Graybeard of the slopes

The trials and tribulations of a late-blooming skier

Made it, ma! Top of the world!

As I stood on the 9,150-foot-high peak of Bald Mountain and gazed down upon the glistening white bowl of Sun Valley, I couldn’t help thinking of Jimmy Cagney’s immortal line from the 1949 film noir classic, White Heat. But unlike Cody Jarrett, the maniacal mobster played by Cagney, my exultation was not the result of any criminal enterprise. I was just an average, middle-aged guy, who never learned to ski until he was well past 40, getting set to plunge headlong down one of the world’s most celebrated alpine slopes—and I was not afraid.

Well, to be honest, I was a little scared. From the summit, the initial 100 yards or so of the run appeared to plummet straight down. The hard-packed artificial snow—courtesy of Idaho’s seventh consecutive year of drought—was glazed with a thin layer of ice that reflected the sunlight like a mirror. My eyes burned; my butt puckered. Bald Mountain might as well have been the Matterhorn. Or Everest. I’d only been skiing for two years. Was I really ready for this?

That I had even made it to the top of the mountain was pure chance. For most of my life, I’d harbored a deep disdain for skiing, based primarily on my not necessarily mistaken belief that the sport was the pastime of the well-to-do. I’m not certain where this class consciousness originated; my family certainly wasn’t poor, and I wouldn’t be introduced to the teachings of Karl Marx until college. Nevertheless, a resentment for all things skiing burned within me for nearly a quarter-century and still simmers to this day.

It also must be said that self-doubt and fear imbued my abhorrence of skiing. Again, this was contradictory to both my nature and my upbringing. I was something of a daredevil as a kid. Evel Knievel was my greatest hero. I raced dirt bikes in my teens and turned to street bikes as an adult. But even though riding motorcycles requires a good sense of balance, the notion that my own sense of balance was somehow not good enough for skiing persisted in the back of my mind until I took the sport up at the age of 43.

Beauty and the skis

As you’ve probably already surmised, a woman was involved in my taking up of the sport. I cannot mention her name; I still cannot forgive her for that day on Bald Mountain. But she was a beauty. We were compatible, and even though she was by no means rich, she’d been skiing since she was a little girl, and there was no breaking the habit. For the next two years, I chased her down the slopes of practically every ski resort in the Sierra Nevada: Boreal, Donner, Squaw Valley, Mt. Rose, Mt. Shasta.

Our first excursion was to Donner Ski Ranch, where I was somewhat disabused of my prejudice that skiing was elitist. True, by the time we’d driven the 100 miles to the Sierra in our 15 mpg SUV and paid for overnight lodging, lift tickets and rental skis for ourselves and her two children, we’d racked up more than $500 in expenses. But that hefty price tag didn’t seem to faze my girlfriend or the rest of the solidly middle-class families who were strapping on their heavy plastic ski boots in the dressing room before hitting the slopes. I would soon discover why.

However, first I had to endure what is perhaps the most humiliating aspect of becoming a late-blooming skier: the first lesson. I was 30 years older than most of my classmates, many of whom were obviously well versed in the snow plow and other basic skiing maneuvers and were simply refreshing their skills at the request of their parents. At first, the nagging fear that I lacked the requisite balance was confirmed. I fell twice on the short flat leading to the practice area and, despite the 30 degree weather, was bathed in sweat by the time I hauled myself up the second time.

I pretended not to hear the snickers of my younger cohorts, and much to my surprise, quickly learned how to turn my ski tips inward to control both speed and direction. I was ready for the bunny hill, where more humiliation awaited. The first dose came while getting on the ski lift. You have to sit down on the lift chair as it sneaks up behind you—no mean feat standing on slippery ice with legs more wobbly than a fresh-born colt’s. The second dose of humiliation came at the top of the lift, where you must scoot yourself out of the chair on to more ice, an operation that left me sprawled in a heap the first dozen times I attempted it.

And there’s the rub: Despite the embarrassment, I returned to the lift over and over again, until the resort shut down for the night. On the bunny hill, I discovered the sense of exhilaration you only experience when pushing yourself beyond your own limits. It mattered not that the threshold of my skills was considerably lower than the pint-sized Franz Klammers hurtling past either side of me. I was hooked, and during that first year of skiing, I gradually settled into the natural rhythm of slaloming down a slope, digging in with the outer edge of the inside ski on turns while un-weighting the outside leg, then alternating to zigzag in the opposite direction.

Crash tests

There were many memorable moments during those first two years of skiing. One of the first times I gained some significant momentum, I spun around 180 degrees on my short, parabolic skis and careened backward down the hill for what seemed like a quarter-mile before I crashed heavily, scattering my skis, poles, gloves, goggles and beanie in a chaotic pattern known as a “yard sale.” On another occasion, I attempted to cross from one run to another through the trees and sank up to my armpits in deep, soft snow. Then there was the time on the backside of Squaw Valley, when I encountered a steep mogul section coated with two feet of fresh powder. At that point in time, it was the gnarliest run I’d ever attempted, but the deep powder held my skis as if I was on rails, and at last I fully understood the sport’s attraction.

My skills increased exponentially with each trip, but I never could quite catch my girlfriend, who, after all, had been skiing most of her life. That day on Bald Mountain, before I could say a word after we got off the lift, she shoved off down the hill and quickly disappeared around the first bend, leaving me alone and mesmerized at the top of the world. Gazing down that ice-encrusted slope, I knew I was in over my head, but despite my best instincts, I set off after her, anyway.

Things went wrong immediately. I’d never skied on such a steep, slippery surface before, and the first time I tried to turn, I just kept going straight. I caught the edge of my inside ski on the first mogul and catapulted head over heels, landing on my head with neck-breaking fierceness. Laying on my back, I looked up the hill. I’d gone maybe 30 feet. I pulled myself up and tried to cut horizontally across the run. Again, I immediately slid out of control, crashing in a mangled heap another 30 feet down the hill.

In my mind’s eye, I imagined that I could keep doing this—skiing 30 feet, crashing, getting up, skiing 30 feet, crashing, getting up—until the slope leveled out farther down the run. I could make it in about 17 crashes or so, I speculated. But with each wipeout, I became progressively more exhausted. On the seventh fall, another faceplant into a mogul that separated me from my skis, which skittered down the hill without me, I gazed up into the icy blue Idaho sky and realized I was so worn out I couldn’t get back up. It was then that I remembered the final line from White Heat, when FBI agent Hank Fallon, played by Ed O’Brien, comments on Cody Jarrett’s incendiary fate.

“He finally got to the top of the world,” Fallon says. “And it blew right up in his face.”

I might have laid there all day, perhaps freezing to death, anything but getting up again and bulldozing my way down the slope. Then the sky was eclipsed by two masked faces wearing red jackets: the ski patrol. It didn’t bother me that both were female; I had descended into an abyss that was beyond humiliation. One of the women fetched my skis, then both helped me to my feet. Once my skis were reattached to my boots, the other woman instructed me to grab her around the waist from behind and place my skis in between hers. Sweating profusely, I held on tight as she took us down the hill.

During the initial part of our descent, I thought I would never go skiing again. I just wasn’t any good at it. It was too expensive. It was a pastime for the rich. But gradually I got my wind back, and as we arrived at the second half of the run, which was far less steep than the top, the ski patrol woman brought us to a halt.

“Do you think you can make it from here?” she asked.

Much to my surprise, I answered “yes.”