How to Stop Time With Your 4-Year-Old: Go Skiing Together

Every Thursday, Katie Arnold, in an effort to pack in some more alone time—no sisters and no fathers allowed—picks up her daughter from preschool early and they hit the slopes

Rohan and Pippa demonstrate pizza proficiency.     Photo: Katie Arnold

Ski time is quality time; the author and Pippa.

On Thursdays Pippa and I go skiing. I pick her up early from preschool, after lunch but before nap. Not that she’s napping anymore. She resists it daily, with the cheerful, determined air of a four-and-half-year-old who has better things to do. Like ski.

We’re lucky. Our local mountain, the Santa Fe Ski Basin, is only 30 minutes up the road. We can leave her school at 1 p.m. and be geared up and on the lift an hour later. On the weekends, we ski as a family, a more complicated undertaking. There are two sets of miniature skis to lug around, two little bodies to monitor for signs of meltdown, one of whom is a two-and-a-half-year-old who usually refuses to lurch in clunky ski boots from car to lift and is still too little to ski anything but the bunny slope.

By comparison, Thursdays with Pippa feel like a breeze, almost as easy as skiing solo before kids, when a powder day was an excuse to sneak up to the mountain for a couple of runs before work. Unless it’s been snowing, there’s almost no one on the mountain. You can almost always score a prime parking spot, right next to the lift, and the slopes are empty, not like the Jersey-mall-on-snow they are during weekends, especially holidays.

Pippa has been skiing since she was 19 months old, when we put her on 70cm Atomics on a lark one weekend at Telluride. She stood up, pacifier in her mouth, bent her knees, and proceeded to ski, unassisted and weirdly in control, down a tiny slope. From then on, she—and we—were hooked.

This is her fourth season on the slopes, but I’m not entirely convinced the early start has given her a technical advantage over other kids her age who started skiing at the more normal age of, say, three. In her first couple of winters, when she was too little to overthink things, she skied purely on instinct: lean forward, look ahead, point ‘em. Now that’s she older and more self-aware and has taken lessons, I can see her brain working overtime to remember the right technique. She’s skiing as much with her head as she is with her body.

Six weeks ago, her signature technique was an aggressive snowplow straight down the mountain. Her legs flailed out in a wide and wobbly “pizza” wedge, despite our imploring pleas to “make French fries.” One day last month she fell off the lift while riding with my husband. She was only a couple of feet off the ground, and a ski instructor scooped her up and gave her the best tip she’s gotten so far this season: As soon as you sit down, grab the back of the chair with your hand. Bomber pro move. On the upside, because she’s never worn a harness, she has learned to stop (cue the pizza) and seems to mostly abide the #1 rule of skiing: stay in control. Still, what she needed—what we both needed, it seemed—was a little extra time on the slopes.

This is Pippa’s last year before kindergarten. Everyone always says that time with young children goes by so quickly, but until recently I never really believed them. There are those long, tedious days when you’re imprisoned in twice-a-day nap jail with newborns, the endless afternoons held hostage by demanding toddlers. Wasn’t that just yesterday? Now we seem to be on fast forward, hurtling toward real life and public school five days a week. Stop time, please.

Since the fall, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get Pippa to myself, so that I might somehow imprint the image of my wild, four-year-old child in my brain forever, and stitch her into my skin exactly as she is: zany, unpredictable, silly, willful, strong. I’m a self-employed writer with flexible hours, but it’s still hard to carve out free time just for her. That’s when it hit me: Skiing is the answer.

Most Thursdays, we go with my friend Kate and her four-year-old son, Rohan. Rohan and Pippa have grown up outside together, strapped to our chests in baby carriers when they were three months old to hike, riding bikes, camping, climbing, hiking, rafting. But when it comes to skiing, it’s pretty clear this will be their breakout season, when they go from being little and wobbly to big-kid material. After just three Thursdays, they’re actually turning, leaving faint French fry tracks across the slope. We take one warm-up run on the beginner lift, and then ride the quad. “We only ski circles,” Pippa declared last week, but by the end of the day, she was already wavering, pointing to a blue-squared intermediate run called J.C. Soon, we told them. Maybe next week.

Halfway down, our usual route takes us into Adventure Land, a twisty, skinny beginners’ trail with an obligatory stop at a jumble of rocks called the Bear’s Cave. From there the trail splits around a funky little A-frame structure. In better snow years, you can shoot right through the middle in a glorified snow tunnel (it’s still too patchy this season). You can arc wide to the left, or go to the right over a series of mini bumps between spindly aspen trees. This is the scene of my weekly heart attack. Pippa and Rohan always choose the right fork, bouncing across lumpy, slick moguls, inches away from trees on both sides.

Last week, I saw it coming. “Noooo, Pippa, watch the trees!” I yelled from above as she beelined for the bumps. It was the kind of desperate, instinctual yell that sounds so wrong coming out of your mouth. Sure enough, she was so startled she veered off into the powder and fell in a heap at the base of an aspen. My heart was knocking in my chest as I skied down to where she lay. She wasn’t hurt, but I was shaken. A door had cracked open and I could see ahead into a very long tunnel, and I understood: Not now, but soon, as she becomes a more capable skier, I will have a choice: I can either rein her in or let her go.

Of course, I don’t want to do either. I want to hold onto this winter, and our Thursday afternoons together—no sisters, no fathers, just the two of us riding the lifts, belting out songs as we make big looping turns down the mountain, skiing on instinct and joy. I want to freeze her exactly as she is, with a whipped-cream mustache in the lodge after the lifts close, hair matted from her helmet, a pine bough sticking out of her goggle strap like a little ripper. First the blue runs, then kindergarten. Little by little I’m going to have to let go.

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