Originally posted to Facebook: June 2, 2011
The snow pack in the High Sierra is impressive this year. Memorial Day saw 8” of snowfall on Mammoth Mountain, so they are extending Winter until mid June. They can do that. It is good for Business.
This is fantastic news for drought stricken Southern Californians. It is even better news for that hardy species of animal that defies the odds against its survival and continues to dwell here: The Snow-crested Spandex-breasted Alpine Skier. In the city, I will occasionally spot one of them in a workout room or on an apartment balcony using a ski emulation device, engaged in their fascinating, indigenous behavior patterns. It is not their natural habitat though, and I can see they would rather be somewhere else.
There are two sub-species of which I am familiar: the Cross-Country Skier and its more colorful cousin, the Downhill Skier. I have experienced both, and my preference is well defined. Myself, I prefer the cross-country flavor.
Cross-country skiing is much less crowded with people, more civilized and it is a healthy, breathtaking, head-clearing pastime. While skiing cross-country, I have seen more than my share of picture postcard views.
- There's the one with the new snowfall barely covering a set of Lehigh Valley RR tracks which stretch out into the distance, converging in a single invisible point in space beyond a whited-out horizon.
- ...The one with the old covered bridge at the edge of town that spans a someday-it’s-going-to-be-a gorge. The trickle of a stream beneath it is frozen into stillness until a January Thaw arrives.
- ...The one with the powdery canopy of morning mist blending into marshmallow puffed hills before you and below. The only demarcation between the two is a stand of perfect pine trees along a ridge at the intersection of land and sky.
These are all indelibly archived in my memory and signed, "Glad you were here."
Also in that archive, and signed in a different, sinister hand are memories of a harsher kind:
- …The time I was pitching in a softball game and was smashed in the face by a line drive. I went down like a sack of potatoes, they say. (In actuality this is not so much a memory of the event than of the painful aftermath.)
- …That other time I fell out of the rafters of a rural Michigan Barn Theatre after stepping on a broken crosspiece. I remember it in slow motion, just like in the movies. I do not, however, remember anything immediately after landing face down on the stage. Once again, I was “read in” by others recanting the tale.
…And then there was the time I went Downhill Skiing.
It was many years ago. I was living in Boston, and it was early in the season at Killington, in Vermont. A friend thought it would be a good idea to get me on skis for the first time in my (so far) 23 years. I deferred to him and went along. What the heck. What did I have to lose? I was young. I was adventuresome. I had not yet been hit in the face with a line drive hit back to the pitcher.
It started with the money. First we had to pay for parking, then our lift tickets. Then we rented boots, skis, and poles. Before we even approached the lift I was into this thing for $30 bucks or so. And that’s in 1976 dollars.
The only run that was open was an intermediate one. I would have liked to have seen what an expert slope looked like, because this one was already looking straight up and down to me. Riding up on the lift was peaceful enough, much like I imagined the walk into the blinding light of what-waits-beyond would be, as we pass from this life to the next. I dared only to peek down past my feet, which were dangling five stories above what was sure to be solid granite covered by a thin coat of crusty snow. I spent most of the trip admiring everything I could see at eye level and above.
Stepping off the lift that first time was stepping off into outer space. I was looking for a tether, a pressure suit, and a breathing apparatus. At least I wanted assurances that I could abort the mission if something went wrong. None were offered.
Oh, did I mention that nobody even suggested that it was a good idea to take, oh I don’t know, a lesson or two before even attempting this insane thing I was about to do?
I pushed away from the lift. Maybe “launched” is a better word.
There is, as it appears, a ritual embedded in learning to ski. There is pain involved, and one is required to maintain the appearance of having “fun” throughout the ordeal. It is not unlike how a fraternity pledge brother is supposed to fain solemnity as he is being painted with warm peanut butter. It is a rite of passage.
I discovered immediately that my first trip down the slope was to be spent primarily in the prone position, arriving in the prone position as forcefully as possible. I achieved this result by throwing my feet up in the air every twenty seconds or so and landing flat on my back. It was involuntary, and it hurt a lot; until I remembered to distribute my weight over more area by executing what I called the “Dead Eagle” maneuver. It was the same as a “Spread Eagle” only - you know - dead. I got pretty good at that.
That first descent took about a half hour to reach the K-1 Lodge at the bottom. Maybe it was a record. I didn’t care. I was ready to pack it in and spend the rest of the day healing in the lounge. Looking cool and sipping toddies in the lounge with a Ski-Babe was what I had heard this whole skiing thing was about anyway. Right?
Not according to my friend, who had been waiting for me to finish my first run and was raring to go again. It wasn’t too hard to talk me into it. Remember, I had already spent an entire day's wages to pay for the fun I was supposed to be having. So, now I was intent on getting my money’s worth.
I was surprised at how much better things seemed on the second run. Not enough to get cocky about it, but I was experiencing a little giddiness at times. About three-quarters of the way down I had only fallen three times and had discovered the “snow plow” to keep things more in control, when I heard a voice behind me yell something that sounded like, “SKI!”
“Well,” I thought, “that’s pretty rude,” and I turned, about to shout something childish toward where I thought the voice had come.
It turns out that “Ski!” in this case was not an insult but a warning – much like the word “Fore!” when it is shouted on a golf course means someone has hit a ball in your direction, or the word “Heads!” when barked on stage means something has been dropped from above. Of course in all cases, it seems to me that a more standard word like “Duck!” would work just as well, seeing as how those, like myself, who were new at the game would take less time to translate the word to an action. Nonetheless its meaning was immediately self-evident.
Someone ski had disengaged from its owner and become a low flying projectile on the slope above me. It hit a mogul and launched itself directly at my head, homing in on the bridge of my nose. As comical as your mind’s eye can make this appear now, it was not so funny to me at the time.
I remembered the “Dead Eagle” maneuver I perfected on my first trip down the slope and performed it flawlessly: flat on back, arms outstretched, legs in the air - just in time to watch the ski sail over me, between my feet, a missile in search of another target.
After that, there wasn’t any reason not to hit the lounge and look cool for the Ski-Babes.