Snow God

Doug Sherr

© Copyright 2018 by Doug Sherr

Photo of a skier.
Passion is as addictive as drugs, but there are no twelve-step programs for passion. Some activities: surfing, rock climbing, and skiing are good candidates for the obsessed. Left behind is a life that is measured by clocks, quotas, and the whims of idiot bosses. People who live by those clocks often use the term bum to define people who follow their passion. Those people often fail to appreciate the incredible discipline these bums have to perfect their craft. I didn’t realize I was a ski-bum until it was too late. True ski bums switch hemispheres so that it is endless winter. The lesser ski-bum works the summer pounding nails or waiting tables or handling four-wheel drive tour vehicles up the mountain for tourists equipped with the latest boots and gear who would never think of hiking further than from the jeep to the picnic.

I’d made some money working in LA and while winter was making itself known in SoCal by a vicious two-degree drop in temperature, the TV weather reporters were giving little fake shivers when they said it was snowing in Colorado. I got back to Aspen just before a six-inch dump of early winter wet snow. I was on my way to buy a season’s pass when I bumped into my friend Kenny, who worked for the ski school. He said that I should go to the hiring clinic for ski instructors. I didn’t think that I skied well enough and that my personality might not work with the old Austrians who ran the school, but why turn down a challenge?

The hiring clinic was a six-day affair that determined if you could ski well enough that they could then teach you how to ski like an instructor. They also wanted to know if you had, “The Right Stuff.” Could you schmooze a group of un-athletic flatlanders who were nervous (or terrified) and maintain a sense of humor, actually teach them something, and most important, get them to come back for another lesson? I didn’t care; I was getting a week of top-level instruction for sixty bucks. All of the fresh-faced hopefuls were given a number bib, like the ones used in ski races, that became your identifier for six days of strenuous activity and social screening; we had to wear the number during lunch and going to the restroom. No mistake is too small to go unseen by a group of Austrians with clipboards. The ski school is conservative and I had a beard and long hair. My old army fatigue jacket didn’t match well with the fancy outfits of my compatriots, so I was skiing uphill the whole time.

There were about 150 people to fill the twenty slots that were open. We were put into groups of about seven recruits and I felt lucky that my group was assigned to one of the younger instructors. A ski instructor doesn’t actually have to be a throw-yourself-off-the-mountain-down-any-run skier. A ski instructor has to ski pretty and with precise control. A good instructor, like any coach, can teach a person whose skills might be greater than the coach, but the coach knows and can impart the higher levels of technique to the student. After all that, the Ski Corps, as it’s known in Aspen, wants great skiers.

The format for the clinic was perfect for me. They started with the most basic maneuvers and slowly built up to advanced techniques. We did the wedge (snow-plow), and christies (turns where one ski steers and the other catches up), finally putting our feet parallel, sliding around a turn and then carving the turn with the skis on edge and biting into the snow. That was really boring for the strong skiers, but I concentrated on each skill and that was what our instructors were looking for. The one skill I had mastered was the hockey stop. Four years of playing semi-pro hockey allowed me to stop on either side with one foot or two and look like I was a much better skier than I really was. However, that did create one sticky incident. We all had to ski down a cat track near the bottom of Ajax (Aspen Mountain) and stop in front of Sepp Uhl, the Head Supervisor for the ski school. Sepp was a former member of the Austrian National Ski Team and a technically perfect skier. He was also short and I towered over him; that never helps.

I had developed the habit of keeping my bindings loose, so that I would release quickly if I fell. I came sliding around the corner and I could see Sepp in the distance. I watched as each clinic-hopeful stopped, some cleanly and some not. Each stop earned a notation on Sepp’s clipboard. I came up faster than I should have and banged a powerful stop in front of him. So powerful in fact, that I left my skis where I had stopped and I continued on in a shallow arc, slamming into the snow a couple of feet behind him. Sepp didn’t bother to turn around.

He said, “Someone get his number,” in a Stalag 17 accent.

