There must be a view on top of our local ski mountain but the three times I’ve been up there the signs screaming “EASIEST WAY DOWN” made me forget to take it in. I saw that landscape once from the lift by looking backwards, deep breathing to expel my fear of heights, and ignoring the drop to the icy slope below. Rounded brown hills up front bristled with bare trees, blue, jagged silhouettes loomed tall at the back and in the middle, layered between the valleys, purple slopes transformed the Berkshires into the Green Mountains. I was surprised to see that we were tucked within millions of years of living geology, because once on the top of the mountain I was tense, reactive, and unaware of my surroundings, focused only on how to make it to the bottom.
All this time I’ve gotten by without downhill skiing. I love winter. The first snow of the year, I run to the window right along with my children, and we stare, mouths open at the silence as the earth softly whitens. We talk about sledding and stomping in it, gliding through the snow on our cross country skis, and I wonder if it will be the kind of snow I can run in. But what we’ve never discussed or even considered is locking slim, slippery boards to our feet and then sliding down icy mountains. That changed in January when my ever-more adventurous girls wanted to learn to downhill ski.
There are some things you need to know about me: I like to move and you will never find me sitting in a ski lodge reading and drinking cocoa. I shy away from speed. My first time skiing at age sixteen I sped down the bunny hill and crashed into the ski lodge. When we go sledding I prefer the slog up the hill over the quick flight down. I can run or cross country ski long distances in the cold, but sit me on a bench dangling from a cable in the sky for several minutes and I’m sure to have ghoulishly pale, painful fingers and toes. But downhill skiing was going to become a family activity so I needed to learn or be left out.
One thing I do like is a challenge.
One thing I don’t like is adventure sports.
(Okay, laugh if you have to, but remember that thing about slippery boards on steep hills? Alpine skiing is an adventure sport.)
My first lesson started off on the bunny hill, just like my daughters’ class did. It was fine. My second lesson also started on the bunny hill and by the end I felt like I could pizza and french fry on command and I could make big turns and little turns. I had the magic carpet lift down pat. My girls, however, had already surpassed me and were learning on the green trails at the top of the mountain. By the end of my third lesson I decided to join them.
Note number one: Don’t let your eight-year-olds instruct you on how to get off the lift. (“Wait, what do I do? When? How? What do you mean?! Augggh, it’s time…” Plop I went into the snow. Thankfully Andy dragged me up so they didn’t have to stop the lift.) Note number two: That first green trail started out great! Note number three: Actually the trail has some really steep parts. Note number four: Falling is a part of learning to ski. Falling is a part of learning to ski. Note number five: Getting frustrated does not make getting down the mountain any easier. Note number six: I am so thankful that Andy knows what he’s doing because otherwise I might still be there on that trail like a bug flipped onto its back, my skis waving in the air.
The next weekend a smaller, lower down green trail opened up and I practiced there. This is what I actually needed: a quick little chairlift (I made it off over and over again, I didn’t get cold and my acrophobia stayed in check though I was pretty sure I could slide through the safety bar), a hill with enough height to practice on, and the option of a short steep section. I stayed there for a few sessions getting comfortable with the idea of skiing, squishing the imaginary jelly doughnuts at the front of my boots- what a revelation that was!- and relaxing my stiff, scared body. Soon enough I felt comfortable to try the top of the mountain again, but on a different trail.
I made it off the big lift. I was doing this! I had confidence, which was new for me. Once again it started off well with gentle slopes and wide turns. I had the sense that I was surrounded by beauty: primeval forest, crystal sky, quiet except for the sound of skis slicing the snow, but I was too focused on my own skis to appreciate it. The trail got steeper and icier. I felt my turns sliding and my legs torquing, but my stubborn skis refused to submit. I fell, got up, kept going. The girls, who were by then comfortably skiing blues, skied ahead and waited for me to catch up at each segment.
Just before the end, there was a narrow, straight-down hill. As I paused at the top of it, I honed in on the trail edges. One side was lined by a rock wall that fell in narrow pleats to the ground. The other side was a yawning tree-lined drop protected only by plastic netting strung across flimsy metal poles. I panicked. Andy patiently talked me through it but it was too late. It was already in my head that I was going to fail. Here’s how it went: Right turn, left turn, awareness of the precipice, panic, twist into unnatural positions to save myself, slide, fall, struggle to get up on the descending ice, repeat, all the way down. It was the end of the day and I was exhausted. My girls, who had been waiting for me to make it down were palpably grumpy.
I was ashamed.
I take care of sick patients in the hospital. One of my key skills is not to panic when something bad or unexpected happens. Instead I take deep breaths, relax and remember what I know. My patients count on me to stay calm. Their lives depend on it. I used mindfulness to help my recovery from major abdominal surgery for colon cancer, and still rely on it to cope with inflammatory bowel disease, both of which are harder than skiing. So what happened there on the mountain?
When we went back a week later I took a lesson again and my teacher took me right up to the top. I worked on so many techniques and drills that I got confused with directions: “Okay when I do this to the left I have to do what to the right?” I had some triumphs, too. Where there were short steep pitches followed by flat terrain my teacher told me to become Rohini the Tiger, go straight down that hill and roar if I needed to. I did it (instead of roaring I silently swore inside my head) and I made it down those sections like I’d been doing it all my life. Then the long, narrow, straight-down part came and I felt my body fighting against my momentum, my knees twisting, the smallest fibers of my quads burning, my skis skidding as I struggled to gain control and stay upright on the New England ice. I had the feeling that I was doing it wrong, because compared to what I’ve been through it shouldn’t have been that hard.
Back on my comfortable trail at the end of the lesson, my teacher told me to forget everything he had taught me and to feel it, use my intuition. We were crammed together on the little wooden lift chairs and it struck me. I use a technique heavily based in mindfulness to run*, to glide over the pavement impact-free. Why couldn’t I do that with skiing?
He led me down the hill. I relaxed into the cushioning of my stiff plastic boots, focused my vision straight ahead and let it pull me down the trail. I had to trust myself. I had to let the knowledge become intuitive just like in medicine and running and health; it was the only way it would make sense. I let my body follow my gaze as I floated down the mountain.
Coda: I insisted that we go back one more time before calling an end to the season. I spent the entire day on my easy green by myself while the rest of the family explored the mountain. I went up and down probably thirty times. It reminded me of when I practiced fast runs of 16th notes on the flute: I had a few minutes to get it right, I could only do it by starting from the beginning and I had to do it over and over again. By the end of the day I felt like I was flying down that hill and guess what? I liked it. It actually made me want to laugh and whoop, just like getting those fast flute passages did. I had Andy watch my last few runs down the hill and I had one major question for him: did I still look like a newborn calf learning to walk? The answer was a resounding no.
*The technique I use is Chi Running, which is a method developed by Danny Dreyer. It works well for me, but n.b. mentioning it is not in any way medical advice.