My mom — loving, supportive parent that she is — often expresses concern that this blog doesn’t sufficiently emphasize just how bad I am at certain things.
“Loved your post about bicycling,” she’ll tell me, “but I don’t know if you really made it clear just how awful you are at riding a bike. I mean — you’re really bad.” Or, “When people read about you doing extreme sports, do they know you were too scared to go on Splash Mountain until age 15?”
So, in the interest of accuracy, full disclosure, and an underlying desire to please my parents, I’m going to go into a bit of detail about why I have never been skiing before.
See, we didn’t go on family ski vacations when I was a kid. My sister began her 14-year competitive gymnastics career at age seven, and any leisurely pursuit that might put her out for a season with a broken leg was out of the question. My parents have never been skiing before and so were never insistent upon us trying. So the closest I ever got to skiing as a kid was parking my butt on a plastic saucer and falling off of it halfway down random winter hillsides in Truckee, California.
The older I got, the clearer it became that the risk involved in my skiing would far outweigh any chances of my success. I trip over my own feet often enough while walking down the sidewalk that friends don’t even ask if I’m OK any more. I spent four months hobbling around New York on crutches thanks to delayed effects from the weekly ankle sprains I incurred as a cheerleader over a decade ago. When I tried to ride a Segway (a Segway!) for a video segment I hosted in Martinique last year, I went flying off the thing and landed in the dirt with the Segway on top of me, wheels spinning. I am clumsy. I am uncoordinated. I have bad luck, terrible balance, and a tendency to panic whenever I start to lose control. I have no business barreling downhill, frictionless and carrying sharp objects, at speeds measured in MPH.
So as of last week, at age 29, I’d never braved a bunny slope. Never jammed my foot into a skiboot. Never so much as set foot in a ski lodge for a hot chocolate. It was in my own best interest — and that of anyone who might have the misfortune to cross me on the mountains — that things stayed that way.
But then, I went to visit my friend Jodi in Wanaka. Jodi’s one of the many young people on working holiday visas just like mine who come to New Zealand specifically to find winter jobs near or on the mountains, then spend their free time skiing and snowboarding. These are people who will get up at 6:00 every morning, hit the slopes all afternoon, and then wait tables all night to pay for their rent and lift passes. And Wanaka’s surrounded by the country’s best ski slopes. It’s a town full of British barristas and Irish cashiers in arm casts and leg braces from last week’s spills; the kind of place where pub patrons are still wearing beanies and ski goggles over beers at night. If I was ever going to try skiing anywhere, this was going to be it.
Luckily for me, Jodi used to be a ski instructor in Canada. Luckier still, she was either crazy or confident enough to take on a certain disaster like me for my first lesson.
“We’ll start out on the Magic Carpet,” she told me as we drove up to the Cardrona ski fields, “but by the end of the day, we’re getting you on that chair.”
I gave a little nervous laugh in response — I had no idea what either of those terms even meant, but Jodi sounded determined. She helped me buckle on my boots, snap them into place on my skis, and loop the pole straps around my wrists. She showed me how to shuffle-walk my feet forward across the flat snow like someone out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She managed to get me, somehow, onto the Magic Carpet, an upward-sloping conveyer belt that ferried me and about five dozen six-year-olds in pint-sized snowsuits slowly up to the “top” of Cardrona’s bunny slope.
“Now, here are the two main things you need to know about skiing,” Jodi told me once we’d arrived at the top. “When you want to slow down or stop, you make your skis into a shape like a slice of pizza. The bigger the pizza, the more you slow down. To go faster, put your skis parallel like French fries.” (Did I mention Jodi’s former pupils were small children? Bless her.)
The gradient of the slope was minuscule, probably borderline flat, but I was already picturing myself tumbling down it like a cartoon character, ending up a giant snowball with limbs by the time I reached the bottom. I planned to “pizza” my skis the whole way down.
But Jodi had other plans. She made a neat little turn and started heading backwards down the bunny slope, motioning for me to follow her. “Pizza! Pizzaaaa!” she started yelling as I wobbled down the hill. “Now… French fries! French fries! OK, Pizza! Big pizza! BIGGER PIZZA!” Before I knew it, I’d arrived back at the base of the Magic Carpet in one piece. It felt like the first time I realized I was actually standing up on a moving surfboard, the moment it hit me that the person controlling the motorbike I was sitting on was actually me. I was in total disbelief that not only had this just happened, but it hadn’t ended in total catastrophe.
An hour later, I was making turns. I was French-frying of my own volition. I was pizza-ing myself to a stop at the bottom of the slope with enough precision to glide right into the back of the line for the Magic Carpet. Then Jodi came around to watch me for one final run. I sped down the hill. I pizza-ed my skis. And then I went charging into the Magic Carpet line like a bowling ball gunning for human pins.
“OK…” Jodi said, helping to pull me up off the ground as I apologized profusely to the group of women I’d nearly toppled. “I think you’re ready for the chair, but… well, what just happened? Do you want to do the bunny slope again?”
“No!” I insisted, hardly able to believe the words as they were coming out my mouth, “That was the first time I’ve fallen! I don’t know what happened. I’m ready. I want to go up.”