Somewhere into the third day I was beginning to think that I had a chance of getting hired. I put all my effort into learning the mass of information flowing from the mouths of the various clinic leaders who lectured and demonstrated what we were supposed to know: upper-body orientation, angulation, rotation, up-unweighting, down-unweighting, foot-to-foot weight transfer, flat-ski and edging technique, and how to flow down the mountain like an angel. I was no longer the worst skier in the clinic, but still not at the standard that the ski school expected. The overall Germanic quality to the clinic was countered by an underground American go-for-it attitude held by the younger clinic instructors.

Whatever happened in the prior five days was reinforced or negated by the final demonstration, an exercise to test the heart as well as the ability of the participants. We were all nervous because the clinic was designed to keep us nervous. That was a good tool for our own education, because all of our students would also be nervous, assuming that we survived the clinic. The bottom run on Ajax, Little Nell, is a pleasant little hill that has two small sections that level a bit and then fall back to a steeper grade. We were dispatched, one at a time, to the edge of the lower drop-off to then wait for the signal to start down. Along the bottom of the run, a line of red coats showed the clinic supervisors jotting notes rapidly as each participant skied down making a full complement of turns from a basic wedge to an elegant carved turn. Your turns had to be perfect as defined by an Austrian set of values. If you blew this demo then all the good work of the prior week was lost. I was thinking about all of this when I skied onto the last little flat and immediately caught an edge and smacked down hard. I hopped up and realized that I had just been hidden from view; also the supervisors were frantically writing their notes as each skier came down and didn’t have time to notice anything else.

The man in front of me was a fine skier and would certainly make the cut, but he panicked and skied down like a yet-to-be-perfected robot. I was surprised and then acknowledged that this had all been a silly fantasy. I certainly would never be hired as a member of the august Aspen Ski School. I relaxed and decided to have fun. The sundeck at Little Nell, the bar at the base of the run, was filled with friends and experts, real and imagined, who were calling and yelling and having a great time analyzing each skier’s performance. This was show business. I slid over the edge and completed a series of perfect turns, the only time before or since that I’ve done so. Behind the line of supervisors was the old “cattle fence” of wooden planks that was used for crowd control before the modern Gondola was built. Sepp was at the left end of the line and as I went by him I turned and tried to see his notes on the clipboard. I slammed into the fence making a sound like a truck running through an old shack. Sepp couldn’t turn around because he was concentrating on the next skier coming down. The fence held me upright and when he spun his head around to see what had happened, I was leaning innocently against the fence and flashed a winning smile.

That night I was nervous, even though I knew I didn’t have a chance. Kenny Oakes, my friend who suggested that I try out kept saying, well, you never know. He was also the Head Training Supervisor for the Ski School and he certainly knew more about the process than most people. They posted the list of hired people on the front door of the ski school office the next morning. I went to Little Nell and had a coffee. Then I had a beer as I watched hopeful after hopeful walk away downcast at their rejection. Finally, after another beer, I walked over to the door and saw my name near the bottom of the list. Unbelievable! I went to André’s, my favorite saloon at the time, and bought a round; actually, I bought several rounds and had a headache the next morning when, for the first time in fourteen years, I shaved off my beard to satisfy the rules of the Ski Corps. I had refused to shave it off even when put under pressure for all those years, but when a turkey like me gets hired by one of the world’s great ski schools, it’s a minor sacrifice.

Buttermilk Mountain was my first assignment. One of Aspen’s legends, Friedle Pheiffer, designed the mountain as the ideal place to teach beginners to ski. It has a beautifully graded series of slopes that progress from the slightest decline that will draw a ski downhill to the Town Downhill racecourse on the Tiehack side of the mountain. It is difficult to imagine a student being more nervous than an instructor with his first class. You stare at this crowd of eight innocents having forgotten everything you learned at the clinic. There was a moment when I thought that I might just as well walk over to my supervisor, hand in my instructor’s pass, and go find a job tending bar.

