Some large hazards and greater joys of learning to ski at 45
The trials of a middle-aged skier
Some large hazards and greater joys of learning to ski at 45
At 45, I am turning, not only to 46 but also to fat. I am your typical, bourgeois, middle-class, suburban, sedentary lump. In a suburb where the chief form of exercise is walking to and from driveways, lumps like me are bound to abound.
Lest my neighbors take umbrage, let me say that my present state of gracelessness, unlike theirs, is not the result of a decline from an active, athletic youth. My neighbors may all have been the exathletes they claim to be, who played on the all-star team at school, only to have slipped from their respective peaks of physical perfection due to “responsibilities” (better known as overeating and over-drinking). They can all reminisce about things athletic. I cannot join them. I never did any.
So limited were my physical resources when I was a child that even the mere observing of exercise overtaxed them. Later, shortsightedness, both kinds, and the theory that I was an ill-coordinated, deep thinker led me to eschew all things athletic, save only athlete’s foot, which disappeared on the day that I decided to learn to ski.
Whatever possessed me, the definitive doer of nothing physical, to learn to ski at an age when friends, relatives and other detractors were beginning to stop doing things physical? It must have been prophecy, when on my forty-fifth birthday, I announced self-pityingly, “Well, it’s all downhill from here.” Why did I say “downhill”? I could have said “cross-country,” which is safer for “a person your age” and a darned sight cheaper. Could it be that, perversely, I wanted it to be risky and expensive? Perhaps, I envied my two teen-agers their costly equipment and downhill thrills and wanted to go flashing down the slopes, too, hoping on skis to look more virile and less premenopausal.
Or was I jealous of my wife’s skiing prowess? A former semipro basketball player, championship swimmer and ballet dancer, she is marvelously coordinated, graceful, and athletic.
The ski madness must have started when I accompanied my family on an afternoon of skiing. While they had a good time on the slopes, I hung about talking to people with limbs in casts, studying broken skis or reading old ski magazines, and wishing I had stayed home. But, then, it wouldn’t have been a family outing, would it? In this environment something had to happen.
One Sunday morning over breakfast, it did. I came unhinged and announced to my startled family that I was going to learn to ski. There was an uncomfortable silence. Then, from behind her pancakes and with a certain lack of conviction, my wife said, “That’s nice, dear.” My son grinned his one-sided grin at his sister, who snorted something in what I would call derision (but which she insists on calling her sinus problem). I could make out only one word — “flipped.” Suddenly, I knew how Julius Caesar felt at the moment of his famous Roman multiple acupuncture.
Angrily responding to this betrayal, I delivered a clear, unambiguous statement of commitment: “I am going to learn to ski. Even if it kills me.”
I shouldn’t have said that.
As luck would have it, 1 had decided to learn to ski during the warmest winter in 20 years. Everywhere, what little snow there was evaporated. I would simply have to wait for snow. I waited, growing testy and paranoid, fighting off the tellers of ski accident stories, in which, if one can believe them, there is no bone in the human body that cannot be bent, folded, spindled, or mutilated.
All the while, the sun shone, the snow ran, and the skiing conditions deteriorated. Vermont was a washout, Switzerland a shambles, Colorado a catastrophe. Could Canada survive the onslaught of unseasonal warmth? And did 1 really want it to? Lack of snow would get me off the skiing hook on which I had hung myself. And yet, somehow, I was caught up in the expectation of the insane adventure and found myself checking reports, making
phone calls, hoping and praying for good skiing conditions.
My wait ended a few days later, when my friend Peter called. He was also a non-skier in a skiing family.. My decision to learn to ski had shamed him in the eyes of his household, he told me. And as a result of their taunting, he had decided that he, too, would learn to ski. He had owned a ski jacket for several years, and he had just gone out and purchased a dandy pair of red ski boots at a greatly reduced price ... and why didn’t our families go skiing tomorrow and hel and I could take a lesson together?
What about the thaw? Not to worry j He had found a place, Peter assured! me, with good skiing conditions.^ Everywhere the hills were running water, but in the snowy Shangri-la my friend had discovered flukej conditions prevailed and there was snow, and we could — gulp — learn to ski on the morrow.
