January 4, 2013
Some friends and I decided to escape D.C.’s warm winter of 2011 and head for Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb ski resort. A skier’s dream, the park offered two side-by-side mountains, thousands of acres of terrain and not one—but three—glaciers.
In theory, I was excited.
But as I shuddered down the approach toward my first run down the mountain, I concluded that whatever ability I might once have had died an early death and left me contemplating my own early demise.
Through clenched teeth, I muttered the novice’s mantra over and over: Pizza, French fries, pizza, French fries. "Pizza" for wedging to a slow halt; "French fries" for keeping my skis parallel and pointed down the mountain. But no matter how hard I focused, my skis seemed determined to cross, and one or other of my poles kept finding its way to the ground—dragging along like a resigned, captured animal.
My friend Matt skied up behind me: “Hey buddy, looking good! Just remember, carve those S’s, you’ll be fine.”
Having noted my method of barreling down a run at full speed praying silently, Matt taught me an alternative: He showed me how to make wide, looping 'S' turns, letting the tails of the 'S' carry me upward to lose momentum—a move that bought time to take the next downward turn with control.
I tried to mimic Matt’s ease, but when I caught sight of the edge, I looked like a cartoon character attempting to paddle backward away from a waterfall. In front of me, the ground dropped off at a 90-degree angle. I forced a sudden pizza wedge and slammed my poles into the ground just before going over. Sweating profusely, I suddenly knew how Dorothy felt. I was not in Pennsylvania anymore.
The last time I’d worn skis was on an eleventh grade outing to the Poconos, where we flew down what I assumed to be standard issue mountains. I had seen other mountains since then but had never strapped myself to narrow strips of wood and thrown myself downward. So the Pacific Coast Mountain range came as a nasty surprise. Turns out, my mountains, the Poconos, the Appalachians—these were the bunny slopes to the world’s peaks. And the snow! I hadn’t seen this much natural snow since getting lodged in a drift in the Harrisburg blizzard of ’92.
Surveying the vastness of the slope, the buried treeline and what appeared to be an icy sheen on the run, I cursed the consistently warmer winters in the States. Global warming had left me no space to practice for a drop like this. When I’d left D.C. in the depths of a February pre-dawn, I’d worn a light jacket. We seemed doomed never to have a proper winter again.
I watched a flock of six-year-olds without poles glide past me like sanguine ducklings, looking bored. I swear I saw a small boy yawn.
I’d like to say I gathered my courage and launched myself into the unknown. Instead, my attention wavered and I tipped forward a bit too far, gravity doing what I would not. Holding my breath I curved right and let my momentum slide me up the hill a bit, losing speed before I dropped my left shoulder and cut back. I found a rhythm; it was like being Peter Pan, touching the earth but feeling like I could take flight.
Lost in the sheer delight of the wind and the smell of snow and the feeling of doing it, really doing it, I started to fall. I careened toward a snowbank and sensing doom, braced for impact, slamming into it headfirst. Powder! It was two feet of nothing but pure, forgiving powder.
I lay in the snowbank laughing. Maybe I’d become a Canadian.