fear of skiing

No photographers were there to capture my Agony of Defeat moments but this splat is probably close to what they looked like. My pants are way cooler.


I somehow made it through 44 years in Pennsylvania without ever skiing. I wanted to, but something always got in the way. My family never took active vacations. The school ski club had the rep for boozing it up, and whether it actually did or not, I was not allowed. I was warned the ski resort near Penn State, Tussey Mountain (nickname: Tussey Bump) was neither exciting nor good for learners due to ice. After graduation I did not have health insurance but once I did, scheduling issues foiled every ski trip plan. Add to that, my husband is a great skier and certainly wouldn’t want to be on the bunny slope with me.

But last Christmas, we traveled to Keystone, Colorado, with my expert-at-schussing in-laws and our own son who, at 10, was anxious to learn in a place where skiing is not just a weekend pursuit. I couldn’t wait to be among knotted-wood ski lodges, real wood fires, sleigh rides, hot tubs and hotter toddies.

Any new activity that requires the purchase of new clothing is exciting to me. I already had a ski jacket and I wasn’t going to need shoes. (Boo. Don’t all sports have special shoes?) I got to buy funky pants, black goggles that made me look like the Terminator, tech wool socks in bright purple, soft wicking base layers and a neck goiter. What? Make that neck gaiter. And even though I couldn’t wear it, I also bought an Aflac disability policy just in case I ended up pulling an “agony of defeat” maneuver down the side of the North Face. I would need money to pay a Sherpa to take my kid to violin lessons and cook dinner if my legs became permanently stuck behind my earlobes.

Until that point, I hadn’t particularly worried about crashing, but I made the mistake of posting my pending trip on Facebook, which is utterly stupid if you’re starting a new sport at 44. My page rapidly filled, half with encouragement and half with worse-than-childbirth-during-the-Civil-War stories about missing meniscuses, torn ACLs, awful concussions and other nightmare stories from lifelong skiers. “But don’t worry. You’ll be fine,” they said. This is why skiers drink.
After reporting to River Run to get fitted for skis, boots, poles and helmets, we at least looked ready to go. Maybe it was the altitude or the extra base layer but I started flop sweating right there.

We were smart enough to enroll ourselves in ski school, if only so a true ski professional would be there when we cracked our heads open like ostrich eggs. My son was signed up for two full days. My hubby and I each had a full day, he in the refresher class and I in the adult “first experience” group—in which they swore I would not be the oldest person in class. Liar, liar, ski pants on fire. I don’t even think my instructor was old enough to drive after midnight. Very bad.

We spent three hours walking (!) up (!) the training slope and gently gliding down. My experience as a good ice skater gave me knowledge of using edges and pushing from the inner thighs and keeping knees bent and doing snow plow stops. I only fell once and it didn’t hurt. Everything was still attached, including my ski, which wasn’t a good thing.

By the afternoon, we used the surface lift, called a Magic Carpet, to get to the top of the instruction area. I went so slow I often need to use my poles to start going again. I was exhausted. At one point on the lift, I realized it had frozen and I was sliding backwards even though I had my feet in a reverse pizza (See! I’m a real skier because I can sling the highly technical lingo!) I was yelling profanities and a man behind me started screaming at me in another language. He certainly panicked seeing me slide ever closer to him like a Michelin Man-shaped domino. All of a sudden, the lift jerked to a stop and I went reeling forward. I was cooked at that point and out of curse words.

Still it was a great experience. There is nothing more beautiful than the view of the Colorado sky from 12,000 feet. I learned all the fundamentals. Of course our son was a skiing savant but isn’t it always that way?

The technique wasn’t hard to pick up; what was difficult was learning to go fast and trust that I wouldn’t die. This is why the kid did well. He was too young to foresee his own potential paraplegia. There was only one thing to do: Get back on the slopes somewhere easier and cheaper: Seven Springs.

This time I took a private lesson with a lovely more-my-age instructor named Joyce, hand selected for me by an expert Downhill Diva friend who said Joyce dealt in fear, and would exorcise it out of me. She had me on the mountain in five minutes with the comforting words “I will not take you anywhere you are not ready to go.” I trusted her implicitly. Ten minutes later, I had fallen six times and run through Joe Pesci’s complete vocabulary.

“You are doing this on purpose,” she said with obvious frustration. How could that be? If I was afraid of falling and breaking my neck, how could she suggest that? “You don’t need to fall.”

I stopped, speared my poles into the snow, goggles fogging with anger. She was right. I was so scared to hurt myself, so worried that I was too old to learn, that I was falling when it was safe to fall instead of risking that my speed would build to an unmanageable point. It didn’t help that I knew a skier had died on the mountain’s green slopes a few weeks before after he flew uncontrollably into the woods. It didn’t help that many friends had many ski-related surgeries. But there were thousands of people on the slopes who do not get hurt. And I was going to be one of them.

I didn’t fall again that day (except one stumble getting off the lift). We stayed on the green slopes, where I belonged. But I learned to ski over ice and a few exposed rocks and around unsteady toddlers on tethers. I may have bobbled but I stayed up even as I flew full speed down into the foot of the basin again and again.

It was exactly like I read in world-class skier Mermer Blakeslee’s book A Conversation With Fear, recommended by my Downhill Diva friend. The book draws the metaphor between skiing and life.

“There is nothing solid under foot. No security there. Don’t even try. What you want to grab onto beneath you, the ground, that’s the present just past. If you try to find the balance there you’ll easily get thrown. You have to keep moving forward to what is just ahead. Anything that happens, the slightest little bobble, throw yourself forward. Toward the future, the immediate future.”