It had been seventeen years since I’d stood on a mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado, skis on my feet and poles in hand, ready to feel the rush of wind that would make my eyes water as I raced my best friend down to the bottom. We were pretty good, or at least we thought we were anyway.
Almost two decades ago I didn’t think about the consequences of ski accidents, or if I did, I just didn’t care. I wasn’t going to die, and if I did break something it wouldn’t have been all bad – a broken arm meant a free pass out of gym class for six weeks. Now, at 30, I’m acutely aware of my own mortality, and a broken arm would likely take my whole life off the rails for a few months. That, combined with the fact that I have the coordination of a newborn giraffe, has probably got you wondering what could possibly have possessed me to plan a family ski holiday in the first place. The answer is love.
Opposites attract, they really do. My husband was captain and MVP of his soccer team in high school and went on to play in college. Me? I was picked last every time in gym class and used every excuse I could to get out of playing each and every sport my parents tried to get me involved in. I don’t do athletics. But when you love someone enough, you’re willing to sacrifice a lot to give them something they want, even if you think you might die doing it. And that’s how I found myself at the top of Gmahkopf mountain in Alpbach, Austria, skis on my feet and poles in hand, warily eyeing a slope that looked so much steeper than the one I was on seventeen years ago.
We’d ultimately chosen Alpbach for our holiday because of its reputation as being a great spot for beginner skiers. We knew we’d need something easy. Gmahkopf offered the most blue runs, so that decision was made for us, too. It all started out okay. The gondola ride up the mountain was pretty and scenic. Once we reached the top, I got used to walking like an astronaut on a moon landing in my heavy ski boots, and I even managed to stand up straight on my skis, albeit on level ground. I didn’t step on anyone else’s skis as we attempted to slide to the slope next to the ski lift, but from there it went downhill, literally and figuratively.
Cory picks every sport up easily, so we hadn’t heeded the advice of the employee at the ski rental store when he told us we’d ALL need at least a day of ski school before we hit the slopes. We’d hoped the skills I’d learned almost twenty years ago would come back to me instantly, and that Cory would be such a quick learner that he’d be able to teach Lex to ski on her own. Right. I am hearing how implausible that sounds even as I type it.
Had our first attempt at skiing in the Alps been caught on video, you’d all be throwing your heads back in evil laughter right now. Even Cory was clumsy, but it was Lexie’s skills that take the cake – she made my wide-legged snowplow look downright graceful. Poles were being dropped, legs were going in opposite directions, and the worst part was every time she’d fall down, she’d get up and it would all happen exactly the same again. We saw a kid’s ski school ahead and skied straight into it.
At this point, Lexie’s crying because she’s terrified. I’m about to cry because she’s crying, and this is quickly turning into the worst vacation ever. And we’ve only been on the mountain for 20 minutes. Luckily they had an opening for a group class at the school starting in thirty minutes, so we tried not to look at the price and booked her in for two days of sessions.
I tell you what, after two hours of instruction on her first day, I was shocked at how much she’d learned. While I wasn’t exactly keen on paying for classes on top of equipment rentals and lift passes, I feel like we more than got our money’s worth. And more importantly, she loved it. She couldn’t wait to get back the next day!
Meanwhile, Cory and I have gone off on our own to ski. Conditions on the mountain have gotten terribly foggy. I can barely see in front of me and I hate using my goggles because they obstruct my field of view too much. I’m spending astronomically more time on my butt than I am on my skis. It was a complete and utter failure. I wasn’t ready for this – the skiing or my lack of ability to actually do it. Where I belonged was in the kiddie ski school with Lex.
Worse than constantly falling was the hit my ego took. I don’t like being bad at things. And I was like ‘fall-off-the-ski-lift-on-the-bunny-hill’ bad. (Yeah, that actually happened. They had to stop the whole lift and everything. I’m cringing just thinking about it.) At the end of the day, the only thing keeping me from returning my ski equipment early and spending the rest of the holiday doing anything except skiing was stubbornness. I was not going to give up. I didn’t expect to master anything – I just wanted to make it down the bunny hill at least once without sliding halfway down on my back. That’s not asking too much, right?
