07 January 2008

A Ski-Phobe Cured

My childhood memories of skiing are few but very well defined. Sometime during my childhood, we were certainly living in Dryden at the time so I must have been 8-10 years old, our mom took my brothers and I to Mount Holly, SELMI's* favorite ski resort/ex-municipal dump. I remember renting the equipment, the boots were wet when the creepy guy behind the counter gave them to me. In remember getting frustrated and hot in my winter coat trying to put the boots and skis on. I remember that my mom got me into a group class and I remember using the rope pull to get up the bunny hill with the group. I remember being extremely frustrated (which, it must be noted, was a rather common situation for me at the time) and wanting to leave. I remember seeing my mom lining up to take the chair lift. I pointed my skis down the hill and held my balance until I crashed into her at the bottom. I cried a bit and told her that I didn't want to do it anymore, just as I did with Little League baseball, that it wasn't for me. My mom agreed, set me up in the lodge with a hot chocolate and that was the end of skiing for me. From then on I would tell anyone who asked that I didn't ski, that I tried once but that the best skiing I had ever done was running away from the group lesson. That was it, no skiing ever again for Kurt, it was certain, no debate to be had, just a simple, immutable fact.

Then came Esther. Marriage can make a man do strange things, things that he would never have done otherwise, that he would think were beyond his capacity. I'm saying this as if our Silver Anniversary is bearing down on us though, in reality, Christmas Day was our four month “anniversary”. Nonetheless, I am certain of this fact, no one could have ever made me strap on the narrow death sticks that most people call skis except Esther.

During the planning to go to the central mountains of France for the New Year we talked about going skiing, I gave the “ran away from my class” speech and was pretty sure that I'd find something else to do when Esther and the others went skiing. Once we were at the farmhouse in the foothills though, for some reason my confidence was higher than it should have been and I decided to give it a try. What's the worst that could happen?

“I immediately regret this decision.” Standing on top of the first hill, that phrase was cycling through my mind on repeat. It was incredible how every detail immediately recalled my experience from 15 years ago. The too-tight boots. The awkward feeling of the skis on my feet. The feeling of impending disaster as the tips of my skis crossed. The unhappy meeting of face and snow. And most of all, the self-consciousness of falling in front of people who know what they were doing. It wasn't the pain that bothered me, not 15 years ago and not this time, it was the embarrassment of looking like a fool in front of others, that wasn't going away.

Granted, during a period in high school I would purposely fall in public locations to either (a) embarrass my family or (b) make my friends laugh. The salient difference, though, is that I was controlling my fall, in fact I was timing it for optimal comic/embarrassing value. On the ski slope I was falling because I had no idea what I was doing nor how to prevent the fall.

In addition to the fear of embarrassment was the fear that I would run over and kill some 6 year-old who could control himself on skis (and perhaps in other venues) better than I could. I was falling, uncontrollably, into my 9 year-old persona. I was largely irrational.

The first ride up the chair lift was terrifying. I was pretty certain that I would fall off before I got to the top. If I made it to the top I was absolutely certain that I wouldn't get off in time and I would succumb to either a horrible, mechanical death or an extremely public embarrassment. No matter what, I knew that I surly, French lift operator was waiting at the top to tell me that I shouldn't try things that I don't know how to do. The lift continued silently to pull us to the top, to my death, whether it be physical or figurative, which awaited me at the top. I told Esther that I was pretty sure that I couldn't do it, that it was a bad idea to have tried.

We got to the sign saying that we were 30 meters from the end and instructing us to lift the lap bar. We did, I was in a panic, I was going to have to do something that I didn't know how to do at a moment not of my choosing. I could see the end, was it a nice flat area, free of people? No, it was about 10 meters of flat covered in women, children, puppies, disabled people, and endangered wild flowers. That, my landing zone, was followed by a shockingly steep slope. It must have been a 45 degree angle, did she trick me onto a double black diamond? Was it a sick joke? No time for thought, I had to move quickly to get off the chair and then immediately stop myself without killing anyone or anything. We reached the end, Esther glided of and gracefully to a stop, spraying the finest mist of snow off of the edge of her ski. I let the chair push me, the first 500 milliseconds were amazing, I was doing it! But then it happened, the tips of my skis, my old enemies, crossed and twisted my left ski perpendicular to the right, the torque disengaging the left ski, and my face hit the snow. Not a good start. I knew that there were other skiers being disgorged from the lift behind me, to prevent myself from being cut in half by the razor edges of their skis, I stood up, picked up my left ski in my hand and walk/shuffled over to Esther. I told her that it wasn't a good start. She knew that already.

