Tuesday, January 12, 2016

How I Learned to Ski

(Skiing with my dog, photo courtesy of L. Zummo)
Somewhat unfortunately, I still find myself in that particularly irksome group of people who, when skiing is mentioned, I must make it clear to those who I converse with that I am a Telemark skier. But, I swear, I’m not one of those snobby cooler than thou people who Telemark and talk about it just to show off. I happen to ski like a stick-insect learning ballet because, after a very long and painful process, it is one of the few things I do gracefully. And because it is humbling how hard it was to learn.

Because it sure as shit didn’t come to me naturally.

For the unfamiliar, there are three basic types of skiing: There is cross country skiing, in which fit people on very skinny skis traipse and race about the fields and woodlands, going both up and down hills as encountered. To do this, the toes of the foot-shaped boots are attached to the skinny skis and the heels remain free, allowing for normal foot movement and such.

Second, we have downhill or alpine skiing. This is what is generally considered skiing. Your foot is in a big boot, the boot is attached at both toe and heel to a wide ski, and you ride the chairlift up and careen down the snowy hillsides. You turn, at these velocities, by sort of dancing sideways, throwing your weight from left to right, hips to knees. (There are variations, and specialized gear that allows for alpine skiers to also traipse up hills, through fields, rocks, and forests in search of better opportunities. These set-ups are called alpine touring (AT) or randonnee.)

Thirdly, in this short litany, we come to Telemark skiing. In this variety, the toes of your big boots are attached to the ski, but your heel is not firmly affixed to the wide ski. To make the turns recommended for descending the hills, the skier lunges into something akin to warrior pose in yoga, with weight balanced on outside little toe and much tension and body weight held in quivering quads.

Tele is hard, it requires specialized gear, it demands absurd combinations of musculoskeletal movements, and it is such a precise set of postures that it is extremely difficult to fake doing it correctly. If, say, you simply cannot figure out how to keep weight in the tippy-toes of your back ski, the ski will skitter totally out of control, cross your front ski between your knees, and you will ragdoll down—to the horror, concern, or amusement of anyone in range.

On the other hand, when you get it right, you become this utterly improbably cacophony of moving angles coalescing into a graceful economy of movement.

No doubt, the appeal of Telemark is clear.

When I was learning, while at college in the early 2000s, Telemark had a particular cache—it was understood to be the purest and most bad-ass way to access any sort of backcountry ski opportunity. There was a strange aspect of Zen snobbery and of being outdoorsierly more holy than the next underwashed Environmental Studies major if you took up tele. Bumper stickers on the Toyota Tacomas and Subaru station wagons outside the Outing Club read “Free the Heel and Free Your Mind” and “Randonnee: French for ‘Can’t Telemark.’

In Bossy-pants, Tina Fey wrote about how the Weekend Update writers are the scary coolest of the SNL writers, who are already cooler than the average anybody. It was sort of like that, with me and the upperclass outdoor program and club people.

The winter of my sophomore year, I decided that I needed a winter sport. Having just spent an entire semester living in a yurt on the edge of a lake, I was feeling ethically uncomfortable with spending so much time inside buildings and around normal American life. I wanted to be in the woods all the time and to become a master of both the quiet ethos of the woods, and to be nonchalantly supreme at the woods’ skills and sports that embodied that. Besides, lift tickets are expensive, so if I could be primarily a backcountry skier, it would be more budget appropriate.

So, officially, that is why, even though I hadn’t been on skis of any kind in about ten years, I decided to sign up for a Beginners’ Telemark ski course offered through the college outdoor program. And it is mostly true.

The other piece, though, is that one of my best friends and I each had a gigantic crush on the two students who were teaching the course. If we’d had crushes on the ice-climbing guides, this would be a different story—I might have gone a different route in search of peace and snowy glory.

This friend, who I’ll call Pete, and I had met the first day on campus when, as he put it: “I was wandering around the dorm looking for girls, but I found you instead.”  Aside from the occasional flare-up of a crush on my end after we had a particularly good chat about Edward Abbey or something, Pete and I were decidedly platonic. And somehow, having a dude-friend’s assistance in how to attract a dude seemed like a real stroke of genius and good fortune. By Pete and my logic, going on Rachel and Bill’s course and learning to tele ski, that was clearly the best path to love or whatever college kids have. 

Plus, I really did want to learn to ski and to be as cool and in touch with pure wilderness as the tele skiers seemed. The trouble is, of course, that no one is as cool as that. And certainly not me, at age nineteen and in a particularly dewy-eyed idealist phase.

I had my first inkling of the reality of this endeavor when I went over to the gear basement on Friday night to collect my skis and boots and poles for the Saturday lesson. It was snowing, because in February in Canton, NY, it is almost always snowing, but is certainly snowing—heavily—if you have any trudging around to do. The school gear was a general hodgepodge, and I left with very long skis, slightly small boots, and a pair of poles. I had seen people carrying their skis around, slung up on one shoulder and the boots and poles tucked neatly up, and had a vision of myself smoothly walking across campus—just a graceful and competent lady, confident and at peace with the wildness of a snowstorm.

Everything I was carrying slipped and slid and I was constantly off balance going through the snow. Probably, because it was that era in my life, I was wearing a new pair of Carhartt overalls, which were like cold wet stiff cardboard while walking through the deep and falling snow, but made it look like I belonged in the woods. Add in the layers of sweater and down jacket, and the frustrating exertion of managing this new jumble of gear literally on top of my hopes and expectations, and I can still feel the horrible sweat on my lower back and the burning shame in my face.