My eager crew had never had skis on before, so I walked them to a side area to show them how to put on and take off their skis. That was a challenge. All the old moves of Laurel and Hardy on a construction site are actually the natural moves of a pack of beginners trying to walk with their skis. My God, I had to teach them how to walk first! The experienced instructors love to watch the first-time instructor. You’re like a duck with a brood of dull-witted ducklings that waddle off in all directions looking around with awe as other, more advanced ducklings, glide by with a look of wonder on their faces; primarily wondering how they will stop. Occasionally, one of the gliders, with the inexorability of a planetary collision will drift into a gaggle of your walkers and the sound must be like a medieval clash of arms as metal ski edges collide and victims scream and beg for their lives. I was thankful that I was strong enough to lift up the helpless sack that is a new skier flailing around, tangling skis and poles in humanity’s primeval struggle to stand upright.

None of my students died and most of them said that they would return the next day. I staggered into the instructor’s locker room and slumped on a bench, more exhausted than I had ever been after a championship hockey game. A few of the instructors came over and congratulated us beginners and gave all kinds of advice for getting through the next day. I went to a health club and sank into a hot tub, my mind basically blank. The next day, six of my students were back and we hustled away before a supervisor could add any more eager fledglings. I am one of those people who have trouble remembering names. Now I had new groups of people every few days that had a right, at these prices, to have the instructor acknowledge who they were. Within a couple of weeks, I was a phone book of names, all remembered and attached to the right faces; the mind is a terrible thing.

Ski instructing, for most instructors, is not a livelihood. It helps pay for groceries and will garner the occasional meal and sometimes a nice tip. Instructors are either independently rich or they work like slaves. I had three jobs that winter to pay the bills. My routine was simple: Up at six and then a half hour of stretching, a coffee and some hot cereal and out the door into the alpine blackness to wheedle the old truck to start in the below-zero morning. After a fun day of glamour on the slopes, a quick shower and a change to serious clothes to maitre d’ at a semi-class restaurant for the dinner hour and then a four-mile drive into town to play sommelier at another place. Finally, a glass of wine before the drive home at mid-night, shoveling snow as needed, and a few hours of sleep to refresh for a repeat performance the next day. I loved it.

That season the World Cup Downhill series held an event on Ajax. Franz Klammerer had won the Olympic Gold and World Cup Title the season before and he was favored to win in Aspen. Since freshmen instructors are the last to get class assignments, the World Cup offers two weeks of work to fill in hours. An instructor needed a minimum of 250 teaching hours to qualify as fulltime. At that number you are an automatic re-hire for the next season. If you don’t fill that requirement, then it’s clinic time again—those two weeks of hours were important. I certainly wasn’t going to another clinic so I volunteered.

It’s basically brutal work. The entire course is fenced with plastic mesh to keep the contestants from flying into the crowd at eighty miles an hour. Much of the course also had walls of hay bales stacked in front of the fence. All this is put in place by hand. Once the basic course is laid out, the entire surface is side-slipped many times by squads of skiers who carefully smooth the race surface. We would side-slip thirty yards of the two-mile course and walk back up and slide again until the surface passed the requirements of the race committee. Usually that called for five to ten passes. We called these 10K days, meaning that ten thousand calories were consumed in six hours: an excellent program for fat people. For the last two days of grooming, dozens of more senior instructors joined us. It was amazing how the two weeks of work had hardened our bodies and built our aerobic fitness; the old-timers were wheezing after only a few sections were done, while we were running up the hill like teenagers.

The last phase is the actual setting of the course. The Chief Course Setter was Ulfar Skearenson, a grumpy old Icelander who enjoyed the primary pastime of his native land: drinking. I was picked as his assistant because I could carry more poles than anyone else. We set off in the morning and Ulfar would point out where he wanted a pole and I would stop, drop my load of about twenty poles and plant one where he pointed. Once out of sight of the start gate, Ulfar would take a small flask from his jacket and take a sip to help fight off the cold. He offered some to me, but I figured that it would be a mistake. The top of the course is technical, which means it is boring and requires that the racer is good at keeping a flat ski, which runs faster than a ski on edge. After several transitions there is a drop-off into the run called Aztec. It may be named for that tribe’s love of blood sacrifice. Most skiers stop at the top and look over the edge before they jump into the run. In the Downhill, the racers hit that lip at seventy to eighty miles an hour. They will be in the air for a hundred feet before they touch down. This transition provides most of the wrecks during the race. Ulfar pointed at a spot about eighty feet down the slope.
He said, “Put one there.” The top ten racers would still be in the air at that point. I said as much.
Ulfar said, “Fuck em” in his Eric-the-Red accent.