The next morning we were there good and early. Wives and children disappeared up towering hills, while Peter and I engaged a young instructor to give us private instruction, as befits the clumsy middle-aged. What we needed, he told us, was something called GLM. GLM, we quickly discovered, was not a Dutch airline but the Graduated Length Method of ski instruction, wherein the novice — or victim, as I prefer to think of him — starts learning on small skis and graduates daily to longer ones, until, at the end of a week, if he is not in the hospital, he is on full-length skis, schussing (obscenely, I am sure) down from impossible heights along with the best of them. The Graduated Length Method makes it possible to develop skills in a week that take several seasons on long skis. I later discovered that GLM is a source of great annoyance to skiers who have had to learn the long, hard way.
The graduated length skis are rented as part of the learning package. And a good thing, too. Who, after all, is going to buy five pairs of skis in increasing lengths that he will never use again after he learns?
On our GLM mini-skis, we were led out to the beginners’ hill, which could not have been more than 100 feet away over almost perfectly level ground. Just outside the door of the chalet, I had my first GLM lesson and instantly learned how to fall. The instructor and Peter waited while I endeavored in vain to arise. Despite clear instructions and abundant encouragement, I lay there, a ludicrous sight, a full-grown man thrashing about futilely with tiny little skis on his feet, while more proficient skiers gracefully circumnavigated me on their long ones. 1 felt even more foolish, when both the instructor and Peter had to make several attempts to haul me to my feet.
We then proceeded to the beginners’ hill. En route, I fell and had to be helped up a total of 11 times. By actual count. Each time I fell I landed on the same part of my anatomy. It soon became tender and water damaged. Not once during this trying period did Peter fall, and he helped me not at all with constant reassurances that on longer skis it would have been even more difficult.
Ultimately, red in face and wet in tail,
I achieved the bottom of the beginners’ hill. (It had never occurred to me before that one could get a sense of achievement by attaining the bottom of a hill rather than the top. However, my circumstances were special, I kept telling myself.)
In GLM, beginners start without poles and are first taught how to walk up the hill herringbone style. This is accomplished by Chaplinesque manoeuvres of the feet. Lor some reason, I was able to manage it with reasonable facility
though with much aching of near atrophied muscles. Part way up the hill, we were told to stop, turn, and stand still, facing downhill, without racing down, until advised how to do so. Slipping, and sliding, and falling, and being helped up, I finally found myself looking down a short, gentle incline. Immediately I was filled with terror. Sensing this, both friend and instructor told me I was doing fine, and I responded to this encouragement by permitting my skis to slip out from under me and following them part way down the hill, using as a sliding surface my wet, cold, and bruised posterior.
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from page 25
When I returned, our formal ski edúcation began with the instructor showing us how to flap our arms like birds. Feeling foolish, we mimicked his arm movements. Immodest though it may be to say so, I am a good arm flapper. Peter could not come close. Next, the instructor demonstrated how to flap while simultaneously hopping. In hopping, too, I held my own. Until I alighted that is, whereupon the sliding debacle detailed a few lines back repeated itself, to the amusement of all but the downslider.
It would be wearisome to recount all my ups and downs, save to say that they were wet, numerous and bruising.
Eventually, though, I was able to coordinate my flap with my hop. This elicited from the instructor the announcement that we were to perform this feat in downhill transit. To demonstrate this, he took off downhill like a bird, all youth and grace. I found myself hating every agile, unbroken bone in his wellconditioned body and wanting to kick him in his dry, unbruised bottom.
At the foot of the hill, he stopped and called to us to follow suit, one at a time. “After you,” said Peter politely. “No. After you,” I insisted, nervously delaying the inevitable. Graciously, he declined, until I told him that I hoped by watching his performance to learn from it. Then, shakily, but without falling, he made his flapping, hopping way down the slope.
I was alone, petrified with fear. As I started to consider some sort of a hysterical display, the instructor beckoned to me. Grinning weakly, stalling, wondering what to do, I waved back at him, unfortunately a bit too vigorously. Suddenly, I was off downhill, screams strangling in my throat, and being shouted at to flap and jump. And I did. I flapped and jumped as instructed, and slowly, not too ungracefully, I made my way down the incline to where friend and instructor, nodding encouragement, waited. I had done it.
