The beauty and terror of skiing

Life is all about trying new things. At least that’s what I told myself when a friend invited me on a ski trip several weeks ago. I’d never skied before, and as someone whose routine activity schedule has grown more boring this year, the opportunity for adventure seemed alluring.

My first warning should have been the casual conversations I had with people in the days leading up to the vacation. “Oh, you’re going skiing, that’s so fun! My clarinet teacher actually fractured her hip in Vail,” is representative of an invariable pattern of dialogue where someone expressed excitement at my journey and then relayed the story of a friend or relative who sustained some sort of horrific injury. I heard about broken collar bones, dislocated knees and people who spent several days in a coma following particularly bad crashes. I suppose there’s a good amount of availability bias playing into this (people don’t tell the stories of their 10 other friends who went skiing and returned unscathed), but this certainly made me nervous.

I never went skiing as a kid. My family is too risk-averse to ever think of such an activity as something done willingly. I understood only the abstraction of skiing as portrayed on social media, which consists of people who look neither cold nor beleaguered. I can only assume these photos were taken before the day’s activities began.

Anyway, for the ski trip I was going on, the destination was Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia. Snowshoe is allegedly the best mountain for skiing in the Mid-Atlantic region—to me, this has the same energy as crowning a “best beach” in Michigan, but I was happy to take whatever I could get because with my skill level, I knew that it really wouldn’t matter. The trip up featured some beautiful bucolic scenery in the winding backroads, which I really enjoyed because I wasn’t the one who was driving.

We arrived at our Airbnb and settled in for the skiing experience the following day. This required waking up around 6 a.m., packing sandwiches like schoolchildren and filing away in our respective vehicles to drive up to the mountaintop. There were five novices and three experienced skiers on the trip, so we split up accordingly for the morning with plans to reunite in the afternoon. The place wasn’t too crowded yet, and we newbies had plenty of time to figure out how to put on all of our gear before getting the ski lesson we’d paid for.

Beginning at this moment, and continuing throughout the day, I kept asking myself the question of whether humans were evolutionarily meant to be doing all of this—putting on these special boots, attaching them to flattened sticks, clearing trees from mountains, manufacturing fake snow, etc. The smart-alec answer is yes, of course, because if humans are capable of creating such infrastructure, then they are meant to be doing it. But I have my doubts.

When we finally got to the ski school, they made us sign a waiver that had “DEATH” in capital letters on it. This seemed like a promising start. The guy who gave the ski lesson was in great spirits. It truly takes someone who loves skiing and teaching to instruct groups of incompetent visitors, all day, every day, and I admired him for it. Can’t say I exactly learned a lot about how to ski, but he smiled at me empathetically each time I fell, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for in life.

At this point, I just really wanted to go home—but if there’s anything I value more than my own safety or well-being, it’s getting my money’s worth out of something. So we joined up with the expert skiers of the group and agreed to tackle a green slope together. These are the easy slopes that are supposed to be designed for people who are just starting out, like me. At first, there’s a charming feeling of solidarity that comes with skiing alongside other beginners, but this soon gave way to a feeling of terror as I realized that nearly everyone else on the slope was similarly undisciplined and could waylay me at any moment.

This was my big chance. I crept out onto the slope and began my descent, veering off course and crashing to the ground within the first 20 feet. I lay on the cold earth, flailing about with both skis on, barely managing to get up thanks to the help of a friend. This pattern mercilessly continued for the rest of the way down the slope. As soon as I started going really fast, I became terrified, and my mind shut down as soon as I attempted to pizza and failed to slow down, leaving me no choice but to fall before I took off at an uncontrollable speed. Getting back up each time became a hopeless chore as the little core strength I had was sapped. One particularly icy patch left a nasty bruise on my tailbone that felt sore for weeks following. The crashes seemed endless. Finally, I ended up back where I started, exhausted both physically and mentally.

Doing anything for the first time is difficult. This is especially true for skilled activities like skiing, and I knew my debut wasn’t going to be met with thunderous applause from the peanut gallery. I can definitely understand how people who’ve skied since childhood love it because it’s something that comes naturally to them—the thrill of adventure, the cold air whipping past your face, the defiance of traversing a mountain. I guess life makes us choose which of these skills we want to cultivate. It’s about pushing past the miserable first couple times and recognizing that these are necessarily evils in the learning process. Will I go skiing again? Probably not, but I’m glad I did. At least I have a good story to tell and a deep tenderness in my coccyx to show for it.

Nathan Luzum is a second-year medical student and a member of the DSPC Board of Directors. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. 


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