Matt and I used to go on a ski trip every year. Yes , I used to ski. Back in the days when we were young and fresh faced, with strong legs and knees that didn't crack when we bent over.
But that was many years ago.
I learned to ski in 1994, about 6 weeks after Matt and I met. Matt was an avid skier. His friends were avid skiers. Their wives were avid skiers.
I had never skied.
He invited me to go skiing with the group. It was learn to ski or get left behind. So, I learned. I was a very "okay" skier. I was never what one would call “good,” but I was competent. I reached the point where I could pretty much get down any slope on any mountain without dying, even if it took me half a day. I considered that an achievement.
By 1996, we were going out west at least once a year for a group ski trip. We did this for another 10 years. We did it big: Park City, Snowbird, Alta, Whistler, Telluride, Vail, Beaver Creek, Steamboat Springs, Jackson Hole, Deer Valley, Big Mountain, Big Sky. The year Matt turned 40, we realized: 1) Skiing was hard. 2) Skiing was cold. 3) Skiing was expensive. We packed up our ski gear, started going on a winter trip to the Caribbean every year instead, and never looked back.
Until a few weeks ago when a group of friends we’ve recently become acquainted with invited us on a ski trip.
I knew better. I never really liked skiing even back when we did it. I mostly went for the hot chocolate and fireplaces, but I was sucked in by visions of hot toddies and cute fur hats. I had forgotten that I hate the cold and I am terrified of skiing.
So we said “yes.”
And that’s how I found myself in Snowshoe, WV on a frigid 17 degree day in a blizzard staring down a mountain. Once a decent skier, I hadn’t been on skis in over 10 years, and I couldn't shake the underlying fear that I would fall off the mountain and die.
Add to this the fact that my body was also 10 years older than when I last put on a pair of skis. There is a huge physical difference between 36 and 46.
Yes. I was certain. I was going to fall off the mountain and die.
I decided on that first day that it was simply too freaking cold, too windy, and too “blizzardy” for me to make my return to the world of carving powder. While Matt went straight for a black diamond run (the man has no fear), I pulled up my fur hood, grabbed a hot beverage, and found a fireplace that I could sit beside while I contemplated exactly why I was here.
I cozied into our room at the newly refurbished Courduroy Inn and found a pen and a pad of paper.
When I was young and had a decision to make, my Mom always made me make a list of pros and cons. I decided this would work well to address my current conundrum.
I started with THINGS I HATE ABOUT SKIING:
The cold. What human voluntarily spends 8 hours outside when it is 17 degrees?
All the weird layers. By the time I have on my base layer, some fleece, my bulky ski pants, jacket, hat, glove liners, gloves, mask….I have to pee. Even under the best circumstance, I am like Ralphie in A Christmas Story and walk around as big as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. However, the layers are essential. All of them. Why? BECAUSE IT’S 17 DEGREES.
The boots. Mankind has invented the iPhone. We can turn the lights on in our house from another state. We put people in space, for goodness sakes. Why can’t someone invent a better design for ski boots? Try walking gracefully in ski boots. They make me look like Robocop or a transformer.
Skiing. Actually having to put greased up sticks on my feet and slide down a mountain is my least favorite part of the entire experience.
The Chairlift. An experience 100x more awkward and terrifying than getting on an escalator.
Snowboarders. They are typically obnoxious pre-teens with weird hats who like to crash violently right in front of me. And they seem to multiply as the day progresses, no doubt waking up at noon from their Playstation-induced comas, crushing a Red Bull, and hitting the slopes with one thought in mind: terrorize old people.
Death Cookies. Having done the majority of my skiing out west, on ACTUAL SNOW, I had not forgotten my first few ski trips on the gloriously horrible east coast, where small mountains are covered in fake, manufactured snow that freezes impossibly hard and responds nothing like actual snow under your skis. The worst are the "death cookies," hideous little chunks of frozen snow that are an inevitable by-product of fake snow and grooming. They hide in the blinding white glare, just waiting to take you out, if a snowboarder doesn't get you first.
Children. They are like heat seeking missiles. Every child on the mountain is determined to blindly shoot out in front of me at the worst possible moment, with zero ability to turn or stop, leaving me with a choice between plowing down a toddler or veering wildly into a nearby tree instead.
Then I considered the things I LOVE ABOUT SKIING:
The quiet and solitude. Even if you are paired up with someone, going down the mountain is a very solitary experience. It’s just you and the snow. As an introvert, I must admit that I love the solitude of skiing, particularly since I often ski alone. It’s crazy peaceful.
