I started skiing at age 8. Taught in the classic European style, we kept our skis held tightly together, elegance in motion whatever terrain was met. Our careful instruction began with snow plough, then on to stem cristy followed by parallel and then for the most advanced vadl(though I am unsure of the spelling here and my German is lame). It was a progression of skill starting with control of speed then mastery of turns. We donned the latest equipment, leather boots with buckles, painted wood slats with snap cable bindings and the new safety straps which kept our pointed projectiles from flying down the hill if ripped from our boots during a fall. The straps had the added attraction of keeping the skis close while pummeling the crashing skier. Ski brakes were not to solve this problem for many years.
The pinnacle of our snowy education was mastering the execution of numerous smooth, quick turns with little or no upper body motion whatever obstacles occurred on the downhill trip. At the time these included Volkswagen sized moguls, chop snow, rocks, trees and unmarked boundaries. Grooming of slopes back then was an infrequent and annoying event. Without warning a noisy snow cat billowing noxious diesel fumes would crest the fall line of a slope nearly flattening skiers in its path. But neither treacherous intrusions made by man or nature should mar a silky descent of the true expert skier or so we were taught.
The precision on the slopes matched the cut of our sophisticated alpine attire. Skin hugging woolen materials covered cotton thermal undergarments to reduced the itching chaffing effect something our rooster comb/pom pom clad hats could not avoid. Leather gloves with silk liners were the most effective option available to ward off frostbite on fingers. Getting gloves wet however was disastrous as were damp feet. Despite such discomforts an emphasis on form, technical execution and style made the sport of downhill skiing appear a glamorous excursion; a refreshing alpine sport for the uninitiated.
The grace carefully learned in childhood was of high value when adolescence overwhelmed our bodies. Where self consciousness is a malady shared equally by peers, proficiency on the slopes translated to cool, hip and privileged. So we obnoxiously believed we ruled the slopes. Surging with hormones we felt powerful on the steep slopes of the mountains in winter. Most girls sought the warming hut whining of the cold and begging for hot chocolate. My brothers and the other boys I skied with, preferred to keep at it, choosing more incline, deeper snow or tree bashing expeditions to keep our bodies warmed up. Okay, I did join in too just so they wouldn’t call me chicken.
With such baptism by fire, today I still prefer the steep mogul runs and deep Rocky Mountain powder. I have skied all over The West, but prefer the champagne quality of the snow in my native Colorado. I continue (probably foolishly) to choose the most challenging runs, as much for the thrill as the warmth I get combining exertion with terror.
Winter cold is also haven for spectacular outdoor ice skating. Unlike skiing, I hold onto blurry sentimental memories though partake rarely. Pinching skates and the real possibility of a humiliating orthopedic injury, keeps me this side of the camera. However the idealized appeal of earmuffed, mitten wearing, scarf clad Hans Brinkers stirs my winterophilia (it could be a real word). We lived that dreamy reality, watching our smoky breath and wearing our wind burned faces proudly.
I grew up on a lake that would freeze every winter. If we had the luck of a continuous week of frigid temperatures and no snow, the acres of watery surface would become hard, smooth and solid. It was the perfect setting for the aggressive rakish play our neighborhood populated with daring boys would relish. Being the only girl and without fear or propriety, I insisted they include me. Sometimes they would cave and allow my presence on the periphery. Night skating in high winds with our turned out coats as kites made fast and dangerous fun.
One memorable winter storm came down thick in a swirling, feather down blizzard. We skated through the afternoon as the snow accumulated on the slick dark ice. By sunset it was over six inches deep and so light the blades of our skates would cleanly slice through the meringue as we swept across the expanse. Falling was cushy and we delighted in the explosion of white against the deep darkness of that moonless night. The feeling was heady unlike the normal sharp bruise-inducing accidents usually suffered on the chilling hard surface. I remember clearly aching and wishing for the night to never end, that we would stay warm enough to skate on and on. Somehow we knew once the flakes stopped and settled down, the mass of white would set up melding into the frozen ice cap.
By morning the snow was predictably different. A crust had formed and the effort to move through the brittle chunks made smooth skating impossible. Now the snow would have to be removed with shovels into square patches of individual rinks. The gang would connect each of these one to the other with scooped pathways so the play could continue. Pick up hockey, tag, crack the whip or just skate and twirl front ways and backwards.
My children have been lucky enough to have a few days on the lake when the rare occasion of solid ice and travel plans come together. Hot chocolate is waiting when they finally call it quits. Their feet so cold the thawing is painfully tingling. Dispersing a warm marshmallow topped reward satisfies a fantasy not provided in a less nurturing past. Thriving in a cold harsh world, taking care of one’s own needs was part of the Western heritage, the standard of the day.
These twenty-first century boys now ski and snowboard too, but call it riding, a simple encompassing word for their generation’s alpine experience. They carve and shred and look for the Terrain Park. They wear feather light gear of high tech materials bagging and crumpled donning retro tassel knit caps with soft fleece linings. Their choice conveyance is either snowboard or fat skis with upturned tails to match the tips. They love the trees and jumps as much as the boys who let me tag along did back when. The power of mastery of the mountain and its frigid elements shines on their countenance. But they have only one experience of deep powder; not enough to keep them hoping for it again…yet.
While my young years were filled with abundant lessons in the danger and magic of a cold snow covered world, these almost men have only a few. Hopefully it is enough to share the gifts of alpine Winter so a connection forms between us. It is a simple thin sliced common history. But outdoor adventures in the growing years stay with us somehow embedded at the cellular level as well as in our imaginations. The wintry wonders haunt me deliciously even now. A glimpse of a singular snowflake drifting or a chill northern breeze brings all of it back. Sleigh bells ring, the sun rays glisten on fresh snow. I hope we all stop to listen to our shared past bonding with the present as if a singular moment.