We’re somewhere north of 11,000 feet at the Ski Santa Fe on dawn patrol when Chris Keyes, the editor of Outside, gives me a warning: “I’m going to push now.”
We’ve spent the last 45 minutes talking shop while moving at what I thought was an unreasonably fast pace. I’d carried myself well for a newbie skier. Sure, I’d taken a few extra water breaks and asked an unnecessary number of questions to slow Keyes down. But I had (mostly) stayed within shouting distance of my boss. Within seconds of his announcement, however, he gapped me. And that’s when I realized it: skinning up sucks so bad that it’s actually fun.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with sports. One of my earliest on-the-field memories involves my father offering me $100 if I scored the winning goal in a soccer game. I didn’t get the check. I just wasn’t athletic. Too tall. Joints too loose, according to the chiropractor. In little league, I batted somewhere around eight in the order. And when we ran sprints in middle school, I was once outgunned by a pudgy female classmate. Ego, deflated.
Then my grandfather bought me my first road bike and I started riding, first by myself and later with a team. And to my surprise, I was actually good at it. I raced, won a few state championship titles, was a solid teammate, and even competed internationally (hey, Canada counts). It was only at this time that I began thinking of myself as an athlete. The sport turned me into a new man.
It also introduced me to the love of my life: descending. Yes, you have to summit the mountain before coasting down (and I’m not a fan of climbing), but on the descent, any zero can be a hero. So when my college buddies explained that in skiing, you get carried to the top of a mountain and then glide down—no exertion required (hey, that’s what they told me)—I got excited. Really excited. I bought a ticket and flew to Colorado.
At first, it was a blast. I took a group lesson, leaned about DIN settings, and had my first taste of the West. Problem was, I hated feeling like a non-athletic beginner. The perennial never-ever getting passed by 5-year-olds without poles. With bike racing, I’d finally mastered a sport. I wasn’t about to make a fool of myself again. So for the past three years, I’ve only occasionally rented the gear to pizza my way down the mountain.
And then I was asked to participate in the 2015 Zero to Hero project, our attempt to transform three beginner athletes into all-stars. This magazine has a long history of taking willing to not-so-willing editors and interns and throwing them into the ring. Back in 2008, Will Palmer, our then managing editor, learned to skydive for the magazine. One year later, research editor Ryan Krogh was given six months to become a cage-fighting champion. He drove to an MMA gym in Albuquerque five times a week, lost 25 pounds to get into the best shape of his life, and survived a few rounds in the octagon.
By comparison, my challenge was hardly a challenge: become a strong enough skier to skin up the the Santa Fe ski hill and ski down a blue run before work.
The month before I joined Keyes, I’d been on an all-out mission to become a better skier: a private lesson at Taos Ski Valley (those guys are crazy good), weekend ski days, and one-on-one coaching from our executive editor. I was linking parallel turns and had learned how to hockey stop. No, I hadn’t ever skinned up before. But I wasn’t really worried about the uphill. I figured it would be easy and good preparation for my hero video.
I knew I was in trouble the minute I lifted Keyes’s skis onto my roof. They were insanely light. Gliding out of the parking lot didn’t inspire any additional confidence. Each time I took a step forward it felt like I was lunging with cinder blocks strapped to my ankles. I had been so focused on the downhill that I hadn’t prepped for the uphill. And nobody had warned me about the pain. It didn’t get any better the higher we climbed. But I stayed close to Keyes. So by the time he decided to push it—he was training for a 25-mile skimo race—I’d been redlining for 45 minutes.
I continued to the top at my own pace. In the same time, Keyes skinned all the way up, skied down to me as I kept going, then skinned back up with me to share a gorgeous view of Santa Fe.
On the way down, I stopped cursing my skis and my boss. And for a blissful seven minutes, I fell in love with skiing.