I was at college, a student, in an inherently process-focused situation. And yet, the culture I was surrounded in seemed to be made entirely of finished, flawless product. Even as I took a course in how to be an outdoor program guide, even as we talked about the importance of making safe spaces for everyone to crawl out of their comfort zones and chrysalises and into new experiences and skill, even then, no one talked much about how it felt to be the sweaty student, embarrassed at not being skilled. 

However, because I was deep into an era of naïve idealism and surrounded by other budding young environmental educators who talked about the power of learning, I thought that perhaps I might still be able to do this double-pronged ski mission. That somehow, my persistence and willingness to try to learn an almost completely new sport, this would further endear me to all those cool tele-skiers with their bumper stickers and gear of high enough quality and heavy enough usage to be patched and uncracked veneer of perfection.

Needless to say, things did not go as smoothly and perfectly as I had hoped, as Pete and I had plotted.

Snow under skis, even on the slight incline of a baby slope, is slippery. If you haven’t ridden a J-bar ski lift in ten years—and you are a college student who is too proud to ask for advice—it is tricky. So is mounting and dismounting a chairlift. My ski bindings were adjusted for much larger boots, and—not knowing how this sort of gear ought to work—I had my foot jammed into the toe part but the heel wire was flapping inches behind my heel, so that whenever my foot pressure changed, the ski came out from underfoot and down the hill I spun in total disarray. My skis flew down the hill on their own. Pete, helpfully, retrieving one, commented that: “I think your ski knocked that little kid down.”

After a quick morning of instruction with the gorgeous guides, we new teleskiers were left to roam the mountain and practice alone. I was told that if I couldn’t master the turning and body-bobbling and balancing and all of a Telemark stance, then to just plant my feet on the skis and I could Alpine turn.

Would that I could. When I was little and took ski lessons for a few winters, I never learned to turn and would just bomb down the mountain. Perhaps I had subpar instructors, perhaps I just didn’t listen or choose to learn, but the upshot was that I had no other ski skills to fall back on.

So, of course, I just fell. I remember, particularly, skidding to a halt with my skis sideways, my right hip grinding into the snow, my arms trailing behind me, and my hat sloppily over an eye. Naturally, I landed almost at the feet of Bill, who at that time I found to be the most beautiful person I had ever met. He asked if I was okay.

“Oh sure,” I said—I remember being very perky so that no one, except maybe Pete, would suspect how being this blatantly terrible at something hurt on the inside too, so that no one would see the tears of humiliated rage—“this is great! I think I’m sort of getting it. Like, I can almost remember everything I’m supposed to remember to do, now I just need to do it and not think about it. Sort of like some Zen thing, I guess. So all I need to do now is practice, and that’s just going to be a lot of skiing, so that’s actually kind of awesome, right?” 

I don’t remember his response. I know that it wasn’t to sweep me up and carry me off the hill out of love and admiration for my bad-ass good looks and Viking-goddess skills. In fact, I can’t fully remember his face, just that he was gorgeous, and was kinder than he could have been. A red-faced, teary-eyed naïf speaking too fast and too cheerily while slumped in the snow in a pile of mismatched ski gear is not, I gather, the most alluring of ladies.

It would have been all over after that day, except that I found—under the layers of awful—that it was sort of fun to hurtle down a mountain. I was transfixed by the speed and power and grace of the people who could tele. They were snow cranes and I wanted to be like them, even as I felt like a grubby field mouse.

Besides, I liked, so much, being out in the cold air and the mountains, with friends. Rachel—the ski guide who Pete had a crush on—was one of my other good friends and between the ministrations of the two of them, I managed to survive the entire day. (So, importantly, did everyone else on the mountain.) I like to think that my mishaps allowed them to spend enough time that they did date for a few months, so our experiment wasn’t a total bust on the romance front.

All that winter, I went skiing whenever I could time and money afford to, with whoever I trusted. That turned out to be key. I couldn’t go with anyone I wanted to impress, only with people I could laugh and cry and fall and swear with. Which, really, isn’t a bad way to go about doing anything ever. I was covered in bruises—I remember one in particular was bigger than a grapefruit, and just enough between my hip and my ass that I couldn’t show it to everyone, but I wanted to. Based on the best advice I got from Pete—“if you’re not falling, you’re not learning”—my bruises and cuts and ice-burns were all part of the adventure of learning. I was still personally mortified at how hard it was for me to learn—I seem to lack natural grace and some basic physical coordination—but I almost had myself convinced that the struggle was as glorious as anything else.

It took more than the one winter of weekends to make me an acceptable skier. There were other college ski days and trips where I felt like the uncoordinated slow kid who struggling miserably to keep up with the professionals, where my lack of skill was worrying and probably dangerous. The winter I ski-bummed with my big sister in Colorado, there were falls that had her calculating the distance to strange hospitals before I’d even come to a stop. I still often feel like a hot mess on skis and I have been on the brink of tears because I’ve been out of my depth so many times that I am hesitant to go skiing with new people, to go in trees and backcountry I haven’t seen, to jump off anything. I dislike that feeling of emotional discomfort, of seeming to be the only one babyish enough to be scared or slow or disorganized, more than almost anything. 

And yet, that moment in a tele turn, when your weight is transferring between knees and toes and you pop up to float for what cannot be more than a second but feels like a scrap of forever, this is something to work for. The soft ripping noise of a good turn, the pleasure of pivoting perfectly around a pole. Being able to teach other people and come at it from purest empathy. When I ski patrolled, one of my greatest pleasures was making tidy turns on steep sections, while carrying a giant drill or a cup of coffee or an armload of bamboo. The more awkward the load, the more fun it was to shoot down the trail before the mountain was open, just to feel that I could and have a good laugh at how far I'd come. 

Usually, of course, then I'd fall, but such is the price of learning. 

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