The views. I hate cold, but I love snow. Even though the views in WV were not quite the epic and sweeping as the vistas out west, it was pretty. Snow crusted trees, an icy lake at the base of the mountain, and brilliant blue skies are pretty cool.
They physical exertion. Much like my love for hiking, I love the physical challenge of skiing. It's its own reward. As I have already indicated, I am not an athletic person. My level of physical agility is a -3 on a scale of 1 – 10. I’m not really sure how I managed to learn to ski. I never had lessons or an instructor. Matt pretty much threw me to it and I figured it out. Due to my maddening fear of speed and my inability to control myself on skis if any measure of speed is involved, I am an excruciatingly slow skier. I have mastered the art of slow skiing by traversing the slope all the way down. This has allowed me to manage even the most difficult black diamond runs, but it also requires a tremendous amount of leg power and results in skiing about 5 times farther than everyone else on the slope.
Hot drinks. I admit, a hot buttered rum tastes better after a long day of traversing the slopes, back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Fireplaces. Ski resorts are silly with them. You can’t walk 10 feet without running into one.
Apres Ski. As much as I don't like skiing, I love the moment the day on the slopes is over and you can officially enter into the delightful world of "after ski" with cocktails, munchies, and music by the fire.
Clothing with fur. I love anything with fur on it. Unfortunately, fur lined clothing in east TN is not generally necessary, making its appearance fashionably unacceptable on most occasions.
Carbs. Skiing requires that you eat lots of carbs. At least that is what I tell myself as I stuff another cheeseburger in my mouth.
And last, but most certainly not least: Heated towel racks. Where have these been all my life?
Four hot bourbon toddies later, I had decided that this was going to be an awesome weekend.
After lunch, the blizzard abated, but it was too late to ski, so I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the village, eating soup and grilled cheese, enjoying the snow, and reading by the fireplace.
We met up with the group that night at Sunset Cantina in the village and dove into pitchers of margaritas, chips & salsa, and platters of nachos.
Then it was off to bed early to prepare for a big day of SKIING.
We woke up to a beautiful blue sky day with no more driving snow and very moderate temperatures. It was a perfect day for skiing.
I loaded up on breakfast, just in case it turned out to be my last meal.
Matt headed straight for the Western Territory, a couple of black diamond runs across from our inn. I knew the other ladies were taking lessons, so I was resigned to spend the day skiing by myself, which sadly, I actually enjoy.
I was nervous, though. When skiing for the first time in over 10 years, another warm body would have provided some comfort. I was totally on my own if I had an “incident.”
Unlike most ski resorts I have been to, where the village is at the base of the mountain and your first activity of the morning is to get on a lift, Snowshoe Village is at the top of the mountain. All I had to do was walk out the back door, pop on my skis…and go.
I paused at the bottom of the back stairs from our inn and simply enjoyed the sun on my face, the snow caked trees, and the views.
Okay, fine. I was stalling.
It was time to put my skis on and attempt to go down the mountain. Alone.
And there it was.
Pure. Black. Fear.
The truth is, I am afraid of skiing. I am afraid of speed. I am also afraid of falling, of suddenly finding myself sprawled out on the ground with a facefull of snow, arms and legs everywhere like some drawn-and-quartered alpine roadkill, skis knocked off and sliding helplessly down the mountain without me, and arms too weak to haul myself back up with my poles.
I may look perfectly calm as I go down the slope, but in my head, there is a terrified voice that is silently shrieking, “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!”
I’m not a total wuss. I have conquered black diamonds in Jackson Hole, WY and wild terrain in Snowbird, UT, but I know my limitations. For every black diamond I have mastered, I have also scooted down some run on my butt or taken off my skis to hike back up to find an easier way down.
To me, skiing is an unpleasant, vaguely unnatural combination of standing still and moving way too fast. You spend an inordinate amount of time waiting in very cold lift lines, trying not to fall over and take 20 people down with you like a stack of dominoes as well as countless hours a day sitting still and freezing on an open chair lift that creeps up a mountain. Moments later, you are expected to fly down an ice covered mountain. It’s madness. I don’t know who decided this should be recreation. I view skiing as less of a sport and more a socially acceptable form of high risk masochism.
Add to this my innate physical awkwardness. I am not athletic. I am not graceful. I am not agile. When I ski, I look like Bambi on ice.
I studied the trail map to plot out a course that I believed would get me to the bottom of the mountain intact.
I found myself wondering about some of the trail names. Who names these things anyway? Grabhammer. Ballhooter. Gangway. Choker. They sounded more like descriptions of prison rape than ski slopes.
While I have done all manner of slopes, greens (easy), blues (harder), blacks (hardest) without mishap, the truth is that my comfort zone sits somewhere between the green and blue runs.
