HOW I NEARLY LEARNED TO SKI IN A WEEK
The nation's ski slopes will be jammed BW** all th is winter by beginners W on "ski weeks.'’ Tor about $100 each, they’ll get bed, board, instruction and, if they don’t break their legs, as good a winter holiday as there is. Here, ^ one of last year’s novices reports on his first week on skis, and on the keen thrill of standing up sliding down
ON THE FIRST DAY I was ever on skis, I was herded along with a couple of dozen other people to the bottom of a steep hill at the foot of Mont Tremblant, in Quebec, and told to start climbing. I saw the others side-stepping up, and did the same. It was easy. About half way up the hill we regrouped. An instructor, whom I had difficulty hearing because of the wind, told us to come down, “making more than one turn.” The instructors, I realized, were going to separate us into classes according to our ability and experience.
Actually, 1 could have separated myself. 1 was terrified. And turn? How?
The first skier peeled off from our group. Swoop left. Swoop right. Swish to a stop, snow flying. Then the next skier, swoop, swoop, swish. Then another and another, each looking to me more and more like an Olympic candidate, until it was my turn. I could see no other way to get downhill. All systems non-go,
1 pushed off.
Four feet later. 1 fell. One ski came off, staying with me only because of a little thong that attached its safety binding to my boot. I pushed my fists into the snow and raised my behind. From the breast pocket of my borrowed parka came my special no-glare skier’s sunglasses. They skittered off downhill. Then my package of cigarettes went skittering after them. I watched them go. horrified. An instructor who had been watching my performance coasted over to me. He had a German accent. “Effer been on skis before?" he asked. “No.” “What are you doing up here?” he said. “Well you said ...” I said. “This is a snowplow,” he said. “When you want to go slow, or stop, press your knees forward. Now go down to where the beginners are.”
SOME RESORTS GUARANTEE SUCCESS
1 bent my knees forward and began to slide down to the kindergarten class. The rest of the prospects had heard their instructions properly, and were gathered at the bottom of the hill. 1 was headed straight for the girl instructor, going inexorably faster every foot. “Here he comes,” she said. She moved out of the way. “There he goes,” she said. 1 fell down.
That was the beginning of my ski week. Ski weeks are both one of the causes and one of results of the surge in skiing in Canada. More and more resorts now offer them: package deals whereby the skier, beginner or expert, pays a flat rate for his bed, breakfast, dinner, tow-fees and daily lessons. For rates that average around a hundred dollars, good skiers get six days of sport—Saturday nights are usualiy not part of the deal, being reserved for weekend trade—and the resorts keep busy on what would otherwise be slack days. But the real winners are the novices, who take lessons as long as six hours a day from the moment they strap their skis on.
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The best thing to happen to skiing since snow: stretch pants
Some resorts in eastern Canada are even guaranteeing they can teach you to ski in a week—though they are not explicit about how well. Last spring,
1 set out to sec how well one resort's instructors could do with me. I chose Mont Tremblant Lodge. Mont Tremblant is the highest hill in the Laurentians, with a ski school headed by the man generally regarded as the best skier in Canada, Ernie McCulloch, and I figured if I couldn't learn there 1 couldn't learn anywhere. I was assigned to a kind of sub-resort called Devil s River Lodge on the north side of the mountain—an excellent choice, as it turned out. for there were only twentyfour guests at Devil's River, and on the slopes and over the delectable meals served there we all quickly became friends.
Did I learn to ski? Well, yes, I guess. I'm certainly not going into any races for a while, but I will be doing some more skiing. I learned enough, in other words, to be infatuated, if not enough to do standing jumps. Falling, scrambling and probably looking for all the world like a praying mantis on boards. I had the time of my life. I got suntanned, slimmer, a little bruised and a lot happier. If the purpose of ski weeks is to teach you to want to ski. then I am here to report their success.
Before leaving Montreal, I collected some of the paraphernalia of skiing, including a pair of stretch pants. Stretch pants are the best thing that’s happened to skiing since snow. Even trying on the pair I borrowed I felt like a dashing toreador, and for girls . . . ah, for girls. At Devil's River we used a well-known formula for pants watching: number ones were loose, baggy at the knees; number tens were stretch pants in which, if the girl had a dime in her hip pocket, you could tell if it was heads or tails.
