It has been so many years ago, I can’t recall the name of my first ski instructor. Maybe it was Jack. I vaguely remember his face.
It was Christmas week in Breckenridge, Colorado and the crowds were dense and intimidating, particularly for a new skier. “This is a ski!” Jack held up the odd instrument for our inspection. “These are your boots!” he pointed out, “and please don’t get the two mixed up.” Like all good teachers Jack believed strongly in emphasizing the basics. Basics are important.
“The boots should be put on with the buckles facing out!” he noted, “because if you don’t you’ll just ski around in circles and hit trees.” Jack laughed at his own joke but most novices don’t find snide to be amusing. They’re scared. People will seriously study their feet to see if they are properly uniformed. Nobody actually wants to look like a geek. Sometimes it just happens.
“All right. Pay attention,” Jack ordered. “To put the ski on, pick up your foot and make sure that all the snow is off of the boot.” Some students wobbled precariously on only one leg and inadvertently fell over at this time.
As we continued, other beginners would go down for no apparent logical reason. In a group lesson this can have the dreaded “domino effect,” thus taking out even the more athletic ones. Failure is to be expected. It’s a price of progress.
Now came one of the more difficult parts of the first lesson: putting on the other ski. I saw that this had many odd consequences, since the students lost the only anchor still remaining for them upon the surface of the earth as they had previously known it: both of our feet had now been apparently rendered useless.
Many people inexplicably begin to slide away. There seems to be no physical or geological explanation for how or why this happens on this flat terrain save that offered by the earth’s rotation around the sun. Apparently it is a Corriolis Force phenomenon, which mysteriously begins to suck things in circles. Some people went forward, which didn’t seem too bad. Others went backwards, which was much worse. Our heretofore-symmetrical lineup began to disperse in various compass directions and Jack became a hyperactive little sheepdog as he herded his charges back into a tight group once more. Patience is truly a virtue, and if you don’t have it as a teacher, you better seek other employment.
Once the students were regrouped, and the wayward ones were lassoed back into class, Jack began a series of equipment familiarity lessons. Skis take some adjustment since the boards felt like evil-minded 2x4s, which actually have a life and mind of their own.
“Lift up one ski,” Jack said. I watched as three people tumbled over. “Put it down. Lift up the other ski,” he said. The right-footed people went over. “Put it down. Jump up in the air and bounce,” he ordered. Five more students collapsed. This seemed to be great fun for Jack. Familiarity did not come easily with these slippery “Monsters” and while cursing is not necessarily encouraged, a certain amount from the students must be ignored.
“The first thing we must learn to do is to sidestep,” Jack told us. “Sidestepping is walking up the hill sideways, while using the sides of the skis.” I seem to recall this sounding a lot like Al Gore, which is to say that of a brilliant professor to a bunch of half-wits.
“Technically speaking, in order to sidestep one must keep the skis perpendicular to the slope and, using the ankles and knees, engage the uphill edges of the alternating skis. Keep them parallel until you reach your destination.” Well Jack, I thought, that seems simple. Practically speaking, I now contorted every bodily part imaginable except for my ankles in order to achieve the needed angle.
Oh, eventually the technique came as I learned to relax, to stand tall and to roll the ankle, but until that time I imagine it was very painful to watch. Once our entire group gained all of about ten feet of vertical, it was time for Jack to encourage us to “relax, assume an athletic stance, and experience the thrill and joy of your first downhill glide upon skis.” That is what the manual says. For a number of us, not having read the manual, it was a short ride of terror. Even the smallest of steps take courage.
Now, unless the instructor emphasizes to the students to do this one at a time, this exercise will soon dissolve into a cavalry charge of amusement park bumper cars, each with their own little out-of-control driver. The more inept will run over the better ones and everyone, without exception, will end up in a spaghetti-like pile of arms, legs and skis. This can be endlessly entertaining, but also very dangerous, so most instructors only do it to relieve the tension: theirs, not the class’. For their part, the class will begin to feel that they have placed themselves into the hands of some Nordic devil. Some students tried to control this extra speed through a whole new series of contortions. Squatting was my personal a favorite, since my mind reasoned that if I could get low enough, I could not be knocked over. Leaning waayyy back was also attempted, despite the fact that Jack had already explained how this would make us go faster. There was also the ever-popular “Windmilling” technique, where one illogically perceives that, by flailing ones arms around in a birdlike fashion, speed must of necessity decrease. None of these actually work. Jack felt it was time to move onto the braking wedge. Sometimes you need to think outside of the box and innovate.
The braking wedge is a significant breakthrough for the beginner skier. It is a revelation where we learn that only small children and some anatomically incorrect adults can comfortably achieve this position. It is a moment where some learn to control their downhill speed and others are enlightened to the fact that they have not an inkling of the difference between their toes (“point your toes in Ron”) and their heels (“no Ron those are your heels”).
The original enthusiastic class of morning beginners dwindled to a very stalwart and determined group after lunch. Beer wiped out some of the less dedicated ones. They were now happily in their condos taking much required naps and glad to be rid of their sadistic instructor. Some people just don’t have the commitment to achieve success. Too bad, they will now miss their first chairlift ride. After careful preparation and watching numerous demonstrations ,our class was filled with confidence: defined as what you feel when you truly do not appreciate the situation. It is the instructors’ job to ride up last with the group. Ostensibly, this is to assure the students’ safety in loading and to provide them with the mental comfort that he/she has indeed not left them behind and dejectedly gone home to drink.
