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.
After lunch, we move on to more difficult runs, some with a few easy moguls. We manage to make it down, but it's not pretty. I'm thinking I may be beyond hope.
By 3 p.m. my boots are killing me, I'm tired and I need a cold beer and a hot soak. I struggle out of my skis and hike over to our meeting room at the Killington Grand Hotel, where Chip Dwyer, an equipment specialist from a local ski store, is giving a seminar on women's ski gear.
I listen long enough to blame my boots for my less-than-stellar performance. Yes, and if I only owned Shaquille O'Neal's brand of sneakers, I'm sure I'd play basketball like a pro. I decide to get my boots stretched, but have no illusions about looser footwear transforming me into Picabo Street. We head for a group happy hour at the Wobbly Barn, a premier Killington apres-ski haunt, but a few of us last for only a beer before heading across the street to Charity's Restaurant for well-deserved burgers and fries. I drop into bed by 10 p.m. and sleep like a stone.
The next morning, the weather is fine and we get going early with a hearty buffet breakfast and energetic warm-up stretches. By 9 a.m., we're back on the slopes. Refreshed and more relaxed, I begin to notice the mountain.
This sucker is huge, much bigger than anything I've seen on the East Coast, and many I've skied in the West. We head for Killington Peak, at 4,241 feet the highest of the seven peaks that make up the resort. The views are tremendous -- resort personnel say you can see five states and Canada from various vantage points. It's obvious that in three days, we won't make a dent in the area's 200 trails that cover nearly 90 miles.
Carol starts working more on the psychological aspects of our game. She tells us to imagine ourselves skiing light and bouncy, as if we're ballet dancers prancing across a stage. For some reason I can't fathom, I find this thought helpful and feel myself skiing more comfortably as I visualize bunches of helium balloons strapped to my back. She also gets us to wiggle as we move down the mountain, swaying our hips from side to side. Strangely, since I'm rarely top of the class at any physical endeavor, I am a natural at this and find myself wiggling happily down the mountain. It's our turn to be videotaped, and I feel good as the camera is turned my way, pushing myself to go a little faster than usual.
At the end of the day, we are faced with a choice: We can either ski through a small field of shallow moguls or go around to a flatter side. As we all look at one another, my first instinct is to take the easy way out, but instead I lead the charge to ski through the moguls, and everyone follows suit. We don't fall, and later that night at a group dinner we congratulate one another on our bravery.
The final morning, we are all sore. Carol takes us to a more challenging slope, which is mostly ice. Our bravery of yesterday seems like a long time ago. But no one panics, and we slowly make our way down with no broken bones or torn ligaments. Carol realizes we are not as receptive today to learning new techniques, so we concentrate on practicing.
That afternoon, as we pack our gear and get ready to head home, the buzz is positive. There is talk of coming back next year, of trying snowboarding, of buying better skis. But are we better skiers? I'd like to think so. The proof will come when I venture back to Vail and am poised on the edge of the back bowls. If you see me teetering at the top, do me a favor -- give me a shove.
For more information on the ski clinics at Killington, see the list on Page P8.
Carol Sottili will be available for questions about this story on the Travel section's regular weekly chat on Monday at 2 p.m. at www.washingtonpost.com.