighten up a little[44].  But enough of all this negativity and bad energy. Let’s say, just for laughs, that you’ve begun to get the hang of it, made it down the hill a few times, fallen more than a few times, uttered some words you hadn’t previously imagined being comfortable uttering in public, and now you’re ready for your first lunch at the lodge.

And it is in the lodge, during the lunchtime respite, where the novice skier encounters two of the most challenging aspects of the entire skiing experience. You will learn, in short order, that skiing, being the energetic pursuit that it is, consumes quite a lot of calories, which, of course, makes one hungry. What you will discover at nearly every ski resort in the country is that the food is not only fiendishly expensive, but also not terribly good, considering what you’re paying. But, be that as it may, you will still buy lots of it, if only out of sheer gratitude for having made it through the morning. Still, unless you make a regular habit of eating lunch at Yankee Stadium, you will likely find it a bit shocking when the cashier looks at your hamburger, chips and coke and says, with a perfectly straight face, “That will be twenty-three dollars.”

But you will pay, because that’s what skiing is all about, i.e., paying for stuff, lots of stuff. It is at this point, after you’ve shoved your now-much-lighter wallet back into your overpriced ski jacket, that you come face-to-face with what may be the single biggest physical challenge in all of skiing—carrying a tray filled with food across a crowded lodge while wearing ski boots[45]. The degree of difficulty of this endeavor rises swiftly if you make the tactical error of volunteering to get food for others in your party while they search for a table. The horrifically unnatural gait imposed on you by the boots is transmitted upward into the food tray in a manner that makes the walk back to your table look like something out of a bad Frankenstein movie. Only it gets better. Some sadistic soul, way back at the dawn of skiing, decided to make it an industry-wide practice to not allow plastic lids for drink cups at ski resorts. When you ask about this cruel practice, they will invariably mumble something about excess trash. But the god’s honest truth is that watching someone in ski boots try to carry a flimsy plastic tray across a hardwood lodge floor balancing four large lidless Cokes is the greatest source of entertainment the underpaid staff at the lodge gets during a typical workday. The final element one can add to one’s performance, in order to garner the absolute maximum number of difficulty points, is to successfully carry the food tray back to the table while also negotiating a flight of stairs en route.

So you’ve made it back to your table, voraciously consumed your twenty-three dollar cardboard hamburger and thirty-ounce Coke[46], and begun enjoying the warmth and general joie de vivre atmosphere of the place. At which point, the second most challenging aspect of skiing smacks you straight in the face, i.e., motivating yourself to get back up, put your expensive and now sweaty clothes back on and do it all again for the afternoon. It may, in fact, be an injustice to rank this challenge as second most difficult. After all, given enough ski trips, everyone becomes reasonably facile at carrying the food tray. But, in my experience anyway, going back outside for the afternoon runs never gets any easier no matter the degree of experience[47]. Only then it occurs to you that you paid eighty bucks for a lift pass whose value expires utterly in another three hours or so and you’d damned well better get your ass out there and make use of it while you still can, etc, etc.

So the afternoon is, more or less, the same falling down and getting up as it was all morning, only now you’re a little smoother and a little faster, which, of course, means that your falls are a bit more exciting and, all too frequently, a bit more painful. Factor in your full stomach, the lunch-induced lethargy that takes an hour or so to wear off, the fact that conditions at most resorts degrade somewhat as the afternoon progresses,[48] and your now overworked and underprepared legs, and most people start actually looking forward to the lifts closing down at 3:30 or 4:00. Except you’re not quite there yet. It’s only quarter to three and it’s usually around this time—halfway up on a long chair ride if you’re really lucky—that you suddenly realize the folly of that thirty-ounce Coke you drank at lunch.

Which, alas, presents you with the last really big challenge of skiing, i.e., toiletry. Setting gender issues aside for a moment, all of the apparatus you require in order to accomplish this otherwise banal task is now buried beneath several layers of winter survival gear. Even if you’re a male and facing the straightforward matter of urination, gaining the appropriate access[49] takes several minutes of struggle and contortion, despite which there remains a decent chance that some of what you’re aiming into the urinal will end up on your ski pants. If, on the other hand, what you require involves more than standing before a urinal, then be prepared for a half hour or so of gyrations constrained by the confines of a standard, i.e., no-wider-despite-being-used-by-skiers-who-look-remarkably-like-the-michelin-man stall. But enough of this scatological discourse. On to one of the very few pleasant, indeed transcendent, aspects of skiing.

When that final run is in the books, and you’ve removed your skis, you will discover the pure human state of bliss known as removing your boots. When you do this—which, as a final gotcha—can take a good deal of effort, given how thoroughly one’s feet tend to snug down into the boots after a full day on the slopes, you will do what skiers refer to euphorically as “rediscovering your ankles.” It’s an absolutely phantasmagorical sensation that is, in itself, almost reason enough to take up skiing in the first place. Nothing feels quite like walking back across the parking lot and being able to bend your ankles while doing so. Combine with this the psychological bliss of knowing that you’re going home and you don’t have to get up at 4:30 tomorrow morning—it’s almost a drug-like sensation.