Ten minutes later, I was getting scooped up by my first chair lift, being pulled up a line of cable to the peak of MacDougall’s run, which Jodi had deemed to be the easiest of the actual pistes. The ascent took about seven years. Each time our little chair would stop, with a bounce, I’d squint ahead through my sunglasses trying to gauge how much further we had to go. But I couldn’t even see the end of the line. Surely there’s no way I can ski down all of this, my brain kept fretting. They must let you just take the chair back down if you can’t hack it at the top. I’ll just explain to them that there’s been a huge misunderstanding.
“Um, no,” was Jodi’s matter-of-fact answer when I vocalized my concerns. “You’ve got this. It’s just the same as before: pizza, French fries. Pizza, French fries. It’s just a bit steeper. And a lot longer.”
And so we started down the first section of the mountain. I’d pizza to turn left, then awkwardly maneuver my skis into French fry position to glide horizontally to the other side of the slope before turning right. I was golden. I was upright. I was unbruised.
“All right,” Jodi reassured me, “You’re doing awesome. Now, this section’s a little steeper. So I’m going to go ahead, and you just follow my tracks.”
She went sailing downhill, making wide, elegant, effortless turns and sliding across the slope like a figure skater. I took a deep breath and launched myself after her, completely missing the path she’d so beautifully laid out for me, making nothing but acute, crammed-together turns that served only to help me gain speed. I whooshed passed Jodi as she desperately called “JESS!! BIG PIZZA! The BIGGEST pizza you can make!” after me. I pizza-ed. I pushed my heels out some more. I thrust my poles out into the ground in front of me. And then I went into a soaring, icy belly-flop that popped my left ski off and sent it flying into the distance as I pulled my face out of the snow.
“Jess — oh my God. You have to slow down,” Jodi was standing over me saying three seconds later.
I was laughing hysterically. “Trust me. Any time I’m going too fast, it’s not on purpose. It’s because I can’t seem to slow myself down!” Even with a face full of snow and black-and-blue knees, I was having a ball.
Jodi and another friend spent the next five minutes trying to help me up; my lone ski awkwardly hindering my progress as I flopped around in the snow like a turtle on its back.
This continued for another few trips up and down the mountain — I’d go too fast, I’d land on my back, my side, my knees, my face. I’d struggle back up, guffawing, and realize I still had to make it down the rest of the mountain somehow. I’d gain speed, slow myself down, and finally manage to get back in the line for the chair lift at the bottom.
Eventually, Jodi understandably wanted to go enjoy some runs that were actually at her level. She had the foresight to break this to me at the top of the mountain, insisting I could make it down on my own, away from her watchful eye, and telling me we’d meet at the cafe 45 minutes later. Then she set off for a peak next door as I stood there wondering, again, if the lift operators would let me cruise back down the mountain in the security of a chair.
No, I eventually told myself, don’t be a wuss. You’re doing this.
I shuffled over to a clear path. I pizza-ed. I inched, slowly, awkwardly, down the first section of the slope. I French-fried. I linked my turns. I avoided hitting speed-demon kindergarteners and fallen snowboarders. And I eventually came to a stop at the bottom of the first section of the run.
The next section was steeper. It had already left me with bruises, bumps, and wrenched muscles that I knew would have me in pain the next day. I was pretty sure there were still Jess-sized divots in the snow from the half-dozen times I’d already eaten it on this particular section. But at this point, I didn’t really have a choice: there was nowhere to go but down, and no way to get there but on my own two skis — and probably my butt.
But by the time I’d finished the section, I was still on my feet. I set off on the last downhill section without a second thought, and before I realized what was happening, I was already back in line for the lift back up to the top.
“How’d it go?” Jodi asked when she found me, grinning, back at the cafe. I told her I’d been making more French fries than Ronald McDonald. I bragged about my new record of two full runs without a fall. “Great!” she answered, “So you’re ready to ski down to the car. It’s time to go home.”
She led me over to the edge of what I cannot describe as an actual, groomed, in-use ski run. It was just a mountain with a wall of snow on one side and a sheer cliff-drop on the other. There was no one else on it; it looked as if no one else had ever been on it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Nope. See the car down there? This is the only way for us to get to it. Now, just follow my path and be careful to turn before you go off the cliff. You ready? Come on, let’s go!”
My grandmother reads this blog, so I won’t tell you what I said under my breath before I took off. I will tell you that in my entire life, I have never been as terrified as I was attempting to turn before reaching the edge of that little cliff. I will tell you that I have never, ever had to pep-talk myself into pulling it together as quickly as I did whenever I started to feel as if I was losing control going down that hill. And I will tell you that by the time I’d face-planted in the snow 20 meters from the bottom, picked myself back up, wiped the snow off my glasses and spit it out of my mouth and realized I was still alive, I’d never been more confident about anything than I was about making it the rest of the way to the car without incident.
“That’s it,” Jodi told me back at the car, pulling a bottle of beer out of a 12-pack covered in snow and handing it to me. “You’ve skied. You ski. You’re a skier.”
I don’t know about that. But I do know I’ve learned to take back a little bit of control when I feel as if I’m losing it. I’ve learned how to speed up and slow down when I need to. And most importantly, I’ve learned how to fall down and pick myself back up while laughing.