I arrived at Mont Tremblant on a glittering Sunday afternoon. Ski weeks entitle you to use the tows on Sunday, although instruction doesn't start till Monday. I had read that there was something called the "Sissy Schuss, and had planned to do some experimenting there. I checked into Devil s River, and arranged to rent skis, boots and poles — $35 for the week. My room turned out to be monastically small, but comfortable looking. I wriggled into my skiing clothes and clomped downstairs in my boots, working on a casual way to hold my sunglasses. On the porch were about twenty people, all lean, bronzed and fit. sipping beer or just resting their legs and soaking up the sun. To one side I could see a steep slope with a rope tow rising a few hundred feet. The people blasting down it were doing jumps. To the other side was what appeared to be a long run. with skiers gracefully soaring down its banked surfaces and larruping over the bumps that rippled its final yards. Most of these skiers, all of whom looked expert to me. came spraying to a stop at the foot of a chairlift that rose out of sight between the two hills. "Uh. where's the. uh. Sissy Schuss?"
I boldly asked a pretty girl in a deck chair. “Right there.’’ she said, pointing to the banked and rippled run. “That?"
I said. She raised her eyebrows. I got a beer, and slipped into a deck chair of my own. assuming an expression of tired satisfaction.
By dinner time, the tows had stopped and the weekend crowd had headed back to their homes, leaving the world to us ski-weekers. I learned that I was not the only non-skier who was there to ski. There was also a man named Marv, who confessed to having been on skis before but who said, and whose friends confirmed, that he had never learned a thing; his wife. Elaine, in her first year of skiing; a genuine Pretty American Girl, Sally, who had just started but who looked ready to pose for a magazine ad. and indeed turned out to be naturally adept; a Montreal housewife, Anne, who like me had never been on skis before; and three women probably in their forties, all wives of good and
ardent skiers, whose husbands had tried before without success to get them to share in the fun, but who were all darned if they were going to let their husbands take a holiday without them. The rest of the guests were destined for the intermediate or advanced class.
The first thing we novices learned, after I got up from the snow, was our instructor's name. It was Keye. “K-E-Y-E,” she said. (No one at a ski lodge uses last names, I learned.) The next thing was how to stand in a straight running position, feet close together, knees pressing forward, one ski slightly advanced. I was quite good at this. Crouching there on level ground, stock-still and stretch-panted, I could already feel the cold wind in my face as I swung around the last slalom pole, and I knew there would be no trick to learning this sport.
Once we started moving, however, I was in trouble. First we learned to edge. Edging is nothing more than pressing one side of the ski into the hill so that it bites the snow. Not diflieult, but a little tough on my office ankles. Then, quite quickly, we were doing snowplows so that, presumably, we could stop when the need arose. My snowplows kept getting wider and w ider, and the only way 1 could prevent myself splitting into two was to sit down. (Some instructoj$Jappai£tftly begin by teaching yd|i how ta fall -backward and side is the ac-
cepted way—bqt.this was unnecessary on my part. )
Fortunatout ftTbe nearly as avVkward a&ffT and he took it with such good grace that, embarrassed and impatient as I was, I couldn’t let my bad temper show. Marv soon noticed that Keye, a pretty NewEnglander wearing stretch pants later voted number eight by the grateful males of Devil's River, had speech mannerisms well worth imitating. “G’ahead,” Keye would shout. “You g’ahead,” Marv would, answer, and she’d laugh and we’d laugh, until we all began to relax a little and enjoy what we were paying for.
By Monday afternoon, we were doing snowplow turns, which are just what they sound like. They're easy, too. but they allow you to go more or less where you want to. and under some control at that, so that at four o'clock, when the day’s lesson ended, three or four of us were so skilled and enraptured that w'c were climbing thirty or forty feet up the hill and snowplowing recklessly back down it. About three, it had started to snow, great quires of flakes, and the thick, soft blanket the new' snow laid made it even easier for us to manoeuvre. Probably too easy, as things turned out.
Elaine. Marv's wife, suggested that we all go up the chairlift and ski back down the Sissy Schuss.
“The Sissy Schuss?” 1 said.
“Sure,” she said. “We can t hurt ourselves in this snow'. We can just snowplow all the way down.”
“All the way down?” I said.
But Elaine was already half way to the chairlift. A mere girl! The attendant showed us how to get on. Elaine went first. One chair behind, quaking, I followed.
It was like going to heaven, on. on through infinite soft curtains of white, over the tops of the trees, the only
man-made intrusions being the chairs on the downward side, which loomed regularly and silently out of the billowing snow. On and on we went, on and on. My God! We hadn't realized it was so far; the chairlift on the north side of Mont Tremblant dips out of sight perhaps a hundred feet up, but it rises behind the dip, finally going more than twelve hundred feet up. The run down the Sissy Schuss is more than a mile and a half.
At last, the end of the lift. We got off, alone in a world of snow. The storm and the failing light of a winter's evening had driven most of the sensible, experienced skiers to cover. The hood of my parka, which I had neglected to put up, was filled with snow. So were my sunglasses, which had been hanging by an clastic around my neck. We cramped into our snowplow positions and pushed off.
