Winter and I have never really gotten along.
When I was 15, I spent about three months in and out of emergency rooms after crashing a snowmobile. I’m still not sure what happened, like seriously, I don’t remember — one moment I was riding along on a trail, and the next thing I know I’m on the back of my buddy’s snowmobile, with blood pouring down my face. My memory has completely blocked out the crash, but I bet it was pretty awesome.
Ever since the crash, I’ve gone into hibernation mode whenever the snow comes around. Sure, I’ve cruised down some small hills on a sled, but that’s pretty much the extent of my winter recreation.
Save for a few years of traveling, I have lived in Utah my entire life. Throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood I have been surrounded by license plates that say “greatest snow on earth,” and I always took their word for it, but finally it became time to find out for myself — it was time I went skiing.
I arrived at Solitude Mountain Resort just before 8:30 a.m. and took a deep breath. I’ll admit it — I was scared. The whole idea of sliding down an icy mountain just seemed unsafe, much more unsafe than a snowmobile ever did, and I already knew how that activity turned out.
Of all the things going through my head when I got there, these were among the most prominent: avalanches, collisions, broken legs, and most of all, the fear of hurting my butt from falling. But before I could think too long on all of that, the wonderful people at Solitude got me fitted for boots and skis and sent me on my way up to the ski school to meet my instructor, Mike.
On my way there I met up with Wasatch Magazine photographer Jameson Clifton. He took one look at my skis and said, “Those are cute.” Thanks, jackass.
I thought Mike was going to be some college freshman that was going to make me feel like an idiot for two hours, but I was pleasantly surprised. Mike is a middle-aged gentleman, and he quickly made me feel comfortable. We cracked some jokes, shared some laughs, and then suddenly the skis were on.
Things started off simply enough with side steps, v-walks, and a variety of other movements to get comfortable with the foreign objects that were attached to my feet. Progression was quick; we started slowly skiing down a small hill, working on control and stops. Mike noticed I favor my right leg and ran me through a variety of drills to get my left leg actually doing something.
After conquering the tiny hill, we headed for the lift. When we got to the top of what people would probably refer to as the “bunny slope,” I started my first descent. Mike skied backward (yes, backward) in front of me, giving me pointers and reminders as we headed down the hill.
I was surprised. Skiing didn’t seem weird or awkward. It wasn’t natural by any means, but it felt good enough. We got to the bottom and headed back up.
Lift time was fun. We talked mainly about online dating, how to make one’s self look cooler, and, of course, skiing. It felt like I was with a friend.
Mike let me go down the slope by myself this next time, and I knew I was going too fast for my novice ability, but it didn’t feel too bad — the seeds of overconfidence were sown.
After taking a few more runs down the hill, the lesson ended, and Mike and I said our good-byes. I was left alone, and the time came to see if I’d actually learned anything. I skied the bunny slope — or Easy Street, as it’s called at Solitude — again, and each time grew more comfortable with the whole skiing thing. I’m an impatient person, however, and was soon ready for a challenge.
I spotted Jameson eating some food outside the lodge and skied over to him.
“So I think I can pretty much do everything now,” I said.
We headed to Moonbeam lift and began the trek up the mountain.
“Do you know what a yard sale is? And not the actual sale,” Jameson asked as we rode to the top. “It’s when you crash so hard that all your stuff — your skis, helmet, goggles, everything — comes off.”
It sounded painful, but also pretty hilarious. Up to that point I had yet to fall. In fact, I hadn’t even gotten close. I thought I was a natural at skiing and even said as much to Jameson as we rode up the lift. I don’t think he believed me, and he shouldn’t have.
As soon as we got to the top, I was on the ground. I don’t know what happened; we hadn’t even started going down the mountain yet. But I laughed it off and began my descent.
It was nothing like Easy Street. I instantly lost all control of my speed and direction and was suddenly streamlining down the slope. In the five minutes of riding up the lift, I had forgotten everything I thought I knew, and now I was about to die.
I tried to position my skis so they would slow down. I was obviously doing it wrong because it did nothing. I looked ahead and saw the slope getting steeper and heading right into a forest: all bad things.
After another failed attempt to regain any form of control, I felt that I had two options — face my sudden doom in the trees or crash myself and pray that all ended well. I opted for the second.
I slid my right ski out hard and leaned back and to the side to brace my fall. Something amazing happened — it actually worked. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty, but I wasn’t dead. I patted myself down, only registering shock.
Jameson was soon by my side, “Dude, are you alright? I was kind of scared.” He wasn’t the only one.
After that I couldn’t go three feet without falling. I couldn’t turn; I couldn’t stop; I simply couldn’t ski. Jameson, bless his heart, stayed with me as I made the long, grinding and slow journey back down.
Once at the bottom, I headed back to the bunny slope with my head down and pride more than a little hurt. The moderate decline welcomed me back with open arms, and the learning process started again. After a few runs down the short hill, I was back to feeling good, so I asked the lift operator what the next up hill was.
“Moonbeam, for sure; if you can do this, you can do that,” he answered. I was too proud to tell him I’d already failed on that slope.
I took a few more runs down the novice hill and then mustered up enough courage to go back to Moonbeam — this time alone (Jameson was busy doing some badass skiing things). I got to the top, and the same bad omen greeted me again — I fell off the lift. When I was back on my feet, I looked below. I hadn’t really noticed how magnificent the place was. The runs formed a maze around the evergreen trees, while the towering peaks welcomed the most daring skiers. It was glorious.
As I took it all in I realized I was standing alone at the top of the slope. Solitude — the name made perfect sense. It was a place that you could really be alone in the wilderness.
I started down and, to my great surprise, I was in control. I turned from one side of the run to the other, picking up speed as I went. It wasn’t effortless, but suddenly I wasn’t thinking anymore. I allowed the skis to do most of the work, and I became just another part of the mountain. For the first time in my life, I was really skiing.
Next thing I knew, I had reached the bottom. No falls, no heart-pounding moments, just skiing. I had time for one last run, so I headed back to the top of Moonbeam.
Once there, I pushed off and got the same free feeling I experienced last time, so freeing, in fact, that I lost track of where I was going. Moonbeam breaks off into multiple runs at the end, and I had previously been sticking with the easy one. But this time I ended up on a not-so-easy one.
I found myself on a slope that I was nowhere near ready for, so what did I do? I took it on with a head full of steam. Over-confidence is a beautiful thing. I cut back and forth across the hill, increasing to speeds I had not yet experienced. I felt pretty damn cool, and then it happened.
I hit a bump, or lost an edge or something, because suddenly I wasn’t skiing anymore, and I wasn’t sliding down the mountain either — I was airborne.
After a quick flight, I hit the ground and felt my skis pop off from my boots, my goggles bounce off my head, and my poles slide off my wrists. It was a full-on yard sale.
I got up, a little shaken and started to laugh. Another winter recreation activity and another hard crash, but at least this one I remember.