Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Eagle Swoop

How many times have I started a post by pondering how long it’s been since the last post? At least a dozen or more times. I am so tempted to do it right now, but then I would have to launch into a list of manufactured excuses and I’m just not up to that. Just know that I’ve been really busy, really, I have.

Hark, was that was the sound of the lie-detector going off?

Several years ago, when my sister moved within short driving distance of a ski-resort, I decided to return to my childhood dalliance with downhill skiing. I learned the skill during annual trips with a church youth group. It was a youth group from a church my friend attended. My family’s church, to my knowledge, didn’t have a youth group unless you count teen-al anon (we were Episcopalians), so any combination of hormones and worship had to be found elsewhere. My friend was a Lutheran, so the trips were always very well organized, physically challenging and a bit daunting. Plus, they were to ski-resorts (hard to think of these places as resorts really) in the North Carolina mountains. Fellow skiers with chewing-tobacco-juice frozen to their chins might yell “yee-haw” as they tried to create a ten-skier-pile-up worthy of the Daytona 500. As I limped down the hall at school the following Monday, I always felt lucky to have survived one of those weekends

I also skied in Scotland when I was 19. By then I had learned enough to keep an upright if not somewhat floundering sort of form. I remember that there were less trees, which is always good when it comes to skiing as far as I’m concerned. I managed to end up with limited bruising—to my body, that is. My ego was another story altogether due to the little Frisbee attached to a bent pole that yanks you up the mountain. The Scots call this a ski-lift. You place your butt under this little disk, which is about the size of a bread plate, and wait as the pole, which seems to be controlled by some angry invisible troll, jerks the plate under your backside. When this happens, and there’s no telling when it will, you had better hold on because woe to the unlucky soul who falls down. You might get run over by a large man from Aberdeen shouting incoherent brogue at you. Well, that’s what happened to me anyway.

Since then I had skied only twice. This was when my sister—who seemed to be actively seeking out ski-areas to tempt, or possibly taunt, her brother—lived in a state that could be considered one big ski-resort, Colorado. We wanted to try the sport of cross-country skiing which seemed so genteel, so refined. We imagined skiing over pristine and unspoiled country-side, marveling at vistas and peaks. When our day-excursions were over we would traverse a virgin slope to the lodge where alcohol laced hot-chocolate drinks awaited. You know, like in the flashback scene in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Unfortunately for that to happen you have to be a native of Norway or at least be familiar with a few techniques involved in cross-country skiing. We were neither. We were smart enough however to start with lessons. The lessons were helpful but woefully lacking in vistas, peaks, traverses or alcohol laced hot-chocolate drinks. We took our lesson in a little clearing, tucked safely away from any “real” skiers. I remember one point when the instructor was introducing techniques on how-not-to-fall-down my sister, as if on cue, promptly fell down. She was at a complete standstill. Our family, I’m happy to say, has never been one to stand on pride, or on solid ground for that matter.

The area where I would return to all this winter joy was in the northwest portion of Virginia. The resort has the innocuous name of Wintergreen. We bucked family consensus by even going up there, as the resort brings unwanted development to a rural part of the state. But judging from the experience we had, the family should have very little worry that we will ever return.

After several years away from the slopes I was uneasy about the fact that there was no beginner’s run. They used to call these 5 degree hills the Bunny Hop or something. Not that I needed it you understand, but sometimes one needs a little time to warm up. Plus I’ve always liked helping novices as they start out; it’s the teacher in me.

It appeared that a long steep dog-leg was the beginner’s run. I steeled myself for what was to come, threw caution to the wind, tried to think of another cliché in the interest of stalling, and started down. To my utter amazement I made it to the bottom without falling, and buoyed by a completely false sense of security I started eyeing the signs with the blue diamonds on them.

The ski-lift was virtually an elevated leather upholstered couch. It gently scooped up four skiers like a benign Ferris-wheel. As we dangled our skis and took in an actual vista or two, I realized that I had finally reached a point of appreciation for this winter sport. I was considering making this my new pastime, jetting off to Tahoe or Aspen to try my luck on a couple of black diamonds with, of course, the alcohol laced hot-chocolate drink waiting for me at every lodge. Experiences from childhood of being ten feet off (and parallel to) the ground after inadvertently skiing up a hidden mogul had mysteriously left my mind. The little Scottish Frisbee on the bent pole seemed to have never existed. I was, at last, a skier.

For about hour. After practicing all the techniques I could remember from the youth group trips and cross-country skiing, I began to get bored. For those of you who have never skied and are planning to try it, let me give you one piece of advice—never, ever, get bored. This one phenomenon has probably caused more broken bones, more widowed wives, and more orphaned children than any other element of skiing. If you do get bored find something to divert your attention that is not ski-related. Whatever you do don’t decide, like I did, to “take it to the next level.”

Before starting out I decided to consult with my sister.

“I think I’m going to try that slope there.”
“Which one?”
“That one, the Eagle Swoop.”
“Oh, but isn’t that a blue diamond?”
“Yea, but I think I can handle it.”
“Are you sure?”

