A perfect day on the slopes: brilliant sky, bright sun, light wind, temperatures above zero. Now, back at the ski lodge, we huddle around the fire, drinking hot toddies, swapping ski tales when the topic turns to terror.
Irene, who is Swedish and fearless, tells of coming to the United States and meeting Carl who asks her if she skis. "All my life," she tells him. He takes her to a mountain, rides with her to the top, and says, "Let's go." Irene looks down and freezes. Skiing in Sweden was flat -- across the countryside in thin-slatted, lightweight skis and tiny, shoe-like boots. Now, trembling in bulky downhill gear, she hunkers down over the skis, gulps, and follows her leader over the edge. "I was in love and I didn't want to be left behind," she says.
After their marriage, Irene takes lessons. Now, skiing like an undulating ribbon, she leads Carl down the mountain.
I have a similar story to tell, but I wouldn't repeat it in front of Irene. Early in my ski career, I went skiing with a loved one who took me to a mountaintop. I knew before I got there I'd be terrified, but my loved one assured me there was an easy descent.
And there was. We skied through lovely, well powdered, gently sloped terrain, in and out among trees bowed with snow. Lovely. Near the end of the run, though, the peaceful incline turned angry. Mean. Steep.
Not to worry, my loved one assured me. Wearing a smile that held my hand, he told me to traverse across the face of the mountain, make a wide turn and traverse again. "If you find you're going too fast, just turn up into the mountain. Nothing to worry about. Watch." And he was off. He made a wide turn, traversed and called out words of encouragement. Another turn or two and he was down, waving me on.
I stood at the crest of the pitch. Like Irene, I was in love, and I could see that love was fading fast from the face of my beloved stationed below. I could not push over the edge and turn my skis -- and myself -- down the mountain.
Something there is that doesn't love us scaredies at the edge of the steeps. It's stronger than logic, bigger than reason, and contemptuous of love and happily-ever-afters. It won't let you go.
I remember that moment -- it returns in vivid, living color whenever I hit the steeps: knees quiver like Jello, heartbeats doubletime, mouth goes dry, mind gropes to find the courage to push over the edge. At more lucid moments, I ask others if skiing ever scares them.
"I was out West at an area where I'd never skied," a friend told me. "I got off the chair at the top of the mountain and came to a trail that was so steep you had to jump off into space to land on it. And I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' But I had to get down. So I closed my eyes and jumped off. And," he beamed, obviously pleased with himself, "I made it. That's what I love about skiing."
Another, asked if rocketing down some cliff with skis skittering almost out of control, didn't scare him, said, simply, "Yeah. Life at the edge.Isn't it fun?"
The scaries are part of skiing and, for what I assume to be the majority of skiers, part of why they ski. They get their kicks from conquering the risks. But not me. I want to spend my ski days sliding past overwhelming evergreens laced with ribbons of ice, letting the bright winter sun warm my face, feeling the crisp mountain air trickle into my lungs, catching soft snowflakes on my pompommed ski hat. I want to struggle into the base lodge after the last run, flop in front of the fire and stretch out to enjoy that wonderful combination of exhaustion and exhilaration. All it takes to have my kind of ski fun is to avoid the scary parts. And I'm not the only one. A friend, who's afraid of heights, doesn't go to the top of the mountain. Another, phobic about chair lifts, skis at resorts that feature T-bars, J-bars and poma lifts. Each of us works things out our own way.
When we do, after a while, some of the scaries start to subside. My Significant Other and I went back to our "first slope" this year. The powder, once again, was perfect, the run well groomed. In and out among the trees we skied, over the gentle terrain -- too gentle for me now -- and over to the crest of that last stretch where I'd shivered and shaken and hated myself so many ski runs -- and years -- before. As we neared the spot I was going Jello in anticipation. I wasn't worried about love, but about making it down what I remembered as the most frightening stretch of mountain I'd ever seen. There was fear and trembling till I got there. And when I did and looked down, I was astonished. This was no steep cliff, no angry mountain. This was just a slight dip in a minor hill.