As he skied down, I hung back and stuck the gate down around a hundred and twenty feet. There would be over a hundred practice runs completed before the race that would help to perfect the course, but I didn’t want some hotshot to fly into the gate and eat it because of us. Ulfar never noticed and the next time he offered, I took a drink from his flask. Several days later, I was helping to reset the course when Kurt Chase, the Director of the Ski School, skied up to check on our progress. I was carrying about thirty gates, which is a considerable load—I was pushing it a bit. He nodded his head in a noncommittal way and skied off. I was stopping to set another gate when a snow snake reached out and grabbed my ski causing a sprawling fall that scattered poles all over the hill. The boss looked back, but kept on skiing down. I did see a small shake of his head as his worst opinion of me had been confirmed. Snow snakes are supposedly mythical creatures, but I’m sure I saw one; great green eyes, evil sneer.

For most of the practice sessions and then the first run of the race, I was stationed as the downhill observer at the lip of Aztec. The job was to immediately radio race control if a skier left the course and to be the first responder in the event of a crash. The most impressive thing about that post is the noise the racers make as they rip through the air. The top three fastest racers sounded different than the rest of the field. Since I was looking downhill, I couldn’t see who was coming, but there was no doubt when Klammerer was on the course; he sounded like a tropical squall roaring in as he got air at eighty miles an hour. He won the event and I don’t remember who came in next, which is the problem with second place.

The Women’s event started at the top of Aztec. The next transition below Aztec is Spring Pitch, an ugly, little reverse-hillock that requires the racer to stay left on the course and then make a banking turn to the right, ski through a depression and then rise up a little hill, making a looping turn to the left to join a cat track. The edge of the cat track drops off down the run, Corkscrew Gully. The entrance of that run is actually concave and requires a jump down of about five feet to hit snow that can be skied. A ten-foot high, netlike barrier, called The Berlin Wall, protects the racers from going into the Gully. The practice sessions went well. It is humbling to see little teenaged girls skiing down the access run, called Ruthie’s, carrying an armful of warm-ups, racing skis, helmets and poles casually talking to their friends as they rocket down the run at speeds where you would be concentrating and hoping to not catch an edge.

For the race, I was stationed near the top of the hillock at the transition to the cat track. One of the lower-ranked skiers went too high on the transition and it was clear that she wouldn’t make it. I was actually skiing before she left the course, soared over the Wall, and disappeared into the Gully. I jumped around the edge of the barrier and into the run. She was about fifty feet down, lying on her back, motionless. Corkscrew has big moguls (mounds of hard snow shaped by turning skis) and she must have slammed into a mogul because she should be further down the run at the speed and angle she was carrying. I was scared.

I got to her and got my skis off. I put my hand lightly on her helmet so she couldn’t move her head if she was still alive. I asked her if she could hear me. After a moment, she asked in a little girl voice, “Where am I?” I asked if she could wiggle her toes a little. She could and then she tried to sit up. I kept a gentle pressure on her helmet and chest. I said that she was fine, but she should just rest for a minute and get her mind clear. At that moment the ski patrol got there and I left her in the hands of people who really know what they’re doing. When I see kids in any sport crash I always think about their mothers. I heard later that she had no serious injuries.

The season was nearing the end and I managed to get the minimum 250 teaching hours so that I was automatically rehired for next year. I took the last week off and skied for fun. I was now a full-fledged snow god. Pounding nails that summer didn’t seem so bad. Winter was sure to come.