Just at that moment a ten-year-old girl came skiing down the Eagle Swoop.

“Yes, I think I can handle it, unless you don’t think I can handle it.”
“I think it’s up to you to know if you can handle it.”
“Yea, but I want to know what you think.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well I think I’m going to try it.”
“Really, you think so.”
“Only if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure…I think.”

Anyway, this went on for several moments until finally I had said so much that there was no going back, I had to do it. I went in search of the ski-lift.

There was definitely a steep learning curve between the beginner ski-lift and this one. Green wooden single-seaters with peeling paint swung-around like those rubber ducks at a shooting gallery, and as I stood in line wondering if the sweat on my palms was going to freeze, experience skiers timed their butt placement and were shot up the hill in a series of whip-like jerks. I took mental notes. I managed to get scooped up without incident although I had to adjust quickly as I was lifted off the ground. The lift creaked and groaned me all the way up the slope, and as I neared the top I realized that this was a much more exclusive club than at the bottom of the hill. Before reaching the top I had already identified pedigree skiers with designer gear and attitude. When I skied off the lift I immediately fell-down for the first time that day. A group of skiers regarded me with wrinkled noses. This is how I made my entrance to the top of the hill.

After getting my bearings and deciding to "just go for it" I inched forward. I was the only skier in the immediate radius doing the “snow-plow.” The steepness of the slope voided this common technique that beginners use to slow down, and as I picked up speed, going faster than I ever had without the help of a internal combustion engine, I lifted my right leg off the slope in an effort to turn, and, using language common to my neck-of-the-woods, busted my fucking ass.

I got up, like they always tell you to do, and tried again. Thirty yards later I had done the exact same thing, landing on the exact same spot on my body, my left hip. The third time, same thing. The fourth time was slightly different because I found myself sliding down the mountain, head-first on my back. The fifth time was like the first, second and third times. The sixth time was like the others except when I fell the ten-year-old-girl swooped by me, kicking up snow on my battered body. I was beginning to see why they called it the Eagle Swoop. By the time I made it the bottom I felt as if an eagle had swooped down, picked me up and dropped me onto the pavement from a great height.

My sister met me at the top of the beginner’s hill.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Pretty well.” I said.

I was not deterred in the least by my first run down the Eagle Swoop. But I rationalized that to have a successful run the next time I had better hone my skills on the beginner's run for a couple of hours or until the slopes closed, whichever came first. That wide dog-leg was looking much less boring to me for some reason. After a couple of runs which found me favoring my right side and wincing with every left turn I became separated from my sister. I thought she must have met up with my girlfriend who had sensibly declined to strap on skis and spent the afternoon shopping, taking photos and drinking hot-chocolate.

As I took the elongated Ferris wheel up the hill once again I noticed an emergency sled stopped half-way down the slope but I couldn’t make out what was going on. When I skied down to the scene I saw my sister sitting on the slope with an emergency team hovered around her. She had fallen on her face somehow. I tried to ski toward her in a professional manner in order to assist, but I had to fall down to stop, thus inspiring no confidence in the emergency crew who hovered closer to my sister as if to protect her from me. Darn, it looked like I wouldn’t have a chance to try the Eagle Swoop again, seeing as my sister was in distress and all.

It turned out that she was alright, but both of us retuned from the resort with numerous bruises and a healthy respect for the combination of mountains, snow and fiberglass. The bruise on my left hip was ten shades of purple. I had a photo made of it but no one should be subjected to a view of my posterior in the full light of day so I will refrain from posting it.

It has been at least five years since that last ski trip. Sometimes the subject comes up when my sister and I get together.
“We should really go back up to Wintergreen sometime.”
“Yea, we really should.”
“Let’s do that.”
“Yep, let’s do that.”
Then the subject changes quickly.


Anonymous said...

Actually, the ski instructor in Colorado said, "I think you've got the hang of it," just before I fell down from standing still. What a ski team--maybe they'll make a movie about us starring Will Ferrell and the guy from Napoleon Dynamite. great post. linser

Emily Barton said...

If I'd been along on that excursion, the emergency team would have been there hovering over your OTHER sister before you'd even been able to make the decision to try the Eagle Swoop. So glad you finally wrote the post about this, though. I've been laughing out loud (again).

Froshty said...

Ian, this is one of my favorite Ian and Lindsay stories of all time, so I'm glad you wrote about it. I'd like to follow Emily's comment by adding that if I'd been along, the emergency team would have been called to the comfortable ski lift because your oldest sister had fallen off. I've only tried downhill skiing once--at Beech Mountain with college friends. First, I couldn't get on the ski lift properly and rode up the mountain clinging to the cable for dear life because I couldn't get my butt on the seat. Then, I skiied about 2 yards, fell, and slid down the rest of the "bunny slope" on my butt. When I stood up, a bunch of people started pointing and laughing at me. After a few minutes, I realized that I'd split my pants wide open.

IM said...

This is definitly a case of an event not being funny at the time but being funny later--much later. I'm glad you all liked it. I laughed a lot as well as I was writing it.