SWINGING over a pock-marked crevice with an exiled Argentine diplomat who knew the whole score of ''Evita'' in both Spanish and English seemed a good time to reflect. Why are we swinging here, singing here over Blue Knob, Pa.? Why ski? Why, indeed, yodeled the dapper diplomat in the frozen air.
This was not my first time stuck in a lift chair at this particular resort. That was one thing to note. Once before I waited 45 minutes for the ski patrol, making idle chatter with a gynecologist-to-be, waiting to rappel from the chair onto the same virtually non-navigable slope. Something's wrong with skiers? We must be mad, macho and masochistic to boot. Ah nature. That's it. The tender peeling pink birch bark against the dark pines. The drifting landscape. The wind chill at -35. The grainy snow against exposed cheeks and frozen rain like glass on our parkas. Ah wilderness. Bewilderedness.
This was my second season back on the slopes, about four years after a broken marriage. Skiing was a package deal for me. And I suspect lots of other women. Some ski instructors wisely try to split up couples so he doesn't come to her aid every time she falls or, more rarely, vice versa. Ski philosophers call it an individualist's sport. But maybe some of us have to grow into security the same way we have to grow into longer skis. For me, it had been a sport for two. I was back this time to test more than balance and skill. There was this matter of courage, breaking free. This season, with my ski legs back and my new partner safely in a ski class of his own, I had to be me.
It had been easier to come back to skiing after a bad break on the bunny hill at Killington, Vt. My tibia was in three pieces after the first run, the first day. But I was skiing again within two seasons, my knees knocking, my mind jello, on a hill at Bolton Valley, less intimidating than Killington, a mega resort. But there are two kinds of pain, and perhaps it's easier to get over the physical kind. People think they're invincible till they get hurt. Then they realize, hey, this is my body I just cracked. I'm going to die. I'm human. The younger you are when it happens, the easier it is to take in stride.
Women, until they started getting physical, had missed the toughening-up process, the cracked ribs and broken arms of soccer and football. My first serious sports-related injury came when I was 28. This started me on my way to a full-blown identity crisis.
Skiing requires absolute concentration. Making perfect parallel turns at a constant speed requires edge control. There are metaphors in life . . . living on the edge . . . having the need to control, like a gardener picking the weeds from his flower bed.
When things are going downhill, there's nothing like going with them, fast and free. But getting there is not half the fun. In Bolton Valley, a family mountain by Vermont standards, I rode to the top of a gentle slope with the rest of the ski class and naturally fell as I got off the chair. The class waited, while my then husband over-protected me through a week of lessons. Still I got better and the jello turned to putty.
What I needed was gonzo. It was a season away.
Glen Ellen, Vt.: The parking lot outside the motel looks like a mogul field. The cars are snow bumps. The VW has completely disappeared, but we think we remember about where it was.
Disaster is part of skiing. Coping with the weather, the mountain, the battery, your bones make for camaraderie, like a blackout in New York, say. This morning, the guests make up a work party to clear out the drifts so they can get to the powder on the slopes. Little skiers, big skiers, full of pancakes and maple syrup, hashbrowns and sausage, start shoveling out. By 7 a.m., natural leaders emerge and by the time the tow trucks come with jumper cables, we've uncovered the VW and pushed 10 cars up a hill to the highway. There, the Mad River is too enthusiastic to be choked by the night snow. It dashes through last night's drifts, a lunatic stream gasping into quick falls.
I envy its freedom on the drive to Glen Ellen, now part of Sugarbush. The way to the ski area is cleared, and when we arrive late for lessons, an intolerably cheerful instructor named Buzzard is waiting for his class to drift in. When he takes off his hat, his hair is black as Dick Tracy's. Odd that he's not blond. Ski instructors are nearly always blond. And they are always named things like Buzzard or Conan or Hog. That lets you know they're too macho to have plain names. If they tell you to jump off a cliff, you'll do it.
Buzzard urged me to have a couple of mulled wines for lunch, so I'd loosen up and speed up for the afternoon lesson. He recommended an early-morning brandy, but I decided against it. He was the first of two instructors of the school of Inner Skiing. Buzzard had us close our eyes and ski to him so we could feel the slope. He led us off an expert slope in deep new powder, and I can still remember being swallowed by the heavy fluff, as overpowering as tangling with a wave. Still I didn't have the momentum my husband had; he was more than a foot taller and had a hundred pounds on me. I was skiing stiff Olin 150s and even schussing went slow.
Maybe mellow would help. I gave up on the Vermont concrete for the year and went cross country. Colorado, where the air glimmers with snow particles and western zen. Where you can fall in powder and wear cowboy hats without your ears getting cold. It's where the ski wizards live till the thaw. I met one named Squatty, a five-foot ski imp. An instructor who liked to hug his women students when their men were around. None of us, a class full of women, could figure his possessiveness. But he was the best, his peers would say. He'd ride up in the chair lifts with us over Aspen Highlands and point out people who skied like we did. An ego blow, for sure, because he'd pick the most hunched-over, spraddle-legged nurds he could find and say we looked just like them. He'd tell us bad jokes. Explain over and over that this was supposed to be fun. We'd follow him anywhere and did. In three days, most of us women, aged between 30 and 60, were going down a mean mogul field . . . falling, yes, but we were getting down it and that's what counts.
Still, I had been skiing with two friends, who took off the fourth day for Aspen to ski with their men. I decided to stick with the friendly highlands, then maybe the next day ski Snowmass' Big Burn. I was terrified. I was on my own for the first time in 10 years of skiing. Me and the mountain.
After a timid run down the gentlest slope, I made for one of the long chairs and despite the shakes had a pretty good run. But no fun. I met a woman on the chair up and we decided to ski together till she went to Cloud Nine to watch the jumpers for lunch. At lunch, I ran into Squatty and a new class and a few left over from our class and they invited me to ski with them that afternoon. It was the best skiing I've ever done. Exhilarating release. Self-awareness. Getting centered. Being there. The right stuff.
That one day is why I'm hanging here, my cheeks stinging, my goggles cutting into my nose, shivering. "Don't cry for me," sang the Argentinian, keeping up a brave front, his mustache hung with icicles. And he was right. Things are looking up because it's all downhill from here.