I consider myself a turquoise skier.
I mapped out a plan that would start me off slowly on some easy greens and then work my way up to the blues. On this hard packed, east coast fake snow (aka, ICE), I decided a black diamond was out of the question on my return-to-the-world-of skiing-after-a-long-hiatus trip.
I surprised myself by making it down without incident and finding that I was thoroughly enjoying myself.
I swished and whooshed. It all came back to me. The air on my face was invigorating and the world was quiet and soft around me.
I remembered what I liked about skiing.
And then I reached the bottom of the mountain.
And the chair lift.
I’m just going to come right out and say it.
I am absolutely, completely, uncontrollably, inexplicably terrified of freaking chairlifts.
This has nothing to do with a fear of heights and everything to do with the awkwardness of getting on and off the lift and the infinite possibilities for calamity and embarrassment that it holds.
For those who have never actually ridden a chair lift, let me describe the experience.
First, you ski into a crowd of people who have formed several lines. You are expected to get in one of these lines without knocking anyone down or sliding across their skis. Then, you wait. Standing on skis is awkward in itself. Your body is pitched at a weird angle and you have to scooch and slide forward carefully as the line advances. When it is your turn to load, the real fun begins. If you are skiing alone, as I was, you have to advance toward the lift with strangers. When I am on skis, it’s best if I have about a 10 foot perimeter so that my wild flailing of poles won’t impact anyone else. This is impossible when crammed shoulder to shoulder with a stranger, waiting for a flying metal chair to sneak up behind you and slam you in the butt.
Ideally, you are lined up properly and the chair hits you square in the fanny, not off to the side, or at an angle, which will inevitably result in you falling over, the chairlift having to be stopped, and an attendant being forced to come to your aid, retrieve your poles, which you just flung at a nearby 10 year old, and help you onto the chairlift.
After you get seated, you fly through the air toward the top of the mountain.
At this stage, the chairlift is an awkwardly intimate place. You are thrust into close proximity with a total stranger in a strangely quiet environment for a painfully long time. First up is the anxiety inducing SAFETY BAR. Experienced skiers don’t like the safety bar. I live for the safety bar. I grab it immediately to lower it onto my lap and inevitably, smack my companion, who is oblivious to it, in the head. No one likes an over-anxious bar deployer, but that is my reality. It’s simply who I am.
After moving past the clumsiness of the safety bar, there is the worry of getting my dangling skis tangled up or hitting my companion with a pole as I try to find a good place for them to settle and spending the duration of the ride wondering if I will knock this person down in my frantic attempt to get off the lift without doing a faceplant.
Then there is the conversation. It’s too quiet not to speak. It is a silence that only the strongest can survive. As such, my seat mate is going on about the epic powder, sick lines, and awesome aerials while I am contemplating my snow plow…..do I need a bigger pie wedge?
Even though the ride on the open chairlift is FREEZING, I don’t want it to end, because the dismount is horrific. It never stops moving. You are simply expected to lift the safety bar at the precise moment, keep your ski tips up so they don’t catch the platform and pull you to a certain death, find the magical perfect moment to stand and let the chair push your legs gently forward off the lift, and ski gracefully down the dismount slope without running into that stranger that is 6 inches from your side.
DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA HOW HARD THAT IS???????
I found myself riding the lift with a woman about my age and her teenage daughter. This was an ideal scenario. It could have been a huge man or worse….a snowboarder.
I was proud of myself when I managed to dismount without killing my liftmates or myself.
With my first run and my first lift ride under my belt, my confidence grew. I mapped out a plan for the morning, and spent the next few hours gliding competently (if not gracefully) down the intermediate slopes working my way toward the lift that would carry me to our lunch rendezvous spot.
I ran into Matt on my way to the Junction for lunch and we had time to do one run together. God bless him for not complaining about how slow I skied or how sissified the run was.
We headed inside for drinks and burgers, and I felt like I had earned it!
After lunch, Matt headed back to the blacks diamond runs and I decided I would ski for a couple more hours or until I got tired, whichever came first.
I was on my final run of the day. I was cold and my legs were starting to feel like wet pasta. I was patting myself on the back. No spills, no mishaps, and I had stayed out and skied almost the entire day…and I did it by myself.
I had taken my accustomed spot in the SINGLES line at the lift. And that is when it happened.
I was motioned forward by the attendant, indicating it was my turn to get on the lift. I looked to my right to see what stranger(s) I would be riding with. I blinked. I was certain there was a mistake.
I was standing beside two very small children.
Apparently, the attendant could smell my fear, because he quickly spoke up, “Their parents are behind you and have several more kids with them. Do you mind riding with these two?”
