Saturday, January 3, 2015

Adventures in deep snow with old gear

Until last year I had never been downhill skiing. The closest I had ever come had been an occasional jaunt in the woods on cross country skis; looking up at the ski hill, I would shake my head in wonder at the madness of people careening down mountains at breakneck speeds. In my mind, skiing was a hobby partaken of only by wealthy daredevils, and of course by my parents sometime in the ancient, hazy days of the 80s. That all changed with the watching of a broadcast of the 2014 Olympic winter games in Sochi, and my younger brother’s resulting fascination with winter sports. For several days of the games, he watched snowboarders twirl through the air, saw the challenge and the glory of the sport, and decided that was what he wanted to do. We decided to take to the slopes with him on skis to see what the allure of the tall mountain was.

     Into the dusty, spider haunted depths of our basement we descended, where relics of ages past lurked amongst boxes of mysterious origin. From the ceilings came an assortment of strange and terrible torture devices, chief and most horrible among them being, of course, the ski boots. The Spanish Inquisition has nothing on the manufacturers of these tools of agony; if the CIA had really wanted to get information out of terrorists, it would have forced them to go skiing! Next came the skis themselves, a far more subtle form of torture that inflict mental rather than physical pain. Many a man has driven himself mad fiddling with the bindings, adjusting the straps, and attempting to keep the last 3 inches from sticking out the back door of the car.

    The question is whether or not to classify our ski gear as equipment, or heirlooms. Much of it had been new 30 or 40 years ago when it was first bought by my Grandparents. Back then, it was state of the art, but now it could more accurately be said to be in a state of decay (In fact, one boot literally disintegrated into chunks of cracked rubber when we tried to fasten the buckles). Still, there is some nostalgic pride to be had from wearing such storied gear.

     In this strange cobbled-together mish-mash of gear, we arrived at White Pass like unwilling hipsters, our clothing ranging from bargain bin to hand-me-down and hand crafted, with the occasional out of place piece of new fabric standing out from the ensemble like a sore thumb. Not my snowboard-crazed brother however, who had scrimped and saved and slaved to kit himself out as a real snowboarder, the end result of which was the look of a poorly camouflaged ninja. This is the classic look of a true snowboarder, and he spent hours researching gear and techniques and was determined to do things right.

     I took to the slopes like a duck to playwriting - snowplowing and tree-floundering with skill and grace, as 5 year olds jetted past me with ease. To an inexperienced eye, my mishaps might have appeared to be those of an amateur, but I assure you every wipeout was carefully planned and executed. I would have given a few pointers to my 11 year old sister, had she not been going so fast every run that all I ever saw of her was a blur and a whiff of powder.

    Speaking of powder, I ate a lot of it as I made my way down the slope. The short paths that weave through the forests that divide the ski hill are full of little jumps, and I spent a fair amount of time making involuntary snow angels below each one. While I was busy constructing angels, my bindings were thinking of devilish new ways to foil my return to the slopes. Modern ski bindings don’t seem to be bent on throwing you out of them, and even if you do pop out, they are easy to put back on, and have clever devices to keep them from sliding away down the hill. My bindings were probably the hottest new thing in skiing technology in the 70’s. Each is affixed to the leg by a strap that freezes permanently closed as soon as they are put on. The strap is attached to the back half of the ski bindings, which swivels and must be lined up exactly with the front half of the binding. Once they are lined up, a stray wobble of a boot jerks the strap, and takes the bindings out of alignment. By the time I finally managed the monumental task of getting the skis back on, I had to dig my way out of the hole I had been wallowing in and round up stray ski poles I may have tossed about in fits of anger. My family had, by then, done two runs without me.

Finally, as the sun was sinking over the hills, and time was running out on my ski pass, something seemed to click. The wretched snowplow/nosedive technique became more of the swift, smooth curving that my siblings had achieved in the first hour. The crowds cleared out, the cold wind rushed to caress my face, and the snow hissed softly beneath my skis. So this was the great allure: the feel of the living mountain under my feet, the sensation of flying on a cushion of air, a kind of freedom from the relative wallowing of our gravity driven perambulation. It awakened some instinct that must have been born in humankind the first time they strapped a couple of planks to their feet and sailed down a hill. Even now, as I nurse sore muscles and blisters, the mountain is beckoning, and as soon as my pocketbook allows, I will return.
my mohawk-hat halo