What followed was a lot of patience on Esther's part and a lot of falling on my part. She showed me the basic principle of slowing down for beginners, the snowplow. Then she told me about turning, the cool person's way to slow down. Apparently to turn I had to gracefully transfer my weight from one foot to another while moving down a hill at speed, all the while making sure that the downhill edge of my ski didn't dig into the snow. She said it would be automatic. I told her that I didn't have entire confidence in that fact.

By lunch time, in the resort cafeteria over a plate of salty noodles and mushy fries (the vegetarian options), I told Esther that the sensation of gliding down the slope at speed was not valuable enough to offset the cumulative cost of the physical pain and humiliation of falling, the bone chilling cold, and the cost of the day pass and rental. I wasn't giving up for the day, rather saying that I wouldn't do it again in the future. Since the day pass, rental, and cold were sunk costs, I might as well try to get as much pleasure from the act of skiing as possible to offset those costs. Esther suggested that I maybe think about it, that I didn't have to continue if I wasn't having fun. I told her that I wasn't having fun but that was precisely why I had to continue, to get the fun/pain (F/P) ratio back up, maybe even above 1.

The afternoon went much better. I was turning with confidence 50% of the time, soon that was 70%, then 80% of the time. I wasn't doing the snowplow, I gave that up pretty quickly because it felt stupid. Instead I jumped into the turns. I learned that it was basically putting all of my weight on the uphill edge of the downhill ski. I was able to avoid the children and puppies and even react to skiers falling in front of me. When things got out of control I fell, sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. My left hip is still tender from falling on the same spot 15-20 times, but it never bruised too much. Moments of fun were starting to flash through the intense concentration, pain and fear.

We took two chair lifts to get to the top of one of the mountains. It was at about 6,000 feet above sea level and 2,000 feet above the station where we started. At that elevation we were above the clouds, looking at mountaintop islands in the sky, with only seas of clouds in between. It was breathtakingly beautiful and bitterly cold. We took a blue hill down and all was going pretty well until we entered the clouds. All of a sudden visibility was reduced to about 15 meters, not an ideal condition when I'm needing every visual clue about the upcoming terrain to stay on two feet. I fell back into irrationality. Some part of my monkey brain was yelling at me, “You are going to fall off of the edge of the mountain if you continue!” I told Esther this, she told me that falling off of the edge of a mountain was unlikely. We continued down slowly, finally getting below the clouds, even into some areas of sun. Soon I was feeling a bit proud of myself, proud that I had done something that I had written off forever, something that was intermittently terrifying and painful.

I feel a bit guilty for having learned to ski in such a stunning location that would have been appreciated much more by someone who actually knew what they were doing. That said, at the end of the day I was disappointed that the sun was going down and that we couldn't go for one more run. I had gone through the painful parts and wanted to get the F/P ratio even higher though it did already have a value slightly exceeding 1.

I guess by that, I'm trying to say that I had a good time. We're talking about when to go again.

If you're curious, the ski station that we went to is called Super-Lorian and was very impressive (for a complete novice) and relatively inexpensive (22 euro day pass and 16 euro boot/skis/poles rental). I recommend it!

Here is some photographic evidence of my skiing, if you still have reason to doubt it:

Skiing in Auvergne

*SELMI = South-Eastern Lower MIchigan


  1. Thanks Esther!
    Evidently love can conquer all!

  2. Anonymous11:10 PM

    Kurt, Great article on your skiing adventure! Mom took the first step years ago, and Esther has completed your journey so that you didn't have to rely on help from a source like this --> http://www.selfhypnosisuk.com/Fear-of-Skiing-self-hypnosis-download_ADHIT.aspx

    It sounds like you had a great time with friends on this trip to the mountains. The photos were fantastic to look at, as were the ones from Christmas (I'm really enjoying my new Nintendo, although I haven't had a Jaegerbomb since Mike party -- perhaps at a business lunch!). Take care. Dad