OF COURSE I MINDED! Did he think I knew how to converse with small people? I don't know anything about what kids like. Is Barney still a thing? And who was going to help them get off the lift? Even if they did fine, how was I supposed to get off the lift without killing them?
I simply nodded and found myself on the lift alone with Ava, who was 7, and Lawrence, who was 5. Seriously. These kids parents would have been better off to leave them in a cage with a wild hyena than to send them up a ski lift with me.
This could not possibly turn out well.
After 10 minutes of Ava singing all the songs she remembered from the car ride on the way over, Lawrence telling me about his breakfast, and both of them talking about the video game their aunt brought on the trip, I asked the necessary question, “Do you both know how to get off the lift?”
I was assuming some level of proficiency given that their parents sent them up with a stranger.
Lawrence waved his hand at me, “Oh yeah. We’ve been skiing for YEARS.”
YEARS he said.
When you are 5, that is a relative term.
I felt my heart start to pound in my chest as we approached the platform. What if I raised the safety bar too soon and one of them fell off? What if I raised it too late and they got trapped and fell off? What if I fell off?
I raised the bar. And waited.
Oh dear, God. They weren’t getting off fast enough.
I was going to be trapped….doomed to ride back down in shame.
At the last possible minute, they slid off, leaving me no choice but to point myself in the opposite direction and leap off much later than was advisable. It was ugly, but I made it.
And the children survived.
Who said I’m not child friendly???
That was the point at which I decided to call it a day. One more run was certainly a disaster waiting to happen.
It had been a good day.
And it was about to get better.
I had a 4:00 appointment at the SPA.
During the next 50 minutes, I forgot all about cold and lift lines and small, erratic children.
I had just enough time after my massage to get cleaned up and meet the group for our backcountry dinner adventure.
We were handed helmets, given a brief (and unnecessarily stern) safety talk, and herded out to a line of very muddy Polaris RZRs. As our guys climbed in front, I shut my door and half of it fell off.
This was definitely going to be an adventure.
We were led by a guide through the dark woods, about 2 miles, to a secluded little cabin that overlooked the valley. It was aglow with twinkling lights as the sun faded in the sky.
Our small group was invited inside where a warm fire was burning in the fireplace and wine was being poured and handed around.
As the wine kept flowing, hot dishes of artichoke dip were brought out to enjoy with our fireside conversation.
I literally wanted to dive face first into these adorable Mongolian fur pillows .
After doing nothing more than enjoying several glasses of wine by the fire with our friends, we were told to be seated and our entrees were brought out along with baskets of hot, crusty bread with herbed butter.
There was more wine, lots of laughter, and the soft glow of the fire.
After several hours, we were bundled back into our vehicles and we made the harrowing drive back through the woods.
It was a seriously awesome dinner.
We had tickets to a concert in the village after dinner and made it back just in time to find our way to the Shavers Centre and the Connections Nightclub.
Have you seen the movie Hot Tub Time Machine? Or any ski movie that was actually made in the 1980’s? The nightclub was a lot like that.
It was so “old school ski resort” that it was almost cool.
My favorite part of the show was the poster. Nothing beats a rainbow puking unicorn.
After the first two songs, Matt and I decided that sleep sounded WAY more appealing than the band, so we headed in.
You know you are getting old when a good night’s sleep is far more appealing than a night out at a bar with a band.
I’m okay with that.
We contemplated our options the next morning over breakfast.
It was warm. Too warm.
The temps were going to be in the 50’s. The real snow that had ushered in our arrival was long gone and it was even too warm to make snow. The slush that yesterday’s warm afternoon created on the slopes had crusted overnight to a hard freeze.
Basically, skiing would mean a morning on ice that would turn into muddy slush at some point.
We decided to find other things to do.
We shopped. We walked. We had lunch.
After a few lunch cocktails, we all decided to go tubing.
It was a brilliant idea.
I love vacationing with people who don’t act their age.
We spent a leisurely afternoon with wine and books by the fire.
Dinner was at the intimate Italian restaurant at our inn, just the two of us, with wine, mussels, crisp Caesar salads, and pasta.
We met up with the group after dinner for drinks and a comedy show, which was surprising good.
We woke up to our final morning and I decided to go out with a BANG! and stuffed my face with the brunch cheeseburger. Why not?
It's never too early in the morning for a cheeseburger.
Besides, I had managed to conquer my fear of the mountain despite being 10 years older and significantly less tolerant of pain or general discomfort, and I had done so without killing any small children.
Hooray for me!
The next time I am invited on a ski trip, however, someone please remind me that I prefer the beach.