Beginner Angst

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, Travel Guide 1997-1998

Beginner Angst
By John Galvin


It's true. I've tried it: You can't teach an old dog new tricks. Humans, on the other hand, are not as smart as old dogs, and will endure nearly any humiliation for the sake of learning a new trick. So, after moving to a new town in the foothills of the Rockies where everyone I know spends every free moment on the slopes, I decide it's time to learn to ski. I strap on some $15 rentals and enroll in my first ski class.

My skis seem really long to me, but actually they are not. Tiny by most measures but perfect for a rank novice, they measure about 140 centimeters — what an eight-year-old might use. In fact, an eight-year-old skis up beside me and asks if I don't think my skis are a bit short for someone my size. "Uh, yeah, well, I lost mine and had to borrow these, okay kid? Now beat it."

My instructor, Barbara, a perma-tanned women with a voice like maple syrup, rounds up my class, which consists of a man in his 30s and a group of 40-something women. The first thing Barbara has us do is throw our poles into a pile. "But how are we supposed to stand?" I protest. This gets me nowhere, and the poles remain in a pile. Then we have to take our right skis off and form a circle with our left skis on the outside, our left hands extended for balance, and walk-ski in a circle. Next we do it with the other ski, and the circle goes in reverse. I feel like I'm in a Lerner and Loewe production of something that might be called The Snow Follies.

After another hour of balance drills, we hump it over to the baby slope. Not the bigger bunny slope, mind you, but the baby slope. To get to the top I have to negotiate an apparatus unceremoniously known as the tow rope, which is designed for people who are three foot nine. A moving bar on a large winchlike mechanism comes up next to me; I tuck into an uncomfortable crouch to grab it, and get dragged 100 feet up the mountain. The kid in front of me is having problems holding onto the bar and drops to the ground with a thud, and I tumble right on top of him. He's screaming for me to get off of him, and the entire group is howling with laughter. Finally one of the instructors extricates us. "That wasn't my fault," I insist, but everybody just smiles tolerantly.

At last there is a payoff from all this instruction. Unfortunately, it comes wrapped in the name Easy Street, which is the bunny slope. No matter where you learn to ski, you will have to suffer through the names that ski-mountain marketers put on their bunny slopes. I would prefer something like Battle of the Bulge or General Patton's Run, but instead we get names like Bobos Boulevard and Candy Apple Avenue.

All the same, it's on Easy Street where I put all those balance games and turning drills to the test. Even though the angle of the slope is only about five degrees, I get a whiff of the thrill of speed, the joy I'll experience sending up a cloud of snow dust as I lean into a turn and glissade down slopes with much better names than Easy Street.

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