I suggested in the title of this essay that skiing is an apt metaphor for life itself, and, I suppose, the time has finally come to explain why on earth that is so. For starters, I would argue that, by employing suitable imagery, one can make any activity into a plausible metaphor for life, be it skiing, watching old movies, or eating a banana. That said, skiing, more so than most sports, comprises a wide array of different challenges, compressed into one single long day,[50] most of which activities exhibit a degree of difficulty greater than what one encounters simply sitting around the house on a Saturday watching TV. Presumably, at the end of the day, after having overcome all of these obstacles, you are rewarded with the knowledge that, in fact, you can do this sport and still come away with your limbs and self-esteem intact, if a bit the worse for wear. And if that’s not exactly like life, then I don’t know what is. Oh, and there’s also that ankle thing.

[1] It is conceivable that Gunther not only invented skiing, but also the related Olympic sport of biathlon, in which making one’s way down a snowy hill whilst wearing slippery boards on one’s feet gets combined with shooting a rifle at a target of some sort. It’s possible that at some point after that initial trip down to the village for groceries, Gunther came to the realization that he wouldn’t have to trudge so far back up the hill if he could, instead, just pick off a rabbit or two on the way down. Again, pure speculation on my part, but plausible nonetheless.

[2] I will, throughout the comments that follow, be referring exclusively to skiing of the downhill, i.e., Alpine, variety. The other kind—Nordic or cross-country skiing—is really nothing but glorified snow-shoeing, and it is far too much like actual work to qualify as recreation, at least in the opinion of this author. Snowboarding, on the other hand, is rather like downhill skiing, insofar as it is recreation and enjoys all of the same weather-related challenges that I will describe forthwith. On the skill side, however, you should be aware that the two sports bear strikingly little in common, aside from the general goal in both cases being to get down a steep slippery surface in one piece.

[3] Well, not too many of them.

[4] Not deathly flat, in the Kansas or Nebraska sense, just flat enough to obviate any nearby downhill skiing.

[5] Including not only skiing, but also hiking, camping, hunting, fishing, climbing, and boating, not one of which I was exposed to at any point in my childhood. The sole exception would be my having been to a “camp” for a couple of weeks one summer. As anyone who’s done both can tell you, “camping” resembles “camp” only in the sort of way that being in a band in high school resembles being in band. Yet another contextual spur which, while doubtless fascinating,  is, alas, beyond the scope of this treatise.

[6] Unlike most kids, I elected to insert six years of military service between my high school and college years.

[7] “Quickly” grossly understates the situation. These lessons were learned in ways that were painful, embarrassing, and frequently frightening.

[8] A scale on which, say, jogging defined the bottom, requiring only a pair of sneakers and some shorts, and scuba diving was at the top, requiring thousands of dollars of gear, none of which participants are typically inclined to scrimp on, what with being under a hundred feet of water, surrounded by carnivorous fauna, and all that. In this regard, skiing would compete quite favorably with scuba.

[9] Alpine skiing occurs on mountains. Apologies if I omitted this critical detail earlier.

[10] You’ll actually need a couple of poles too, though their expense is inconsequential compared to the other items being discussed here. In fact, most people would do just as well with a couple of reasonably straight tree branches.

[11] Including a willingness to own something other than the most current year’s equipment.

[12] Into this category (though outside the scope of this essay) I would also include an assortment of accessories almost vast enough at this point to merit its own category. I am referring, of course, to the enormous selection of electronic gizmos now available to the skier, including, but by no means limited to, two-way radios, GPS locators, video recording equipment, and ski performance computers (in case you feel compelled to keep track of your speed, total distance covered, trails traversed, etc.).

[13] Assuming that when the alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. the next morning you didn’t simply throw it across the room and go back to sleep.

[14] An hour if you’re in Utah. Three hours if you’re in Colorado, unless you’re one of those people with the funds to have rented a mountainside condo, in which case, bully for you…

[15] Ralphie’s brother Randy. You remember—it’s that movie they show a hundred times every Christmas season, the one where the father (Darren McGavin) wins a mail order contest and receives a lamp made out of a fake stripper’s leg as his prize. Yeah, that one.

[16] The astute reader will notice a theme beginning to develop, i.e., there is absolutely nothing easy or convenient about skiing. From the moment the alarm goes off until you thrust your tired, cramped legs beneath the covers that night, it’s all difficult. Even something as banal as eating lunch is fraught with danger and excitement, but more on this later.

[17] I have frequently opined, in past writings, that there is this annoying tendency, throughout the sporting world, for the correct body position in which to pursue the sport to be that which is the most uncomfortable and unnatural it can possibly be. Skiing is, of course, no exception.

[18] And whether or not they have recently hosted a Winter Olympics or other high-visibility event, in which case add another twenty-five percent to everything.

[19] Normally I abjure the use of cliché phrases like this one, except that the notion is, in this case, altogether apt and worth considering in its most literal sense. Before the day is over, you will, indeed, almost certainly be not only insulted but very possibly injured as well.