The next day morale was much higher, partly due to the fact that we actually had sun and could finally see the mountains, and partly because I had a private ski session booked for early afternoon. I spent the morning doing more falling on the bunny slopes, getting frustrated and refusing to try again, and then getting bored and trying again anyway. I felt like I was wasting my time and I wished more than anything that we’d listened to the guy at Iggy’s Sports Shop and taken a class on the first day.
After lunch, Cory and I met Hans, the instructor we’d be spending two hours with and would hopefully be able to save our vacation, because thus far it had sort of been a disaster, at least for me. We spent the first hour on a tiny little hill next to the slopes. It was so small that it didn’t even have a ski lift, so every time we’d ski down, we’d have to walk back up on our skis. After thirty minutes of that, I’d shed every layer I could without becoming indecent and was still pouring sweat. I was so close to giving up, especially when Hans told me I wasn’t getting it because I was too controlled. Too controlled?! You’ve got to be kidding me – the only reason I’m going anywhere is by force of gravity. I have zero control!
Maybe Hans knew that if he asked me to ski down the hill and walk back up it one more time I would use my remaining strength to punch him in the mouth because we finally moved to the bunny slope. I was prepared for more of what I’d experienced that morning, but strangely enough, after only one hour of instruction and following Hans’ lead, I made it down the bunny slope without falling even one time. I was ecstatic…until I realized that we’d now need to take the ski lift back up and I hadn’t had the best of luck with it the day before. Embarrassing.
The next hour exceeded all my expectations. I was far from good, but I was consistently making it down without falling, and with Hans barking orders at me over his shoulder like an alpine drill sergeant, ‘Bend forward, Sarah! Stand up, Sarah! Can you see your poles, Sarah? Did I teach you that awful form, Sarah?’ If I hadn’t been so darn proud of myself, and I’ll admit, grateful to him for helping me, I probably would have told him exactly how I feel about taking orders from people.
When we got back to the hotel that night, I could barely move my body and I knew I’d feel even worse in the morning, but I could not stop grinning. I hadn’t given up and it had paid off!
The next day, our last day on the slopes, Lexie surprised us all by not needing another ski school session. She went up and down the bunny slopes with us like she’d been skiing for weeks! (She didn’t care for the button ski lifts either, though.)
Besides an outrageous incident where a lady came plummeting down the hill, completely out of control, taking me out before rolling into the line of folks by the ski lift like they were bowling pins, it was a pretty uneventful morning. I still fell every now and then, but I think it was more due to me getting braver, trying to go faster when I really wasn’t ready for it, than the same sort of falling I was doing the day before.
After a while, Lexie got tired and just wanted to play in the snow. It had started falling pretty heavily, so she couldn’t really see anyway. (Poor thing, her glasses wouldn’t fit behind her goggles, so she was skiing practically blind!) I stayed behind with her so Cory could ski on his own for awhile, and because my knees after three days were feeling more like 60-year-old knees than ripe, young 30-year-old ones. (And my blisters were growing blisters!) We ended our adventure on a good note, which is more than I ever saw coming on our first day!
Barring the option of someone offering us a free ski holiday in the Alps, I don’t think we’ll be doing this again anytime soon, but if we do, I’ll know to suck up my pride, and my frugal tendencies, and just pay for a class right off the bat. If I could offer just one bit of advice to first-time skiers, that would be it. (Here’s a few more tips for first-time skiers, if you want to check that out!)
The only thing I regret was not taking more pictures. What you’re looking at is pretty much all I have from three days skiing in the Alps. I knew better than to take my DSLR with me (I’d rather break my leg than my camera!), so all I had was Lexie’s old point-and-shoot. I really would have used it more had I not been concentrating so intently on staying alive. Next time we go to the mountains, we’re going hiking and I’m taking pictures. That, I am much better equipped to handle!