Finding success at Deer Valley. Photo by Whitney Tressel
When people moan about being too old to learn this sport or that, I usually want to scoff. Abilities often have way more to do with your enthusiasm and fitness level than any arbitrary number does. But I have to confess: I felt that my particular number was a bit on the high side to be tackling snow skiing for the first time. Becoming a beginner at a sport that involves careening down a snow-covered mountain on two skinny, slippery sticks -- especially for someone who's as prone to accident and injury as I am -- seemed, if I'm being honest, a terrifying prospect.
In fact, by the time I strapped on and bundled up to head out into the falling snow (aptly enough) at Snowbird in Utah last week, I was as scared as I'd ever been on any rock climb, white water rapid or mountain biking path. But the lure of learning a new sport - advanced age notwithstanding -- outweighed (barely) the nervousness, and I stepped onto the "magic carpet ride" conveyor belt with gusto, the first in a little band of five new, wanna-be skiers in the first-timers' class at the resort. Between those first few moments of awkwardly navigating bunny slopes in my skis and the third afternoon of the trip when I could scarcely believe I was swishing down an honest-to-goodness trail, I learned a few pearls of wisdom from my instructors at Snowbird, Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley.
When I complained of not being able to control my speed (my unspoken meaning that I was afraid to go so fast) my instructor sitting next to me on the lift at Deer Valley told me to look down. "See how fast it looks like we're going?" he asked. "Now look ahead." And what do you know? No longer did it look like the ground was flying past at breakneck speed. It didn't matter which was the optical illusion -- if I kept my eyes up and ahead, I'd feel more in control.
Commit to turns
As a new skier, it was all about traversing the mountain via switchbacks -- making turns slows you down, helps you control your speed. And even the bunny slopes don't come with unlimited width in which to navigate those turns -- at the edge you'll find trees, or, maybe worse, a drop-off. I lost track of how many near misses I had, and grew frustrated with my inability to make the turn when and where I wanted to make it. Then an instructor pointed out what should have been obvious. "You have to commit to your turn," he said. Doh. A turn on skis involves shifting your weight and pointing your skis back uphill. You can't be half-hearted about it. If you want to make a change, you've got to do it full steam ahead.
Lean down the mountain
It's amazing how your body will fight against your mind. Academically, I understood that to slow down and maintain control you need to lean down the mountain -- otherwise your skis get out from under you and you end up in a jumble of tangled feet, skis and poles, a 10-year old sailing by you laughing at your "yard sale" (everything goes) fall. But how do you convince your mind -- which is presumably in charge of what your body does -- to go along with what feels like imminent danger? Who leans down a mountain when you want to slow down? Well, successful skiers do. Sometimes you have to go against what every fiber of your self screams is wrong when you venture outside of your comfort zone (but oh is it worth it when you can swish past that 10-year-old, this time without wiping out!)
Have faith in the people behind you
Navigating a busy trail felt a bit like playing Frogger at times. The rule of the slopes is that it's your responsibility to avoid hitting the people in front of you. I don't possess much skill at all, so sometimes for me that meant wiping out on purpose when I just couldn't veer around a tiny tot in front of me. Knowing that an army of skiers were flying downhill straight at me was a bit unnerving, but I had to have faith in their skill. Just as I won't let myself take anyone out, I can have confidence that the people behind me will do what they need to do, too.
Falling down isn't the end
I was relieved to get my first fall over with. I could wish it had happened on fresh powder, not hard packed snow (I brought home some spectacular bruises) but having it out of the way meant I could stop worrying about what it would be like. Once I started falling on fresh snow, it was actually somewhat fun (sort of like falling on marshmallows, as my friend described it). We don't like to give up control in our everyday life, which just made it it that much more freeing to give into the occasional fall. And I learned after the first one that all you have to do is get up and start over.
Don't let a little fear stop you
I was afraid pretty much the entire time I skied -- every time I set off down the mountain, restarting after each time I stopped, setting out again after falls, even swinging high above the snow-blanketed ground on the creaking lifts. I could tell myself my trembling legs were due to the exertion, but my shaking hands were testament to adrenaline and just plain being scared. I didn't like that. People ranging in age from barely old enough to walk to my grandparents' age were out there, their elegance and grace on the skies putting me to shame -- they didn't look scared, and I didn't like to admit fear. But it's ok. It's one thing to be afraid, but another to let fear stop you. The longer I'd linger at the top of a steep slope, the more wildly my heart beat, so I learned to just go for it. And my elation at accomplishing a run was in direct proportion to the fear I'd felt at the outset. I'm not saying I'll be fearless next time (I won't!) but I'll be ready for it.