I had not fallen.
In triumph, I sped toward my audience of two and at their feet, in a puddle of melting snow, unable to stop, I sat down. Everything ached. I was sore. I was wet. But I was jubilant. I had skied. And I did it again and again, falling a great deal, while friend Peter never so much as stumbled. Each time, I felt more comfortable. The fear was gone.
“Now,” the instructor informed us, “we do it from the top of the hill.” In a lump, the fear returned.
He pointed to a dangerous looking mechanism that ran up the hill, with ugly hooks suspended from it and people hanging from the hooks like sides of beef. I shuddered. This, we were given to understand, was the poma lift. One had merely to straddle and lean against the seat at the end of the hook, grasp the vertical rod lightly, keep one’s skis in the tracks, and be transported upward to ski heaven, the hilltop.
Carefully following instructions, I was able to get halfway up the hill before the devilish device rejected me like foreign tissue and threw me off, coming to an immediate stop as it did so. I tried to remount the monster, having miraculously managed to get to my feet unaided, but was restrained by shouts and waving arms, indicating that I had to get clear, go down the hill, and start all over again.
I thought this grossly unfair. It was not that way in business or the academy. If you were unseated, you might slip back a step or two. But to start all over again, from the bottom — never. Thinking these deep, philosophical thoughts, I contrived grumblingly to scramble clear of the lift, slide down the hill without falling, get back on the lift, and attain the summit without further mishap.
Once there, I dismounted from the lift precisely as directed, but perhaps a shade too early. This, unfortunately, left me sliding backward downhill, a situation which I quickly remedied by sitting down on my sore, wet stopping device, unhappily within skull fracturing distance of the lift. Again the lift stopped. On hands and skis I got out of the way and was aided to verticality by my friend and the instructor who had preceded me and were waiting patiently for me to stop making a fool of myself.
Having, then, been pointed at the brow of the hill by the instructor, I was able on my own to get there without event. It was, after all, only 10 feet away. I stood high atop the beginners’ hill staring straight ahead and unable to look down. Heights are not my strong point. I expect them to give me vertigo. Fighting the feeling, I took a deep breath and looked down, to discover a small hill with a gentle slope, a mere pimple among the other hills. It did not make me ill. Rather, it made me wonder why I had been so frightened.
Following both instructor and instructions, I permitted myself to slide slowly down the slope, weaving a clumsy zigzag pattern in the snow. I did it several times, though not always without falling. To my annoyance, Peter never fell once. But, I told myself, I am more cautious than he, operating on the principle of falling early and not getting hurt, rather than falling late and breaking something. My philosophy, in short, in that as soon as I encounter problems I sit down on my wet and tender part.
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After the lesson, we met our families for lunch. I ate mine standing, not wanting to sit down when it wasn’t absolutely necessary and being anxious to stay off the bruises. Between mouthfuls, the more expert skiers in our party told me that I had acquitted myself nobly. I, in turn, admitted to progressing beyond my expectations. Skiing, I now felt, was not nearly as frightening as I had been led to believe. In fact, I finally confessed, I liked it.
That was Peter’s cue to inveigle me into another lesson that very afternoon. Wet, weary, and aching, I agreed. Who was I to hold up progress?
I won’t burden you with the details of the second lesson, save to say that by the end of it, I was using poles and executing something called parallel turns on a very slushy hill. And, marvel of marvels, I was performing just a shade better than the unfailingly unfailing Peter. Now, I don’t know enough about skiing to appreciate how difficult parallel turns are to learn on long skis, but when I tell a skier that I executed parallel turns at the end of my second GLM lesson, on my first day of skiing, at the age of 45, he invariably says, “I hate you.” If, however, I convey this intelligence to a nonskier, he says, “Why are you telling this to me, a complete non-skier?”
My small but striking ski success went quickly to my head, and it was soon as swollen as the other end of me, though drier. Now I’m hooked on skiing and can’t get enough of it. I could ski around the clock. That’s why, some night, long after the meat hooks have stopped running, if you see a middle-aged man with a sore, wet bottom, walking like Chaplin up the side of a ski hill in the moonlight, be sure to wave. It will be me. ■
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