Slippery Slope

Every time winter comes along I wonder if this will be the winter someone will talk me into skiing. Whenever people ask me if I ski I say, “I tried when I was 8 and 10 and it was a disaster both times.” Last night I drove to Park City to prepare for a team-building event. As I got closer and closer to the hotel at the ski resort I noticed chair lifts dangling above me. They were empty and solitary save for the slightest sway back and forth in the cold night wind. The sight of the lifts gave me chills that resulted from my longstanding fear of skiing. I wondered if I would ever again have the courage to board a chair lift or a gondola and head up the slope knowing the only way down was on two parallel plastic planks. This morning when I woke up and looked out the window of my hotel room I had a clear view of the slopes and gondolas snaking up the mountainside. I couldn’t help but watch for someone to come down. I only spotted one snowboarder and he was going so fast that the mere thought of facing the mountain myself forced me to look away.

A few minutes later it was time to head downstairs to the conference room. I walked out of my room and headed toward the elevators. A few doors down the hall a little boy popped out of the doorway wearing red ski clothes and a spiky red beanie. He must’ve been about 5. When he saw me his face lit up and he exclaimed, “I’m going skiing today!” I wanted to be excited for him. I said, “That is so great!” In truth, I was worried for the little tike. The last time I tried skiing was 17 years ago and I have been letting my fear of skiing brew ever since. I was 10 years old and I repeated ski school at Donner Ski Ranch in the morning just to make sure I had a handle on things. At the end of the course the teacher took all of the students up the mountain for a practice run but I stayed down below. I didn’t want to tell him about my first experience with ski school. A little while later my mom accompanied me to the top of the lift. We got off and my mom reviewed things with me. I gripped my ski poles nervously as a grandma and young granddaughter got off the lift. The girl must have been about six. The kid went zooming down the hill before I could look twice. I was filled with envy and decided to take my shot. As a result I lost control and tumbled down the slope in true head-over-heels fashion and landed several feet from my scattered ski and poles. It took me a while to spot all the equipment and gather it. I couldn’t figure out how to put the ski back on so I half walked, half glided the rest of the way down the hill. It was probably the most embarrassing experience of my life. Thinking back on the tumble it is a wonder I didn’t hurt myself. I refused to try again and spent the rest of the day playing in the snow outside the lodge. I swore I would never ski again.

This morning as I rode the elevator down to the conference room and walked through the lobby I caught a glimpse of more excited skiers waiting for shuttles. The kids really looked happy. I tried to shake my most recent memory of skiing. I started thinking about my mom instead. Today is her birthday and suddenly my mind was filled with the often repressed memory of my first skiing experience. When I was eight my parents announced my first ski trip. My hometown is about four hours away from ski resorts. I clearly remember watching commercials for some of those resorts and thinking skiing looked like a cinch. They showed children skiing and one girl had long blond hair kept at bay by a teal ear warmer headband. I was sure I would be a master of skiing as soon as I tried it. I just needed the right gear and I’d be set.

In preparation we made a trip to Big 5. We picked up waterproof gloves and other odds and ends we were missing. Most importantly, I got a teal ear warmer headband. I was definitely going to be a pro the next day. As you can imagine, things didn’t quite turn out how I had expected. We headed to Boreal and I was promptly enrolled in ski school. The morning went swimmingly although I must admit I was scared to go up the mountain and try out what we had learned. Regardless, it was soon time for our final exam and we headed up. Somehow we all grouped together before heading down the mountain. We were told to stay off to the side and stick together as a group. Everything went fine for the first few seconds but soon we lost control and started grabbing onto each other the way kids do when they don’t want to fall down in an ice rink. The domino effect not only spread panic like wildfire, it also dragged us down the mountain in a direction that cut across the paths of the other skiers. Finally someone sat down and we all hit the ground. We laughed and crawled our way down the mountain. We’d had a blast. However, our instructor felt differently. Once she got us out of the way of the skiers, she let us know it.

This was the first time I’d ever been really yelled at by someone I didn’t know. The instructor laid into us and said that if her supervisor had seen us she would have been fired on the spot. She was furious that we hadn’t been listening to her on the mountain and she told us several people had nearly run into us. In X years of teaching she’d never once had an injured student, yadda yadda yadda. Unfortunately this experience quickly turned from light-hearted to guilt-ridden. Instead of turning around and jumping on the next chair lift, I hovered nervously at the lodge waiting for my mom to pick me up. She asked how things had gone and I told her. She asked me if I wanted to try again and I hesitated. I thought of all the equipment we’d rented, the ski school fee (which must’ve been expensive since they’d fed us personal pepperoni pizzas for lunch) and the headband that was supposed to empower me with super-ski ability. I looked down at the lift ticket pinned to my jacket and I knew that my parents had paid money for a full day of skiing and I was too young to be left alone. I didn’t want to disappoint her so I agreed to go up.

