Ski Bum
©2021, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.


I suppose there are some things that you have to try once. In some cases, one try is precisely the right number.

I was part of what we'll call a social club of sorts during the 1980s. (Yes, folks, this is another one of those "Previous Century" stories.) Being in this club meant having people to do things with, which was nice, although you also didn't always know who was going to be on these excursions. We were not formal enough to charter busses, so most of the time if there was some distance to travel, it would be via public transportation if possible, like into the city, or more often through carpooling. And so it came to pass that about twenty members of this group found ourselves heading for a ski resort which I will not name specifically except to say that it is somewhere in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Trust me, they don't need the bad press, even now. This was going to be my "I might as well try it" excursion.

In the It Is Not Always A Good Idea To Listen To Friends Department, I mentioned that I did not own a single piece of ski equipment, including, for example, ski pants, as I had never been skiing before. No problem, I was told, just take an old pair of jeans and spray it heavily with Scotchgard. This would waterproof the denim of the jeans and I'd be good to go. Oh, and wear long underwear just in case.

Fortunately, it was a relatively warm sunny late winter day at Unspecified Ski Resort. The gang split up to head for whatever it was that they needed to get to the slopes. Some people were already fully outfitted and required only a lift ticket. Others needed to rent skis only.

One rather famously asked, "But don't you want to go to the bar?"

And I needed... everything. I threw myself on the mercy of the staff, explaining that this was my first time, ever. I was advised to purchase a package including all of the required equipment, lift ticket, and a ski lesson, which I did. Fortunately, the resort spoke Credit Card. I clumsily gathered up whatever it was that they gave me, dragged it over to a quiet area, and attempted to put it all on. It quickly became obvious that I did not know what I was doing and needed a staff member to help. Sufficiently assembled, I was directed over to where lessons were given. I'm not sure I would call it skiing, but I did manage to push and slip and slide my way over to the area. On the way I passed near the bunny hill, which is a short and very gentle sloping surface for young children, and perhaps beginners.

By the time I got to the lesson, some of our group had already made it down the slopes once. "Hey, it's great, join us!" one of them called, and another replied, "But don't you want to go to the bar?" in a pretty good mimic of the person in our group that had opened with that line.

"I think I'll just take the lesson," I waved off.

And so I joined a group of twelve other new skiers near the bottom of what looked to me like quite the imposing slope. The instructor took our ski lesson tickets and began immediately.

"Before you can learn to ski, you need to learn how to fall. You will fall, everyone does, and you should know how to do it safely."

The instructor gave the direction to lean over too far and then something I didn't understand. The other eleven students managed quite nicely. The poles fell at my sides. I went one way and one of my skiis went the other way, sliding nicely into the path of skiers coming down the slope. Fortunately, this did not result in any accidents although there were a few "Hey!" and "What are you doing?" shouts in my general direction.

I snapped the other ski off and trudged out to retrieve the errant ski.

By the time I had both skis back on, the instructor was three steps ahead. Everyone else was learning how to "shuss" and I had not yet figured out how to fall. No matter, the instructor kept on going through his prepared remarks. I just jumped to where the rest of the class was, something about using the poles and the edges of the skiis to stop. That involved going down the hill a little bit, which I did, but my method of stopping was falling down again. This time the skiis stayed put. I could just imagine how far down the mountain it would have gone if it had unfastened.

Apparently that was the last of the lessons, and the other eleven newly minted skiers were wished well and told to enjoy themselves. The instructor gave me back my lesson ticket. "You might want to run through this again."

Great.

I failed the ski lesson. Does this actually happen? Well, it did that day.

"Next lesson's in an hour," I was told.

If it was the same instructor, that would not be worth the wait. Perhaps I should have just Gone To The Bar.

A few of my friends skied past me again as I gingerly made my way back down the relatively short distance to the bottom of the slope. I managed to do this without falling and without losing either of my skis. This is ridiculous, I thought; I've spent all this money and I'm not even going to get to try this once?

Or, perhaps, it's ridiculous that I should decide not to try this once.

And so I headed for the chair lift, following way behind my fellow club members, first, because I couldn't catch up to them, and second, because I wasn't sure I wanted anyone to see.

When I got to the chair lift, I wondered whether this was another Bad Idea. Too late, I determined, I was already in line. I observed how to board the lift: squat yourself in a sitting position and just let the chair slide under you, and away you go.

And away I went… and for what was just a couple of minutes but seemed like hours, I had the distinct sensation of feeling like I was about to fall right out of the chair. Where's the seat belt on these things? How high is this thing going off the ground? How much farther back can I push? What if one of my skis falls off...