We began in long, gentle turns, back and forth across the run. Elaine about thirty feet in front. In the deep, new snow, we managed fair control. After a few hundred successful yards, someone behind me yelled “track.” I fell down, driving my shoulder into a drift. One ski came loose. “Elaine!" I yelled, as the skier whipped past. Elaine fell down. She scrambled up to where I was untangling myself. "Isn't this fun?” she said. “Great." I said. Next time, Elaine fell first, another hundred yards or so down the trail. This gave us a welcome chance to catch our breath. From then on we stopped deliberately every five or six turns across the trail. But in between, as I became inured to the discomfort, I began to realize that 1 was actually skiing. Slow and lumbering as I was, I was standing up, and in that white, silent world, I was making gravity work for me. Our stops became less frequent, our shouts of encouragement less necessary, as each of us
fought alone against the wind and the hill and the speed. On the longer turns, going faster now, 1 could feel myself at the outer edge of my control, and I thought that my thrill must have been as great as the thrill that Ernie McCulloch must feel as he whistles down at the outer edge of his.
At last we could see the lights of the lodge below us; one more run and we would be home. We stopped for a moment. A squadron of real skiers
— the ski patrol, checking the slopes. I learned later — materialized out of the blizzard. Their leader raised his poles above his head and shouted: “All right, straight schuss.” Then he tucked his poles under his arms, crouched low and whizzed away into the night. His men followed. “All right,” Elaine said, “straight schuss,” and we eased off into our slow, careful pattern of long turns, snow plowing to a stop at the bottom.
The blizzard kept up all night, and by morning there were twenty inches of new snow on the ground, the most Mont Tremblant had had all year. Everyone, from beginners to instructors, spent the morning tramping down one slope, while the Snow Cats
— fast tractors dragging huge barrels over the trails — worked all over the mountain. That afternoon, Anne, the Montreal housewife, broke her ankle.
Although I was able to gather no statistics, this was, I was assured, an unusual occurrence. Only three times that year, the Mont Tremblant Lodge office said, had someone in a supervised class broken a bone — although at the small lodge hospital where her husband took Anne, there were two other people waiting for their legs to be set that day (an exceptional day for injuries, because of the new' snow). Anne's accident did serve to remind everyone at Devil's River that skiing
is a dangerous sport, and that it remains dangerous in spite of the progress that's heen made lately with equipment. At the time she fell, Anne was wearing so-called “safety bindings.” which were set as loose as they would go. But they failed to break away when she fell, and 1 imagine that she, as a mother of young children, paid a stiff price that spring and summer for her week's holiday. (She paid a stiff price at Mont Tremblant, too, I learned later; the local doctor who set her leg in half an hour charged eighty dollars; her own doctor had to put a new cast on when she went back to Montreal.)
Only slightly daunted, we went back to our classes. On Wednesday we graduated from snowplow Christies, or turns, to stem Christies, in which the feet are brought together, and by Thursday some of the quicker members of the novice class were beginning to look like skiers. On Thursday afternoon Keye took us up the chairlift, which by now seemed pretty tame to veterans like me and Elaine, and on up higher, on a T-bar tow. Keye brought us down one of the easier — at least she said it was one of the easier — runs from the top of the mountain to the beginning of the Sissy Schuss. It was not easy enough. About half way down, the trail took a steep drop for about a hundred feet.
1 his drop was studded with moguls, the little snowhills created by real skiers skidding into their turns. At the top of it. our class stopped. “G'ahead." said Keye. There was no answer, even from Marv. “G’ahead.” she said. We looked at her. “Take it easily,” she said, and took a few yards of it easily and gracefully herself. Sally, the American Girl who had taken to skiing as if she'd been designed for it, followed. Elaine, who had remained a tiger from the first day, followed. So did Marv. 1 went a few feet and fell down. Marv fell down. 1 got up. A skier slashed past me, missing by inches. I fell down. Somehow, we all got down. Except one of the women who was there to please her husband. In real terror, she simply froze.
Keye pleaded. The woman stayed frozen. Keye snarled. The student cried. Finally Keye climbed up to her, and, inch by inch, talked her down. The woman went down the Sissy Schuss by herself and quit skiing, with my sympathy.
By Saturday morning, the last time we skied as a class, we had lost still more of our number. The other two women who were there to please their husbands apparently felt that five days was enough, and had become lodgesitters. Marv had wrenched an old football knee anti, cheerfully but still with an evident regret, had joined them. Sally, the natural, we scarcely saw; she was away from the breakfast table as soon as the lift started, for a quick run before the class began. Elaine stayed doggedly with it, trying everything and, by that last day, indistinguishable from the intermediate class. I? I went to every class, including Saturday's, and was promised by Keye. over our farewell and somehow sad parting fondu, that I could get into the intermediate class the next year.
Ami I'll be back — this time, to really learn to ski. ★