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There I was, clinging to the tree lined edge of the ski trail, hands braced behind me, legs splayed in front, like a frightened crab. I swallowed desperate gulps of mountain air and cursed myself for being talked into this ridiculous situation. Welcome to family ski day.
There are few activities in life that turn me into a weeping, swearing buzzkill than downhill skiing. I simply hate it. Every fall, my husband purchases the family pass to a nearby mountain. He hopes this can be our thing; something we will still be doing together when our kids are adults. (I'd rather stick to movie nights and Monopoly.) Our daughters, who are 4 and 7, have taken to the sport with gusto: Each zipping down the mountain with that youthful blend of confidence, skill and foolishness. I'm much too sensible and, let's face it, lame, to hurl myself down the side of a mountain with such reckless abandon.
"Just take lessons!," friends say to me. Oh, trust me, I have! Lessons at ski resorts in Banff, Whitefish, Mont., and Panorama, B.C. I've stood, wearing my outdated ski jacket, a castoff of my sister's dating from early the 2000s, while chipper instructors with Australian and British accents announce, "Let's have a go at it then. You've got the basics down!"
My flaws don't involve actual ski skills – it's psychological. The chairlifts are my first demon to conquer. While I stand there, waiting to get on, it feels as though the lift is creeping up behind you like a drunk on the dance floor. Getting onto a chairlift is a complicated business: Without pause and while simultaneously being lifted into the air, one must sit backward, poles clutched in one hand while the other reaches up to pull down and secure the safety rail. In transit, travelling high over the runs, I have to close my eyes from time to time when the wind gently rocks the lift. I try not to think that the only thing between me and paralysis is a thin bar across my midriff. My seven-year-old laughs because I grip onto the back of her jacket and bark "lean back," whenever she tries to look down and admire the view. I'm not able to sit near my four-year-old, as she needs assistance descending from the lift, and I'm barely able to get myself off in a smooth fashion.
And don't get me started on the other kids using the beginner runs. They whiz past me, tiny preschoolers bending forward, skis pointed in a V, as if a little pizza slice. They assume every adult on the hill is experienced and will just move out of their way. It's my worst fear that I'll take one of them out, forever damning them to hate skiing as well. "Remember Mom, when that deranged lady flew into me?"
When I tell people I'm going skiing, I occasionally hear, "Oh, I'd love to ski, but I can't since I tore my ACL, dislocated my shoulder, got too many concussions, [insert important medical reasons here]." As I'm chipping my way down the hill in a move I've dubbed a "fear pizza" (legs tightly clenched and skis pointed in a V that supposedly slows you down), it's occurred to me that if I just let myself go – if I really went for it – I, too, could be hurt badly enough to have to give up skiing.
But survival instincts won't let me speed up, not even a little. My husband, in a moment of athletic inspiration, decided to record me on his phone coming down a hill last year. When I watched the playback, I thought: Who is that old woman barely covering any distance? Instead of skiing down the hill, I skied the width of the hill – from one side to the other – to slow myself down. "See?," he smiled, hoping that logic would prevail, "You're not letting yourself go fast enough to get hurt. It's not even possible at that speed!"
Logic, however, doesn't come into play with me and skiing. A serious low was last season. I'd made semi decent progress down the first part of an intermediate run, when I came face to face with the steep part that leads to the ski-resort cafeteria. I panicked. Frantic to find another way off my Everest, I looked up to see my eldest daughter ski past me, stop and turn around; her eyes were full of hope.
"You can do it, Mom!," she called. "Just follow me!"
Ah, there it was. My daughter's desire for us to ski together as with all the other families on the hill.
"Don't wait for Mommy! Find Dad!," I shouted. After a moment's hesitation, she slowly turned and kept going. I tried not to make eye contact with any of the other skiers going past. I removed my skis, grasped them in one hand and used my other hand to steady myself, inching down the hill on my bum.
I wanted to be alone in my shame, but a five-year-old skiing nearby couldn't take his eyes off me.
"Oh," his mother said. We looked at each other and, quickly, both looked away. "No dear, that's not the way you learn to ski," she said to her son as they swooshed on past.
My husband and daughters met me at the bottom, a mix of concern (my girls) and disgust/disappointment (my husband).
I'm not giving up though. If skiing as a family is important to mine, then I'll make it work. Perhaps, by taking the long way, I'll show my daughters there's more than one way down the mountain of life. Either that, or I'll just embarrass them until they let me ski on my own.
Hilary Faktor lives in Calgary.