"Jane, stop this crazy thing!"

Regrettably, this feeling was not limited to chair lifts. Many years later, my daughter and I would take the Sky Glider at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and for the entire time I had the sensation that I was about to tumble out of it unto the not very soft sand well below. My daughter loved the ride, of course. Whatever gene I had, she didn't inherit.

Perhaps worse than getting onto the chair lift was getting off it. That was a one time or else proposition, unlike missing the chair at the bottom. The lifts were not made for round trips. Fortunately, I managed to both ease out of the lift chair and get out of the way of the next passenger, who disembarked just seconds after I did. Phew.

From there I shuffled my way over to the beginning of the ski run, or course, or whatever they call it. It was marked with the symbol which was denoted "Easy." I know that no black diamonds were involved.

Wow, it didn't look that far down from the bottom of the slope.

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

Well, there was no other way down, but on the skis. Right? I doubted that I could walk.

I pushed off very slowly and carefully. Maybe pushed wasn't the correct verb... maybe more like nudged, eased?

And down the hill I started.

I went about twenty feet and came to a complete stop.

Perhaps I could be a little more aggressive.

I pushed down ever so slightly on the ski poles to give myself a start.

And I went another thirty feet before coming to a halt. Granted, it wasn't the steepest part of the slope, just the very beginning. In about another hundred feet, the descent angle would get a little more off the horizontal.

Yeah, it got more vertical. I didn't need to push off. I could feel myself moving slowly at first, then a little faster, then a little faster... and then probably about as fast as I wanted to go.

But not exactly at normal speed. Little kids flew past me in a flash on both skis and snowboards. I supposed they wondered what Grandpa was doing on the slopes. But then, I would be insulting grandparents. On the other hand, I hadn't fallen yet. And need I mention that I stayed along the edge of the run?

I don't know what I took away from the lesson besides a strong feeling of complete embarrassment, but something must have stuck because I managed to make my way down the mountain a little bit at a time. My friends passed me, not once but twice. No matter, I was okay, not going so slow as to come to a complete stop, but not so fast as to lose control.

Until the end of the, ahem, "run." I slipped past the spot where the rather useless lesson had taken place, and another lesson was going on, with the same instructor. I think he was surprised that I was giving it a go anyway, and I was surprised that it had already been an hour. It wouldn't be that much farther. All I needed to do was carefully come to...

Oh.

A stop.

That was not a part of the failed ski lesson that stuck with me. As I approached the bottom of the run, I determined that I was not actually going to be able to stop unless I just fell down. And since there was no knowing whether once again I would go one way and the skis would go another way directly into the path of dozens of other participants, I thought I would just try to coast as far as I could. And maybe at the very bottom, friction would do the rest.

Except that the bottom of the slope was also a major corridor for skiers coming back from other slopes, or heading for the chair lifts, or perhaps going to the bar. It would be approximately like trying to cross a Midtown Manhattan street crosswise to a flow of pedestrians.

"Excuse me! Sorry! Pardon me! Excuse me!" I shouted continuously as I somehow headed directly across the path at the end of the slope, and as if in slow motion, slid into the snow fence that was put up on the other side to mark the boundary between the path and the parallel Bunny Hill. At which point I then fell over sideways, but with all the gear staying with me. I wasn't going faster than a crawl, so no damage. Certainly not nearly as dramatic as the footage of the athlete crashing off the ski jump that was shown with the voiceover, "...and the agony of defeat" during the opening of ABC's Wide World of Sports. (Look it up, kids.)

You would think that would be the end of my escapade for the day, but it wasn't. Somehow encouraged by the other ski trippers I'd come with, I decided to go with them back up the mountain and, well, take another run at it. It was the only way I'd get comfortable with this, they told me.

Somehow overcoming both the feeling that I was going to fall out of the chair lift and my desire to scream about it, I made it back up the slope for Try Number Two.

"You go on ahead," I advised. "This could take a while."

"Nonsense."

They soon understood what I meant. By about ten percent of the way down they realized that it wouldn't be possible for them to ski as slowly as I was. That having been said, I did cut the time down by a lot, making it back down in something like ten minutes. And I also did not end this run against the snow fence at the bottom of the slope.

Time to declare victory.

My fellow group members were waiting for me. Fortunately they did not feel the need to applaud my safe return from the top of the incline.

"Come on, let's do it again!"

"But don't you want to go to the bar?"

...