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Rough Draft

All Downhill

A crash course in Eastern skiing

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page W11

THIS IS THE PRIME SKI SEASON in the East, unless the prime season ended sometime yesterday afternoon. "Eastern skiing" is notoriously iffy, and the very phrase, like "British cuisine," makes purists wince. The material that coats the mountain is sometimes not technically snow, but rather some intermediate physical state of H2O -- a frozen plasma, hard and granular and as enticing as a big hill of road salt.

For many of us, skiing is a stunt, performed once a year, badly. We didn't grow up skiing, because it was a rich person's sport. Thus when we make the annual pilgrimage to the slopes, we end up skiing the way we golf, with lots of hooks and slices, the shoulders and knees and hips always out of alignment, the center of gravity lurching to and fro, the whole endeavor not only stressful but actively dangerous to everyone else. You're supposed to lean forward in your boots, but this feels unnatural. What feels natural is to lean back and flail the arms in a circular motion while shouting, "Whoa-whoa-whoa!"

(Richard Thompson)

An investigative reporter will someday prove that most ski resorts are secretly owned by the orthopedics industry. They take your feet, put them in heavy boots, clamp the boots into long, narrow, slick-bottomed extensions, and then throw you down an icy slope. You are assured that any injury will be hideous, the kind of thing that requires a body cast, traction, surgically implanted metal rods, and months of meals sucked through a straw, all to the soundtrack of the orthopedist saying, "You were lucky." Rarely does a skier make it through an entire day of skiing without seeing, snagged on a tree branch, a human leg.

The basic structure of a ski run can be divided into two parts: Rise and Fall. You venture up the mountain on a chairlift that is designed for maximum exposure to Arctic winds, and halfway up the mountain it will stall, just long enough to plant the thought that you're going to endure a freak event featured on the 11 o'clock news.

When you reach the top, you have to ski down, which would be much easier if the mountain weren't so ridiculously tilted. "Steep" is perhaps the technical term. It takes the edge off a beautiful view when you realize that your loftiness is merely a measure of how far you must fall.

So the gist of skiing is, you put on unwieldy and extremely uncomfortable gear, you get really cold, you get scared, you fall down -- and you only have to pay many hundreds of dollars to do it. One adult and three kids forked over $304 for lift tickets and ski rentals one day last year at a resort near Washington. To put that in perspective, in Bangladesh that's the average family's ski budget for an entire year.

After you make your run, you realize you need a pit stop, which means trudging to the cafeteria, clonking along in ambulation-resistant boots, enduring the smell of cheap pizza and, worse, the odor of damp wool, all those expensive sweaters revealing their animal origin. You end up lining up for a slice of pizza, inching along, smelling the wool, eyes watering, head pounding, and the line doesn't move at all, the wool-smell begins to overpower you, and finally without even meaning to you hear yourself making a sound: baaaaaaa . . . baaaaaaa . . .

Once you're back on the slopes, you find yourself looking forward to your favorite part of skiing, the part called "après ski," French for "the period when you are allowed to stop skiing and start drinking."

The need for a stiff drink intensifies after a day on the slopes with your kids. Skiing with kids is tricky, because there's often one child, the youngest, who hasn't yet learned the sport, and must be coddled and coaxed and hectored and ultimately derided for her failures. You begin the day with a lie: "It's easy!"

Unfortunately she quickly discovers that it is impossible to stand up on skis unless you refuse to move at all, and that moving downhill invites the Newtonian calamity known as acceleration. The father will be shouting, "You're getting the hang of it!" as the child slides off the bunny slope into a deep gulch. She'll never trust you again.

Worse is when you happen to have a child who skis much better than you do. It's not just that this insults your physical prowess. It's that, as you ski side by side, you realize that her childhood has been so different from yours, that she's had exotic things like skiing lessons, that she's already in a higher socioeconomic class than you are.

She glides beautifully with parallel skis. As you admire her, your ski tips suddenly cross and bite into the snow, and you're airborne, keister over elbows, about to make an ugly triple-bogey. After your face-plant, you figure out where your poles and skis wound up, and then see, far below, the serene figure of the child making perfect turns.

You kind of want her to stop and wait for you. But even more, you want her to keep going and never look back.

Joel Achenbach is a staff writer for the Magazine and Style. His new blog will start Tuesday at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

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