By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2003

Fifteen hours of ski instruction over three days in the company of other women. I figure at the end of that I'm either going to be a better skier or admit that it's time to trade in the skis for snowshoes.

I've been skiing for 30 years on and off, and I'm lousy at it. I've taken more hour-long group and private lessons than I can remember, from Heavenly Mountain in Lake Tahoe, Nev., to Ortisei in the Italian Alps. I've been told to lean forward, turn my hips, dig in my edges, plant my poles. One instructor even urged me to point my boobs down the mountain like headlights. Nothing worked.

I watched my husband take up the sport and manage black diamond runs within a few days. I smiled indulgently when my children, as midget toddlers without poles, whizzed past me down the slopes. It didn't bother me -- much. But during a pivotal moment last year, something snapped.

I was poised at a spot overlooking Vail's beautiful back bowls. The scenery was stupendous, the sky a crystal blue, the temperature a comfortable 40 degrees. My friends and the legend of these bowls called to me. But my fears were even more commanding. I reluctantly skied back to the safety of the greens and easy blues of the mountain's face. That night, as my group talked for what seemed like hours about the incredible day they'd had in those bowls, I resolved to face my fears.

I needed an intensive, confidence-building ski clinic that would get me over this mountain-size hump. Drawn to the idea of a girl-power program, I investigated doing one of the many for-women/by-women instructional clinics that have become increasingly popular in recent years. Proponents believe women learn better if they don't have to compete with men or worry about what men are thinking. I figured I could use any advantage I could get. So when I returned from Vail, I signed on for next season to a program called Women's Turn at Killington, Vt.

"What goals would you like to accomplish in this program?" I was asked in a pre-clinic questionnaire. My response was simple: "I'd like to become something more than a lousy skier."

My first thought is that the all-female instructing staff is a far cry from the intimidating twentysomething athletes I'd imagined would lead us. Without their official ski jackets, they could pass for a bunch of PTA moms. Most are in their late thirties to mid-forties, sporting lots of laugh lines and a few extra pounds. I feel right at home. It's only when they strap on their skis and swoosh effortlessly down the mountain that I realize our similarities run only skin deep.

There's a 63-year-old snowboard instructor, Chickie Rosenberg, who leads a group of women who merrily called themselves "Chickie's Chicks"; ski instructor Betsy Beattie, mother of 3-year-old twins, who with her husband owns and runs a local ski lodge; Megan Smith, owner of the Vermont Inn, who ends her ski-instructing day only to start serving gourmet dinners to her guests; and my instructor, Carol Hildreth, a 59-year-old professor of geology at Framingham State College in Massachusetts, who woke up one day at age 50 and decided she needed to ski more.

The participants are as varied as the instructors. In my group is 49-year-old Barbara Schnell, who says her goal is "to look at a blue run without getting hysterical," and management consultant Ann Prsa, a 37-year-old natural athlete from Finland who yearns to ski the black diamond moguls. In the more advanced groups are a mother-daughter team, a raw-food chef, a systems engineer and a couple of stay-at-home moms. The snowboard crowd includes a Marisa Tomei look-alike lawyer from Manhattan, a third-grade teacher named Pansy, a New Age comedian and a German-born Vermont hotel manager.

Arriving late, I get some quick introductions, drain a cup of strong coffee, buckle my boots and head for the slopes. I am quickly handed over to Carol, a stout, strong-looking woman who, wearing a hand-knit hat and duct-taped gloves, is my kind of unpretentious instructor. We head to a beginner's slope and she tells me to ski a little so she can do a quick assessment of my skills -- or lack of them. Barbara, struggling with a terrible cold and cough, skis in front of me, and I feel a little guilty that I am so relieved to see she's no better than I am. Later that afternoon, Ann arrives, and I feel a little guilty about the twinge of jealousy at seeing that she is better than I am.

Carol spends most of our first day tailoring her instruction to address our individual problems. Barbara tenses up when she skis. I am also stiff and my technique falls apart when I begin to go too fast. Ann has potential, but her skis don't come around fast enough to do a true parallel turn.

Carol has each of us work on simple, but critical, elements, such as keeping our eyes focused down the slope and pointing the correct shoulder down the mountain during turns. I slowly relax, becoming just a little more confident.

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