At the top of the lift it can often look like the scene of a controlled slow motion car crash, particularly during holidays. There are piles of bodies and the attendants are ungraciously sorting them out like amphetamine-fueled wreckers at a Demolition Derby. Students are spilling onto a battlefield of snow, while lift attendants unceremoniously drag the fallen bodies from the landing site. Adhering to the supervisor’s orders, they are determined to only stop the lift for a major crisis. Warren Miller, the ski movie legend, got some of his finest material from crash sites such as this. His crew would hide surreptitiously in the trees, cameras rolling and at the ready, while Warren delighted them with witty remarks concerning the fate of the cannon fodder falling before him. The film crew rolled hysterically in the snow. They really enjoyed their job. They loved working for Warren. It’s great stuff and they got a lot of money for it. The students got no money. We paid to do this.
Sprawling in the snow gave us an opportunity to observe Jack and his phenomenal skills in action for the very first time. We watched open-mouthed as the professional skier glided effortlessly off of the lift. We saw him stepping adroitly around, through and between the prone bodies at his feet in apparent gravity-defying maneuvers. Jack would never fall. Jack would never fail. His razor sharp skis would never touch an innocent body. Jack was a swordsman of unparalleled excellence: Zorro in some shade of purple outfit. He would never sweat, never become panicked, nor, god forbid, mess up his hair. We came to revere Jack as a god. This was an illusion which Jack felt most important to preserve. Positive attitude and self-image can go a long way.
At this point, Jack took a body count. Some of our rookie pride had been hurt, but there were no seriously wounded. “Okay people, good job,” Jack assured us. “Our mission, before we can learn anything more, is to leave this place. Nobody passes me, got it? Everybody remember that braking wedge?” We all nodded in confused and numb recollection. “Okay, everybody in a braking wedge and hold it,” he ordered. “Stand tall and relaxed, control your speed and follow me.”
Jack began a winding and very careful path through the chaos of other classes gone to destruction. He needed to move slowly and maintain our confidence since he knew that the occasional downed body could present an almost insurmountable obstacle to his green recruits. Still, our jittery squad would be shocked by the sight of small children inexplicably drawn to each other like attracting human magnets, the squealing mass plummeting downward in an uncontrolled descent. Gear could be found everywhere in our path, blown uselessly from the bodies of speeding teenagers.
A number of wide-eyed students catapulted quickly over small drop-offs and were engulfed in the quagmire of deep snow: a newlywed couple collapsed in desperation and cried where they lay: pathetic really. “That is nothing,” Jack noted wisely, “just wait until they have kids.” He praised those who were able to follow him to the relative safety of the somewhat flat terrain and cautioned them not to move and then he gamely set out to retrieve those who were struggling neck-deep in the quicksand of new powder on the side of the trail. He calmed the fears of the desperate, dried the tears of the soon to be divorced couple and, somehow, his group survived.
“All Right! You guys are heroes!” It wasn’t that we had failed. It wasn’t that we had fallen. It was the fact that we all got back up. I remember Jack grinning at us in an honest effort to restore our shattered confidence. Yes, we WERE heroes! “Each chairlift ride will become easier and easier,” he said, “and soon enough you will become comfortable on your own and the dim memory of me will fade from your mind.” I suppose the last job of the teacher is to let the student go.
He gazed down the hill. There was an open slope before him. It was gentle and smooth, with towering pines framing its boundaries. “Now, my little puppies,” he laughed, “we’re going to really learn to ski!” It was 3:30 p.m. and Jack was leading us through the smooth and controlled turns of a trail called Lower Meadow. We looked good! Some were stronger, some a bit weaker, but we were all making a flowing movement from one turn to the next as we learned to dance with gravity. It felt like floating. We were birds in flight on a snowy plain. The contrived braking wedge had simply disappeared, being replaced by a natural snaking turn as we moved gracefully from one foot to the next.
Is that what Jack taught me, to maneuver a pair of skis? Hardly.
“We’ve learned a lot today,” Jack said at the bottom of the trail as he wrapped up the day’s lesson. “We’ve come a very long way and I know that you are all tired. I’m proud of you. You people hung in there like real champions. Look up that hill!” he gestured. “Did you ever believe me this morning when I told you that we would be skiing down that at the end of the day?”
As we exchanged high fives, grins and laughter around the group we were pretty unanimous in our agreement of, “No, Jack, we thought that you were a big liar.”
“We learned skills today which will be with us throughout our lives as skiers,” Jack continued. “From here at the beginner slopes, to way up there where the experts play,” he pointed to the patrol hut high above them at 11,000 feet above the huge bowl, an awe-inspiring sight, “these skills are the same. We learned about our feet and our shoulders and our hands and all the things that make the skis do what we want them to do. We are in control of our lives,” he emphasized. “But where is the center of skiing?”
“It’s in the belly button, the center of mass?” someone guessed hopefully.
“Put your poles in here, gang.” Jack placed the tips of his poles upon the snow.
Each student then placed his own poles into the center of the ever-growing circle, creating the traditional farewell of camaraderie and fellowship shown to each other after a great day of skiing. Pole upon pole, each touching the other, as the circle grew wider.
“Only technically is it found at your center of mass,” he said, as he intently looked each and every one in the eyes. “Actually, it’s here.” Jack touched his chest. “It’s here, in your heart. Unless you have it here,” he tapped “it will always be just a way of getting down a hill and never an expression of freedom. It will never have joy. It will never have life.”
He smiled at each and every one of us. “You must ski from your heart, my friends, and all the rest will follow. You will fly down mountains with wings upon your feet and your spirits will be lifted to the heavens. And of all the many things that we spoke about today, that is your most valuable lesson.”
The grouped poles began to rattle together, building to a final and clicking crescendo. Jack pointed to the remaining expanse of terrain before us. “There it is my little bird. It is all yours. You know what to do. Go fly!”
Without heart you have nothing.
Oh yes, I seem to see Jack’s face more clearly now and I recall all the lessons which transcend the sport.
See you in the mountains!
– Cap’n Ron