My father’s fond of saying, “Old skiers don’t die; they just go downhill.” He skied into his eighties, and he’s sliding toward ninety-three this year.
He learned to ski in his forties, and we became a skiing family, spending a week on the slopes of Mount Mansfield every February. After my parents retired, they spent three weeks every year skiing in Vermont, and they traveled to Utah, Colorado, Canada and the Alps to ski more.
I never loved downhill skiing, which may have had more to do with the conditions under which I learned, before snowmaking conquered the unforgiving ice. I remember one particular fall, when I slid over the ice while my metal edged skies rotated on their leather safety straps like helicopter rotors. As I bumped over the moguls, I wondered if I’d break something before my skis severed a limb – or my head. Miraculously, when I finally came to a stop, only my ego was bruised.
It didn’t help that my middle brother insisted we be at mountain when the lifts opened at 8 and ski until they closed, regardless of conditions or weather. He now lives in Colorado and skis three hundred days in a good year.
Not me. In college, I gave up the lifts and the Darth Vader attire, including the boots that the Mafia could use if they ever ran out of cement.
I switched to the woodland quiet of cross-country skiing. Like any convert, I told myself a self-righteous narrative extolling the virtues of climbing the hills under my own power while balancing on skinny sticks over which I had little to no control. I didn’t wait in lines, rely on lifts, or participate in what felt like an urban sport with its packed parking lots, mobbed base lodge and high fossil fuel consumption. I could listen to the trees creak in the cold instead of rock music piped outdoors.
It’s easy to find fault with something you’ve given up, so I was surprised last week, when I returned to the slopes for the first time in years, and had a great time.
Tim and I took advantage of good weather, discounted tickets received as a gift, and a non-holiday Monday neither of us had to work. There were no crowds and no lines – just fabulous conditions.
Even the rental equipment was a surprise: boots more comfortable and warmer than anything I’d worn before, and short, shaped, skis, which made turning so easy. Despite temperatures in the teens, we stayed warm in the gondola, cocooned from the wind and heated by bodies compressed into a small space. Or maybe they had heater apps on their smart phones, which they consulted on the ride up.
On that first run, my quads burned in a way that made me think this would be a short day. But the sun, the snow, and the terrain soon pushed all thoughts out of my head except for facing the fall line as I sped downhill.
Every time we stepped off the lift and into our skis, I thought of my mom, who loved the sparkling, long winter views. But I didn’t like skiing past the fancy houses lining the lower third of the mountain, reminding me of the out-of-state development of Vermont. So after our brown bag peanut butter and jelly, we headed to a chair lift on the quiet side of the mountain, where there was minimal development.
Except for the lift, the landscape resembled the woods at the Nordic centers where I sometimes cross country ski. I love skiing through the woods; I’m less enthusiastic about groomed trails for Classic and Freestyle, each of which requires different skis, boots and skills. In recent years, I’ve headed for the untracked backcountry, skiing in the Green Mountain National Forest and along the Catamount Trail.
But there will come a time when I’m no longer able to ski into the wilderness. So on one of my meditative rides up in the chairlift I thought: If I live long enough, I, too, may go downhill.