I’m sitting in the ski rental place, trying to put on ski boots (it’s harder than it sounds) and attempting to reconstruct how exactly I came to be here. My husband Joe claims that I told him I wanted to learn, although I don’t remember that conversation at all. I sort of wonder if maybe we were watching a movie, and someone was skiing, and perhaps I glanced up from my knitting and said something mild and noncommittal – like “maybe someday I’ll try skiing”, and Joe, being the raving lunatic he is, decided to leap right on that and go for the whole banana.
I can tell you this (I think to myself, as I try to figure out how to latch the boots shut – there’s three big clamps I have to close somehow, I don’t even know how tight they’re supposed to be) if I did say that I wanted to learn to ski (and I am not admitting that I did) I am pretty damned sure that I didn’t mean that I should end up in the Canadian Rockies, standing at the top of a freakin’ mountain. If I was the sort of person who was going to learn to ski, I would do that on a much, much smaller hill.
I am not a physically brave person. I am afraid of a lot of stuff when it comes to physical activity. I’m afraid I’ll fall down, I worry about getting hurt, about hurting others, about causing accidents – I’m a creative worrier, and I’m a chicken. When I was a teenager, I was a great sprinter, and the coach tried to convince me that I’d be terrific at the hurdles, but I wasn’t. Time after time I ran right up to the hurdle – and stopped dead. I tried stepping over them to prove to myself that they weren’t too high, but I kept imagining a moment where my foot caught in the hurdle, and I flattened myself painfully on the track on the other side. No matter that hurdles tip over when you touch them, no matter that it’s actually sort of impossible for me to have the accident I imagined, something in me wouldn’t let me run full tilt at that stationary object.
I’m thinking about all of this as I somehow stomp over to the spot where I’m supposed to meet my skiing instructor. (Joe, an adept and fierce skier, has correctly decided that for the sake of our marriage, he shouldn’t try to teach me. He’s right.) My stomach hurts. My instructors name is Brett. He shows me how to put on my skis (they are a cheerful yellow, which bothers me a bit) and we do all this beginner stuff. I put my weight on one ski, then another, I push around the snow a little bit. There is a gentle slope in front of us, and after about ten minutes of consideration, I turn to face the thing and gently glide the whole length of it – about four metres, and I pour terrified sweat the whole time. Brett and I head up the “magic carpet” (it’s like a moving sidewalk for skiers) that takes you up the bunny hill, and when we get to the top, he teaches me to “snowplow.” It’s a way to slow down and stop – you point your ski tips together and push your legs apart, and it’s actually sort of hard to do, but if this is how you stop, then I’m committed to learning it. Snowplow, I feel, is a life saving manoeuvre. At one point in this process, Brett is skiing backwards in front of me, and I am snowplowing down the hill towards him, and I have a hold of both of his hands in mine, and am clinging desperately to him while he keeps saying “don’t panic, just look at me, don’t panic.” I look into his eyes and wonder for a moment if I am falling in love with him, and then realize I’m not, I just think he’s the only thing standing between me and certain, painful death.
By lunchtime, I’d perfected my snowplow, which gave me the confidence to whip down the hill, making linked turns all the way down to the bottom. I am sure, while I’m doing this, that I am fast, wild and almost out of control. I am a wild bird. It’s at the end of the day, and I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress. That night, Joe shows me a video of my triumphant run.
I am horrified.
The next morning, I confess everything to Brett. I tell him I’m slow and awful and that this skiing thing is probably not going to work out. While he’s comforting me, I fall down and lose a ski as we’re getting off the lift. The morning is a train wreck. We get on a real run, and I run over someone in the lift line (Brett says it’s not my fault) and then someone skies into me and knocks me down (also, not me) and then I fail epically at a run down the mountain that’s too hard for me, and I collapse in a pile of skis, shame and fear. That lunchtime I lock myself in the bathroom and have a little weep. It’s the turning point. I come out of the bathroom, and Brett is waiting for me, and he asks me if I want to ski, and somehow it’s a deep question. I say I do, and we have a really nice talk about skiing. (We have this talk on the lift, on the way to the top, where I fall down again, but let’s not speak of that.)
Brett tells me that he thinks my cycling habit has made me really strong. He says that I’m learning fast because I’m good with balance, and that he thinks that all the long distance riding I’ve done makes me a good candidate for skiing. He says my endurance is good, and that he thinks the only thing that’s really wrong with my skiing, is that I’m really, really scared. He says he respects that – but that it’s extremely hard to get hurt on a green run (that’s the beginner routes) and that I should trust him. He likes me. He doesn’t want me to get hurt, and besides, it would be really bad for his reputation.
There’s something about what he says that changes everything. Brett believes in me – and he’s relating skill at skiing to something I know I’m already okay at. “You’ll be okay, you’re a cyclist” is really a great thing to hear. I AM a cyclist. I can totally ride a bike, and his belief that the two things are linked? That is enough to get me to stand at the top of another mountain, and throw myself downward, and when I do, amongst the struggles to get my left ski straight, the concerns I have about the lift, the worries I have about mowing down the toddler in my way (who is currently skiing better than I am) something happens. When Brett reminds me that I have a strong and competent body that does other things well, I start being able to relate to skiing.
We take the lift. I don’t fall off. (Mostly.)
The next day, things are even better. From the top of the mountain, I aim myself downward, and I play a game with gravity. I turn to slow myself down – I turn again, I snowplow when I have to. I am starting to be in charge of my muscles. The snow under my skis is becoming predictable and unsurprising, and when I am afraid, I tell myself the things that Brett said. It is hard to get hurt on a green run. Cyclists are good skiers. I am strong.
We ski all day, and at the end of the day, Joe takes another video of my skiing – 48 hours after the first one.
In it I almost look like I know what I’m doing – but I wish I had a video of my last run. It would look like this: I am standing at the top of a mountain in Lake Louise. The world stretches below me. Brett is nearby, and he’s smiling. He thinks I can ski this, and quietly… so do I. I follow him all the way down the run. It’s very hard work, and I really have to concentrate, but about halfway down, something magic happens. I make a turn, and I can feel it was perfect, and make a little ripple of snow, just like skiers do. I shift my weight again, putting it all on my downhill leg, and just like that, I swoop and turn again, veering away from the trees and staying on the run, just like skiers do. I hold my poles lightly in my hands, not gripping them so tightly my fingers go numb – just like skiers do, and suddenly I realize I’m relaxing a little, I’m even having a little fun – just like I imagine skiers do, and for a few minutes I feel graceful, and competent, and suddenly, as I arrive at the bottom, strategically snowplowing to a stop…
I’m a skier.
Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is a New York Times Bestselling author, a blogger a knitter and the mother of three adult children and she lives in an untidy, wool filled home in Toronto. She can drive a standard, is a long distance cyclist and rides her bike from Toronto to Montreal every summer in the Friends for Life Bike Rally, and thinks you should too. Stephanie has owned two cats in a row that don’t care much for her, and recently learned to ski… slowly.