[20] Physically or, one imagines, psychologically.

[21] Before we’re done you’ll understand why the word “inactions” is included here.

[22] There exists an organization whose sole purpose is the tracking and tabulation of skiing-related injuries and fatalities. I am not going to bore you here with the actual statistics, except to observe that the fact that such an organization needs to exist in the first place ought to be indicative of something. Besides which, if I quoted the actual numbers, you’d likely give up on the whole thing and stop reading here and now. We certainly wouldn’t want that.

[23] It’s worth noting here that, technically speaking, you are not required to purchase a lift pass to ski on the mountain. You only need it if you plan on riding the lifts to get back up to the top, which, admittedly, makes the whole thing a good deal less annoying. That said, I have actually encountered a couple of people in my life who take off their skis at the bottom and carry them back up the hill. Not exactly my cup of tea, but they were saving a fortune, on top of which they most certainly looked to be in better shape than me.

[24] Sans poles no less. And while we’re on the subject, the reason why those annoying three-year-olds are so good at skiing is that a) little kids are both stupid and fearless, a potent combination on the ski slopes, b) they are that much closer to the ground to begin with, and so have less to risk in a fall, and c) they have more pliable bones than you, so if they do fall, nothing much happens. It’s mainly about (a) though.

[25] Not to dwell too long on these two cleverly-designed torture devices, except to say that ski resorts invariably choose to provide the most difficult means of uphill conveyance for use on hills utilized by the least experienced skiers, just one of the many ironic twists you will discover if you decide to stick with the sport. It’s difficult to explain in limited space why tee bars and rope tows are, in fact, more annoying to use than the regular chair lift. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.

[26] These come in sizes ranging from two-person all the way up the most modern six-person, high-speed behemoths. The difficulty of both getting on and, in particular, off at the top, is more or less proportional to the number of people on the chair, as we’ll see shortly.

[27] Which may comprise a single chair ride, or a combination of two or more, depending on the resort.

[28] Yes, despite my generally negative tone, there are a handful of borderline positive aspects to skiing.

[29] It happens.

[30] Though, skiing being what it is, most of the best views are behind you.

[31] Readers in Wyoming and Montana, spare me the hate mail. We get it. You have nice views too.

[32] Hint—a lot of it falls off chair lifts, as you may discover the first time you decide that your hands are too warm and you try taking your gloves off during the ride up.

[33] Which, through an odd sort of optical illusion that I still can’t quite explain, will look not all that challenging as you look upward at them from the lift. It’s only when you reach them coming the other way from the top that you realize the awful mistake you’ve made.

[34] One of whom will be embarrassed. The rest of whom will be deeply annoyed.

[35] You

[36] In cases where the lift attendant wasn’t paying attention, I’ve seen as many as four chairs full of people ski into the same pile. It’s actually kind of amusing, so long as you aren’t one of the ones at the bottom of the pile.

[37] All those times you fell over while trying to stand up on the bunny hill don’t count as actual falls.

[38] Which is not to say that you won’t have that experience too. Just that you probably don’t want it to be your first.

[39] As with golf and all other sports, ten different people will tell you twenty different sets of things you should absolutely, positively do (or not do) while skiing.

[40] The “basics” include, for example, not crossing the tips of your skis, trying to keep your weight forward (which is, by the way, why they made those boots with the built-in angle at the knees), and getting to the point where you can stop when you want to and execute a serviceable turn to either the left or the right (or, ideally, both). Failure to learn both stopping and turning can cause you to do embarrassing things like ski off the side of a trail and into the trees.

[41] Take heart. The very fact that you can recognize when you are out of control is a sure sign of progress.

[42] Ski term for smooth lump of snow which you are obliged to travel either over or around. Your choice. Some are small as rabbits, others big as Volkswagens. If this is your first day of skiing and you find yourself looking at one or more of the latter, give some serious thought to your trail selection. Those green, blue, and black signs are there for a reason.

[43] I have a good friend who, in his early days of learning, got a bit out of control near the bottom of the hill and skied at full speed into the back of a lift line. Imagine bowling, only with people as the ball and the pins, and you’ll get the picture.

[44] Standard advice here is to rotate your (still prone) body so that your legs are pointed down the hill, and then try to stand up. Trying to explain how to get your ski back on while at an angle would comprise a whole separate essay.

[45] I have argued, in multiple forums, that this activity is, at once, so difficult to do and entertaining to watch that it merits being an Olympic sport in its own right.

[46] This will come back to haunt you around three o’clock.

[47] I know people who find this so difficult and disconcerting that they avoid it altogether through the simple expedient of not stopping for lunch at all.

[48] Particularly if there are a lot of boarders on the hills, who tend to scrape off all the good snow and leave a layer of crust for you to ski on.

[49] Trying really hard to be suitably delicate here.

[50] Kind of like Ulysses by James Joyce, all of which action (using the word here in its loosest possible context) occurs in a single day, and for far less money than a day on the slopes. Was wondering how I might get a literary reference in here someplace.

Leave a Reply

* Required
** Your Email is never shared