The excitement that had previously lifted me even higher than the chair lift was quickly replaced by fear and dread. The chair lift moved too fast for my liking and I wondered why there wasn’t a seat belt included in the contraption. I watched the snow zoom pass under my dangling skis and I read all of the “DANGER!” signs surrounding the chair lift supports below. “What am I doing?” I thought. I asked my mom if I could change my mind and ride the chair lift back down. She said there was no way I could do that. When we got off the lift she had me show her what I had learned. I pointed my feet and formed a "pizza slice" with my skis. I only made it about 15 or 20 feet before falling over. My body was so tense I could hardly stand. I could feel my heart sinking deep into the snow. I was ruining this day she had planned and paid for. I asked her if I should take my skis off and walk down, but she was still thinking of a solution. Then it came to her.

With a little practice and a few adjustments here and there, we worked out a system in which I stood behind her with my hands on her waist and my skis close together. She kept her skis far enough from mine that they wouldn’t touch. We penguin-walked in synch until we could get some momentum and then gravity did the rest. My mom navigated us down the hill and I simply held on for the ride. The morning that had truly taken a turn for the worst ended with a breathlessly delightful afternoon with my mom. I learned to trust her movements and ever-accelerating speed. She didn’t let us crash and she didn’t yell at me for holding her back. Sometimes I wonder if there was a happier child on the bunny slopes that day.

When this memory hit me today I couldn’t believe how long it had been since I’d thought about it. I have tried so long to associate skiing with crashing and burning in order to talk myself out of ever considering it again. I’ll be honest – there is still some major fear that creeps up when I think about it – but seeing happy skiers today may have been one of the first steps toward a chair lift. I can’t promise it will be tomorrow but I can tell you that my mom’s patient encouragement would have something major to do with it.

Mom, if you’re reading this, happy birthday! I wonder if you remember that day at Boreal as well as I do. Thank you for being there for me – especially when I needed an extra pair of legs and a steadying force as I slipped down life’s great mountain. I love you and I hope you had a great day!


  1. Sorry you had such a rough intro to skiing. I hope you get a chance to try again! It's worth it! I just love the way you write. It's so easy to picture exactly what you're talking about.

  2. Amber, I just saw this post today. Because of your post, I remember skiing with you holding on to me. Considering I never advanced beyond the snowplow, that was pretty brave of me. I loved going to the snow and being on the slopes and I hoped my girls would too, but alas, you all inherited your father's disdain of cold and snow! I loved the story, you are such a great writer.

  3. Anonymous4/2/11 11:50

    Hi Amber, You're much braver than I'd ever be! The only time I put on skis was as a pre teen and I was not even able to stand up on flat snow/ice as my legs went outward into the "splits" and I couldn't bring them together so I had to "fall" over to get up, but of course removed the skis first! I went along on lots of "ski trips" during my teen years as I Lived in So Cal and that's what young people did then-head to the mountains on Saturdays or holidays. I just played in the snow and enjoyed "lodge time" with everbody, but never got up on skis again!
    Even when I took my son, Jimmy, to the top of Mt San Gorgonio on the tram at Palm Springs, I was afraid to try the cross country skiing there. I happily watched my son gliding around effortlessly and having a blast while I about froze to death! He later became an avid skiier and joined a ski club at college and enjoyed many ski trips. I remember him going to Steamboat Springs, Colorado!
    I had a similar experience with ice skating, but that's a different story!
    Keep up the good work,
    Amber...with your determination, I know you can master it! Diane Aanerud

  4. Anonymous4/2/11 12:47

    I think the concept of "getting outside of your comfort zone" is overrated. Rats who are taken outside of their comfort zones (push the green button and get electrocuted) learn very quickly to retreat back into them ("I'm never gonna touch THAT button again..."). Experiencing joy outside of your comfort zone is when real growth occurs, in my opinion. Bill Cosby described his first experience with being a stand-up comedian all the way back in elementary school. He said something funny, and everyone laughed. The positive feedback, the reward, instilled a hunger for more in him, and he was hooked. What if his joke had bombed? Blank stares would not have led him to become the genius of stand-up we know and love. But he sure would have gotten outside of his comfort zone.

    James Earl Jones had a similar experience. He was shy by nature, but he got up in school to read something (after his voice changed) and it was full-throated, radio announcer quality narration. The positive feedback led him to become an actor. If he had been ridiculed or told to sit down and give up, would he have had such a meteoric trajectory in his successful career? He was rewarded for stepping out of his comfort zone. Pain or discomfort by themselves are not enough to generated improved performance. If they were, we'd all be geniuses.

    An old saying asserts that fish are happy because they swim, birds are happy because they fly, and humans are miserable because they will not do what they were made to do. The public education system in the US is a disaster in part because it attempts to squeeze pegs of various shapes into more or less the same shaped hole. Sir Ken Robinson has written a book called "The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything." His approach is that we are born to be something, to do something, and success consists of finding that synthesis of task and aptitude.

    Rather than wallowing in guilt for being bad at math, or skiing, and busting one's skull in the attempt to be good at them when there is no innate talent, a better route might be to find those things at which one not only excels, but finds the time disappearing when one is engaged in them. (One hour passes in five minutes when you do what your are made to do; five minutes take one hour when you are struggling with something else.)

    Yes, work work work is a virtue, but robots can do busy work too. Combining effort with the wisdom to know how it is best applied, how time is best spent, THAT separates us from the machines on an assembly line. Wisdom not only informs us of what to do, but also what NOT to do.

  5. I would say try it again, maybe snowboarding. You are athletic and strong and DETERMINED.