The wonderful thing about living in the Colorado Rockies is that after a week of pounding nails on some multi-millionaire’s fourth house you have a wilderness to play in for the weekend. Usually, I had all my camping and fishing gear loaded into my truck or motorcycle so at the end of work on Friday I was off to some place with no people and just the stars for evening company. That made the wait for snow enjoyable. As the season eases from summer to autumn, the yearning for fresh powder and a day of infinite turns slowly builds.

The week before the mountain opened to the public the ski school held its yearly instructor’s clinic to get everyone used to being back on the hill and to demonstrate new teaching techniques. Second-year instructors are not held in much higher regard than newbies and they are put through a rigorous drill. You have to be attentive, because the supervisors hold your season in their hands. They make out the daily class assignments; if they don’t like you, you don’t work. For some reason, I was put with all the old Austrian instructors, who were a clique that moved to a different yodeler than the rest of the school. No one was going to teach these men how to teach skiing, so they just skied; fast. Some of these guys might be old, but most of them had been Olympic and World Cup competitors; they still blazed down the hill. At the end of the morning session one of the old boys, Sepp Kessel, came up to me. He said, “You ski fast; that’s good; you can ski with us.” For the rest of the week we just bombed down the mountain flashing by groups of instructors working on snowplow turns. I felt very lucky.

To some people floating down the mountain in an instructor’s uniform leading the life of a “snow god” is too glamorous to imagine. After a few weeks of teaching intermediate skiers, far worse than beginners, it comes to you that a job is a job. What keeps you going are the stories exchanged in the locker room at the end of the day and a feeling of shared absurdity. Something vicious happens to people on their holiday. The genius that let them earn enough money to come to one of the more expensive resorts in the world disappears and they become people that Goodwill Industries wouldn’t hire. I’m not sure what motivated the gentleman to ski up to my group as we were standing at the side of a run.

He asked, “Excuse me, could you tell me which way is down?

Or the charming southern girl I had who did seem nervous. We were skiing down Ruthie’s Run and I warned the class that we were coming to a cat track and to watch out for the transition. The girl’s eyes got bigger. As we skied down one of the snow cats that groom the hill was slowly coming out of the trees; they normally don’t run during the day, but there was some maintenance thing going on and the cat-driver was being properly cautious. I pointed it out and suggested that they wouldn’t want to run into that thing. The girl let out an, “Oh my God” and said that she’d been terrified that some big old mountain lion was going to leap out and carry her off.

Why that’s just an old tractor like Daddy has for ditching.” The South shall rise again.

I don’t speak Spanish. Any number of locals in Spain and Mexico would confirm that. Since Colorado gets a fair number of Latin Americans there was a need for Spanish-speaking instructors. I volunteered for the quick course in instructional Spanish because it was another chance to get steady bookings. I memorized the phrases necessary to get beginners moving on their skis: “Doble rodillos; cuerpo superior adelante de los pies y peso egual sobre los dos eskis.” Then my students would light up in broad smiles and rattle off the first chapter of “Agua por Chocolaté” and I’d finish up with,”Lo siento, pero no hablo Español.” They would sigh and there would go my big tip. One day the Spanish-speaking Supervisor skied up to me and said he had a private lesson for me. He flashed a nasty little smile. He introduced me to three small men, with winning smiles, who were bullfighters from Mexico City. We got them out-fitted and, to a sound of trumpets in the distance, attacked the mountain.

I am an aficianado of the Corrida de Toros. A 130-pound man steps into a dirt-filled circle and taunts a 1000-pound animal that has been bred for a 1000 years to fight bravely; to the death. I’m sorry that most non-Spaniards don’t get it and if they think that it is cruel, I can only suggest that they feed a starving child; letting a child go hungry is pure cruelty. Toreros and matadors move about the ring in a flowing dance, always in balance and always centered; if you lose concentration for a second in a bullfight you will taste the horns. That grace of movement did not translate into grace on skis. On the other hand, they were afraid of nothing. They were very much like little children, running off out of control and crashing and laughing and bouncing up to do it again. When I would explain something they were very solemn and would nod their heads vigorously that they understood (comprendo, comprendo) and go roaring off and crash and laugh.

