I can’t say that I hadn’t been warned.
This is one of the thoughts rattling around in my head as my legs fly up while I fall, screwball-comedy-style, onto my rear end. When the dust settles, my feet are pointing uphill on the snow-free ski slope at Virginia’s Bryce Resort.
“I’m okay!” I reassure Horst Locher, the instructor who has, for $35, taken on the challenge of trying to teach me how to grass ski.
Even before I’d forked over the cash and signed the waiver, the cautions were there. “The sport of Grass Skiing is physically challenging and demanding and it is recommended for participants to have an athletic background before attempting this activity,” reads Bryce’s Web site. “It’s like running two miles uphill,” an employee said when I called to inquire about a reservation.
These warnings only made me more determined, although I’m not foolish enough to deny feeling a little apprehensive.
In addition to grass skiing and mountain boarding, the counterpart to snowboarding, Bryce offers another winter-imitating summer activity: tubing. Arriving at the resort with 30 minutes to spare before my lesson, I head to the tubing hill.
I’m more than twice the age of the tweens soaring down the plastic green strip, which occasionally gets a spritz of water to keep it slick. I grab a tube and take a slow-moving magic carpet to the top of the hill.
An employee gives me some tube advice: “If you get one with a colored bottom, you’ll go faster.”
Sliding down the hill, I pick up an alarming amount of speed. I spin backward. This black-bottomed tube seems fast enough.
I get to the bottom and contemplate what to do next. Have another go, or rest and fortify myself for grass skiing?
As if reading my mind, the boy who rode down after me says, gesturing at his tube, “You can have mine.” It has a colored bottom.
The squirt put me up to it. I can’t walk away now. Back up I go, tugging the tube behind me.
I confirm that, yes, the colored-bottom tubes are faster.
My courage falters. If a less-than-30-second tube ride has left me this white-knuckled, I can’t imagine what grass skiing will do.
Meeting Horst, a genial German transplant who came to Bryce in 1966 and has been there ever since (the ski school bears his name), puts me at ease.
We chat as he readies my equipment: ski boots, ski poles, elbow pads, knee pads, helmet and the skis themselves, which look like a cross between a rollerblade, a snow ski and a tank wheel.
Grass skiing is popular in Europe. Horst tells me that it’s one way competitive skiers stay in shape over the summer. Bryce, about 40 miles southwest of where Interstate 66 meets Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley, claims to be the only place in North America offering the activity. Horst introduced the sport to Bryce in 1976. More people used to try it before the resort began offering a wider array of less intense activities, such as the zip line, hiking and tubing. Now there’s a mandatory introductory lesson for grass skiing that Horst teaches, he says, to about four to six people per week.
Horst says he’s had problems with visitors who come to Bryce in groups for a zip line tour and then casually decide to try their hand — foot — at grass skiing. It hasn’t gone well. (If you want to do it, you have to be a little “hard core,” he later explains.)
Pep talk over, I don all the equipment except for the skis. I imagine that I look like a Transformer.
Horst gives me tips. Keep your weight equally distributed on both legs. Your feet should stay pointed forward. Widen your stance and angle your upper legs in to slow down. I practice this motion several times.
We hop into a red 4-by-4, which Horst charmingly calls “the buggy,” and ride a short distance up the slope.
Horst clamps the skis onto my boots. He holds me in place, jogs a few steps with me and lets go. It’s kind of like when your parents help you learn how to ride a bike: euphoria as you’re set free, followed by panic when you need to stop. I tilt my legs in to brake.
We do a couple more of these runs. I ski, Horst shouts encouragement, and then he picks me up in the buggy.
We make our way up the mountain. My first tumble occurs at about the halfway point.
You know what’s the same in grass skiing as in snow skiing?
You know what’s different?
The same: I do it. Different: It hurts more without the layer of frozen precipitation.
We work on my turning. The goal is to do it slowly, incrementally, in a large loop, during which you’re supposed to push off with the ski poles. I’m pivoting too quickly, taking the weight off my uphill foot.
“I think the lesson here is that my ski habits are not so good,” I tell Horst.
“Sometimes we have more problems with the skiers,” he says. And here I was thinking I’d have an advantage being an intermediate snow bunny.
Finally, we arrive at the top of the mountain. One of my ski poles has gone AWOL, apparently out the back of the vehicle. Horst sets off to find it, instructing me to meet him farther down the hill. The terrain is fairly flat.
Turns out the terrain is a bit too flat. I can’t get momentum, and the fact that I’m down a pole is throwing off my confidence. Eventually I propel myself to the meeting point.
Horst arrives, hands back my wayward pole and goes back to helping me turn. I’m still turning too quickly, and I feel myself getting tired. Horst suggests that I take a break from turning and ski straight to a point where he’ll pick me up in the buggy.
Off I go. Euphoria. Panic. I try to stop, and before I know it, I fall forward and land on my stomach.
Well, I have stopped. I have skidded to a stop.
I push myself up. There are stains, dirt and bruises where you really shouldn’t have stains, dirt and bruises.
“I’m okay!” I shout. Then, “I’m done! I’m done.”
We ride to the ski school office. I spend the next two hours reading a book and trying not to be too self-conscious about the mud tracks on the front of my white T-shirt.
I’m looking forward to the zip line tour. I can just hang as I glide along the 10 lines that crisscross the mountain.
There are about a dozen of us on the tour — parents, children, even grandparents. As I come in for a landing at one of the final stations, a guide glances at my shirt and says, “Looks like someone had their grass skiing lesson with Horst!”
And I lived to tell the tale.