January 9, 2015
Originally published January 4, 2013
Some friends and I decided to escape DC’s warm winter of 2011 and head for Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. A skier’s dream, the park offered two side-by-side mountains, thousands of acres of terrain, and not one, but three glaciers.
In theory, I was excited.
But as I shuddered down the approach toward my first run down the mountain, I concluded that whatever ability I might once have had died an early death and left me contemplating my own ealy demise.
Through clenched teeth I muttered the novice’s mantra over and over: pizza, French fries, pizza, French fries. Pizza for wedging to a slow halt and French fries for keeping my skis parallel and pointed down the mountain. But no matter how hard I focused, my skis seemed determined to cross and one or other of my poles kept finding its way to the ground, dragging along like a resigned, captured animal.
My friend Matt skied up behind me. “Hey buddy, looking good! Just remember, carve those s’s, you’ll be fine.”
Having noted my method of barreling down a run at full speed praying silently, Matt taught me an alternative: He showed me how to make wide, looping s turns, letting the tails of the s carry me upward to lose momentum. A move that bought time to take the next downward turn with control.
I tried to mimic Matt’s ease, but when I caught sight of the edge, I looked like a cartoon character attempting to paddle backward away from a waterfall. In front of me the ground dropped off at a 90-degree angle. I forced a sudden pizza wedge and slammed my poles into the ground just before going over. Sweating profusely, I suddenly knew how Dorothy felt. I was not in Pennsylvania anymore.
The last time I’d worn skis was on an eleventh grade outing to the Poconos, where we flew down what I assumed to be standard issue mountains. I had seen other mountains since then, but HAD never strapped myself to narrow strips of wood and thrown myself downward, so the Pacific Coast Mountain range came as a nasty surprise. Turns out, my mountains, the Poconos, the Appalachians, these were the bunny slopes to the world’s peaks. And the snow! I hadn’t seen this much natural snow since getting lodged in a drift in the Harrisburg blizzard of ’92.
Surveying the vastness of the slope, the buried treeline, and what appeared to be an icy sheen on the run, I cursed the consistently warmer winters in the States. Global warming had left me no space to practice for a drop like this. When I’d left DC in the depths of a February pre-dawn, I’d worn a light jacket. We seemed doomed never to have a proper winter again.
I watched a flock of six-year-olds without poles glide past me like sanguine ducklings, looking bored. I swear I saw a small boy yawn.
I’d like to say I gathered my courage and launched myself into the unknown. Instead, my attention wavered and I tipped forward a bit too far, gravity doing what I would not. Holding my breath I curved right and let my momentum slide me up the hill a bit, losing speed before I dropped my left shoulder and cut back. I found a rhythm; it was like being Peter Pan, touching the earth but feeling like I could take flight.
Lost in the sheer delight of the wind and the smell of snow and the feeling of doing it, really doing it, I started to fall. I careened toward a snowbank and sensing doom, braced for impact, slamming into it headfirst. Powder! It was two feet of nothing but pure, forgiving powder.
I lay in the snowbank laughing. Maybe I’d become a Canadian.