After an exhausting morning, for me, Los Tres Matadores and I stopped for lunch. They were the happiest guys I’ve ever met. They babbled merrily away and included me as if I could actually speak Spanish: I got the part about, “La rubia con las chichas grande,” however, the rest was lost. They ate an enormous amount of food and drank Coke. After lunch they were eager to attack the “Sierra Grande.” We were skiing at Buttermilk, which is a good teaching hill, but I can’t think of anything grand about it. We wound up at the top of an intermediate run, which would be a beginner run on Ajax or Snowmass. I saw Kes, my supervisor, ski across the bottom of the run and look up. I told my boys that the guy at the bottom with the red jacket was my jefe. They lined up across the hill, looked at each other, and nodded. They were going to show off for me. Off they went, picking up speed and shouting to each other. The word for turn in Spanish is, vuelta. They were going straight down the mountain picking up speed. I started yelling, “¡Vuelta!” They waved. Kes watched. They were skiing way too fast. “¡Vuelta, Vuelta!” They waved. I figured that they would die. Probably hit Kes and take him out too. One last scream, “¡Vuelta!” and like a flight of fighter planes wheeling into combat against incredible odds they turned together and roared into the trees. Close packed trees. Kes shook his head, wrote something on his clipboard and skied off. Would he call the Ski Patrol? I didn’t have a radio––the nearest call box was at the bottom of the run. Maybe a Medivac helicopter could save one of them. I skied down and found their tracks into the trees. I’ve had a lot of emergency medical training, but I don’t want to use it, ever. I took a breath and skied in to find the carnage. I found them about twenty feet in, twisted into improbable positions and laughing. They simply had never had this much fun. It took about half an hour to untangle and dig them out and scratch around to find all their gear. I don’t believe that there are computable odds for these three men to have skied into close packed trees and not have hit one of them. At the end of the day they gave me a good tip and invited me Mexico to watch them fight. They said they would give me the ears and a tail from a brave bull as a sign of respect. Fry that up with some eggs and you have a good meal.

As the days warmed, we shifted into spring skiing mode. The seriousness of pounding down a mogul run on a frigid day eases into languid runs in corn snow; imagine little kernels of snow like ball bearings resting on a hard base below. It’s a ballet that just makes you grin. Many days you can ski in shorts and a T-shirt (people, not ski instructors.) Finally, at the end of a particularly frustrating day of teaching beginners, one of my better students took off down Fanny Hill and got so spooked that she couldn’t turn. I jumped after her letting my skis run, but I couldn’t catch her. She slammed into a ski rack at the bottom of the run scattering skis, poles, and several terrified beginners who dove for cover. She was unscathed, but I wasn’t. After untangling my student from the yard sale of skis and gear I bid them a good day, went to the Ski Instructor’s office and quit. I still can’t say why this minor event triggered my shift to former ski instructor, but like so many moments in my life, I knew it was time to move on.

When I was hired to teach skiing I wasn’t a very good skier. Numerous clinics and teaching 500 hours of classes had turned me into a technically proficient upper-intermediate skier. The step up to expert was within sight. The ski school let me keep my ski pass, which was kind. I think that a few of the supervisors were relieved that I no longer represented their school. I skied every day and followed a fairly consistent routine: I’d take the lift to the top of Bell Mountain on Ajax and ski down Sunset, a moderately steep run with nice moguls. Moguls, or bumps, make you turn quickly and in rhythm (Stevie Wonder’s Superstition is perfect accompaniment). The quality of your turns and the general looseness of your body tells you how good you’ll ski that day and tells everyone else whether you’re a low intermediate, intermediate or an expert.

