"At least here I don't have to listen to any Redskins stories," a woman dressed in a blinding array of colors was saying to her companion. She spoke with a half-smile, but her tone said she meant every syllable.
And she was right. George Allen and his worthies are out of bounds in a skilift line. So are the plight of the economy, the cost of coffee and junior's seven new cavities. The happy talk is only of skiing - of past and future wipe outs, of a trip to Aspen, of the bliss of the perfect powder run.
Happy talk, that is, to those who know Heads from Harts and Snowmass from Showshoe. My wife and I were not among those. We were intruders in that lift line recently on a spring voyage to Virginia's Bryce Mountain. We were the rankest of beginners. "GLM" could have stood for "Great Lakes Monkeys" or "George Loves Martha" as far as we knew.
So, among that chattering, cheerful bunch sidestepping its way up the hill toward the lift, we were neither chattering nor cheerful. We were silently concentrating on not making fools of ourselves, a task that seemed ever more unlikely as we approached the swinging, weaving chair that comes bearing down on you from behind like Poe's pendulum.
"What in the name of Mt. Everest are we doing here," I thought to myself. Little more than an hour before, after renting our equipment, solving its complexities and waving goodbye to our friends, Debby and I were staring goggle-eyed at our first hill, a treacherous-looking two-degree gradient called the "bunny slope."
The slope itself wasn't all that frightening because at the end of it was the parking lot. If worse came to worst our avenue of escape was near. What had drawn our nervous attention was the rope tow. Stories of dislcoated shoulders and other delightful injuries connected with this tricky little device came to mind.
It all worked out smoothly. We simply observed the techniques of the skiers in front of us - all of whom were about 4 years old - and followed them to the letter: Skis straight, poles under the left arm, let the rope slide through the hands until ready, then grip hard and away you go with a jerk.
At the top of the bunny slope was the Moment of Truth. We didn't hesitate. Whoosh. We plummeted down the hill in perfect snowplow form, overtaking 4-year-olds every step of the 50 yards.
We had done it! Bring on Franz Klammer and Rosi Mittermaier. When's the plane to Austria? But we kept our heads and took another run down the hill before turning our backs forever on the bunny slope.
We next attacked a 200-yard monster of a hill with a slope of about five degrees. The lines were longer for the cable tow but we didn't mind. It only gave us more time to boast a little to ourselves and to consider how much fun we were having.
Both of us had started out with the time-honored snowplow, but by watching and listening had progressed within 45 minutes to covering the slope with a modified form of a turning technique that we later learned was called the "stem christie." In the stem christie, the skier leans in the opposite direction to which he wants to turn and, before falling on his face, lifts the back of the uphill ski and brings it parallel with the turning ski.
Learning this technique, roughly though we applied it, was grist for our confidence mill. Finally, we each gave other a wild-eyed look and it was agreed that we were going to shoot the bolt, go for broke - head to the top of the mountain on the chair lift.
A certain fly crept into our ointment of euphoria as we inched closer to that chair lift. It had nothing to do with the "No Beginners" sign next to the lift; nothing to do with any waning of faith in our skiing ability.
What I had neglected to notice up to that point was the height to which the chair lift rose. I am scared voiceless by heights. I am afflicted by nosebleeds and dizziness when changing a light bulb. My hands get clammy just looking at tall buildings. I never look out of plane windows. I like the ground.
But it was too late and off we went swinging into the void. Now I'm told that the lifts at Bryce are child's play compared with those, for example, at Aspen, where you look down at eagles nesting, but that sort of comparison reassures me not a lick. As far as I'm concerned, any place off terra firma isterra incognita, and it's for the birds.
Debby knows my feelings in these matters, and she tried to help:
"Wow, isn't it peaceful up here? she said.
"Glug," I said.
After about 10 minutes we were there and I recovered my composure enough to belly-flop off the chair. The worst was over. The rest had to be anticlimactic. Strangely enought, it was.
On the gently sloping first part of the run, we gingerly stem-christied our way downward. Coming to the first of the steeper portions we switched back to the snowplow when it quickly became apparent that our stem-christies were not sufficiently developeed to prevent us from shooting off the sides of the run and careering into the three like pin balls.
We fell, slid, plowed and even skied a little down that mountain. It was seven degrees of combined fright and exhilaration. Four times that day we went up the mountain. Four times we came down smiling. We loved it. We were hooked.
For skiing seems to offer a l ittle bit of everything: muscle-hardening exercise, fresh air, beautiful scenery and that indefinable high, that bone-deep satisfaction that comes from facing up to the old bugaboo called "danger" and - after giving it the nod of respect that is its due - snubbing it with frozen hauteur.
Now if they only made 3,000-foot-long rope tows.