One morning about two weeks after quitting the ski school I jumped into Sunset and realized after a few turns that I was skiing very well. Top to bottom, picking a sweet line over and around the bumps and carrying some good speed, I’d never skied better. I stormed down the mountain to get back on the lift so I could ski Bell Mountain. Bell Mountain is a spine with a narrow ridge down the middle and steep fall-offs to both sides called, The Face and the Back of Bell. Bell is something of a rite of passage for skiers. If you can ski it well, you can ski: if you can’t ski, you should practice somewhere else. The technical challenge of this area is it’s multiple fall lines. Skiing is really about managing gravity. Your skis are either running with or turning away from the pull down the slope. On a simple run you are dealing with a single, inclined plane. Ajax is well known not so much for its steepness, but for its multiple fall lines, (i.e. in any given turn gravity pulls in more than one direction making decisions on turning points and weighting interesting).

Normally, when I approached the Ridge, I would stop and look the run over, partly to plan my line and partly to take a breath and quiet my mind. There was a lift that traveled just over the run and you were definitely “on stage” with every turn judged by the ”experts” on the lift. This time I just jumped into the run. After a few turns I dropped into the Face of Bell. This is expert terrain and I skied it beautifully. Near the bottom I thought, “My God, I’ve become an expert!” It was fantastic—I was now a real skier. I couldn’t quite believe it so I tested this new-found confidence. I bounced around the mountain floating without concern down all the runs that I used to carefully negotiate. It was true—I was free—I could truly dance down the mountain. By mid-afternoon the joy of it all still hadn’t worn off. I had burned a lot of energy and I needed some food so I headed down to the Skier’s Chalet for a burger and a beer. I was near the bottom skiing under the 1A lift-line, a narrow slot that I hadn’t skied before because everyone on the lift is watching and the steep, narrow run demands excellent technique. I was showing off and loving it. I got a few “yahoos” from the chairlift crowd.

There is a road that cuts across the run and the transition from steep to level is abrupt. I tried to jump across the road to avoid the shock of landing on the level surface. I hit the lip just right, but I was leaning too far back on my skis (it must have been a bit of panic leftover from my old intermediate self). Newly ranked experts shouldn’t fall with lots of spectators looking on so I cranked my left knee hard to force a turn and save a fall. I felt and heard a popping in my knee as it dislocated. The pain was overwhelming. I slumped into the snow. For a moment the pain was so intense that I couldn’t think. Then the brain reconnected and I slammed the heels of my hands into the opposite sides of my leg, just above and below the knee, and it popped back into place. The pain subsided into merely brutal. When the level of pain didn’t diminish quickly, I knew I was in trouble.

Of course, now the chairs overhead were carrying people that I knew and in the gentle way of skiers they yelled out how really dumb I looked sprawled across the mountain.

One of the guys was concerned, “Are you alright?”

No, I’m not.”

Are you hurt?”


Do you want the ski patrol?”

No. No way.”

My ego was not about to let me ride in a basket down the mountain: It was undignified. I finally managed to stand and partially straighten my left leg. It throbbed intensely, but the white-hot pain had eased. I picked up my left ski and carried it as I skied down on my right ski. I executed a series of clean turns, I couldn’t risk a fall, and made it to the bottom. At the Chalet, I put my leg up, packed the knee with snow, and drank several glasses of wine. Even in pain there is humor. After all that work I had managed to be an expert skier for about four hours. Glory is a fleeting thing.

I rested a few days. Then I bought a monster knee brace and skied for a week. It wasn’t too bad. I had been giving “underground” ski lessons to a few people and I owed a bump lesson to a friend. If you ski bumps properly it’s not really jarring and skiing bumps slowly is the best way to perfect your technique. I was skiing down leading Micheala when I leaned back slightly. Whatever else you do in the bumps, you don’t lean back. I fell. It hurt. A lot. Micheala asked why I leaned back.
I said, “Just to show you what a mistake it is.”

I managed to get off the mountain and limp to a bar. Tequila helped a little, but it was senseless to continue. I packed my gear and headed for Florida to warm up on the beach and find a boat going somewhere. It’s good to have options. I wound up sailing the Bahamas for the summer and swimming every day cured whatever was wrong with my knee. Over the years, I skied whenever I could, but I never again had the looseness and grace of the expert that I had been for about four hours.

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