The Downhill Skiing Mentality
To properly understand downhill skiing, the outsider must begin with the knowledge that all skiers have a bit of the masochist in them. There are a ton of good reasons to fear or dislike the sport--injuries are all too frequent, slopes are bound to be crowded, conditions are bound to be terrible, and above all, it's usually cold out there. So why does anyone in his or her right mind ski? It is hard to convince the non-masochists, but:
The physical sensation of being on skis is terrific. Anyone past the beginner stage of awkwardness caused by the presence of heavy boots and two ridiculously long boards can testify to the terrific, addictive feeling of cruising down a trail. Your course is completely self-determined at speeds ranging from a crawl to considerable speed.
Of course, the better a skier you are the more you can enjoy the sensation of sliding downhill. Anyone with enough patience who is willing to withstand a few seasons of embarrassing uncoordination can learn to ski well, and no matter what legions of instructors say, skiing can be a self-taught discipline. All you need is someone to show you the basics.
Therein lies another of the attractions of skiing. As with any individual sport, success breeds a satisfying feeling of individual accomplishment. Most winter sports are team-oriented. Even Bobby Orr has to rely on his fellow Black Hawks in order to be successful. Unlike team sports, too, the goal for most skiers is not to win, although the Downhill Racer mystique does pervade the sport; especially among younger skiers. There's generally no one to beat except yourself. After about five lessons I taught myself to ski, and while I am far from great (knees generally too far apart and a tendency to throw my weight the wrong way in the clutch), I've derived a real sense of accomplishment from the five years I've been skiing.
Cross-country skiers tend to play an exclusive claim this feeling of accomplishment, but the true downhiller scorns such solitary, Thoreauvian outings. You might as well walk. Cross-country enthusiasts, however, are better suited to fully enjoy the beauty of nature in the winter.
Still, Alpine skiing has considerable aesthetic appeal. On a nice day a ride on a chairlift will provide a fantastic display of scenery. An unspoiled trail leading down through a grove of snow-covered trees can be breathtakingly beautiful. The appreciation of the outdoors is a refreshing contrast to the normal attitude toward winter. On a mountain you use the outdoors rather than flee them for the warm confines of Lamont. It is far too easy to sound giddily rhapsodic, but acres of powdery snow (or more frequently, gleaming ice) can inspire enough reverential thought about nature to inspire lifetime membership in the Sierra Club.
Every skier comes to a point sooner or later in his or her careers when the person realizes that he or she is in love with sport. For me this moment came last year. I had been waiting for 25 minutes on a lift line at Killington. I was freezing, the conditions were awful, and I had aggravated an old injury on the previous run. Yet none of this bothered me in the least. I came to the sudden, unmistakable realization that there was no place else I wanted to be, that I was completely hooked on downhill skiing. I don't mean to suggest that every skier will experience such momentous epiphanies, but sooner or later you will realize that you are hopelessly in love with the sport.
So much for the joys of skiing. The fact remains that skiers are masochists. To illustrate this point, I offer a few true stories of peril on the slopes. Keep in mind that all of the following victims are still skiing whenever they can.
It makes you wonder.
Several years ago, I started down a long, easy trail at Sugarbush known as the Jester. It is full of sharp turns and wide, easy slopes. It was snowing, so visibility was extremely limited. A trio of skiers whizzed by me, only to disappear from view at the next turn. When I got there I found the three of them hung up in a clump of trees beyond a turn, which they said they thought was a jump. Miraculously, none was hurt, save for a few bruised ribs.
A good friend of mine told me of his own brush with death on the trail. He went over the edge of what appeared to be a small jump and found himself staring at an eight foot drop. He told himself to relax and enjoy the ride and began to project his trajectory when he noticed a fallen tree resting on its branches directly in his path. He slammed into it at full speed, the trunk hitting him in mid-thigh. He, too, managed to ski away with only severe bruises. He skis.
Four years ago I watched my brother break his leg. I have a complete instant replay in my mind. Lee is a much better skier than I am, so I followed him down a narrow cutoff and watched as he stumbled for a split-second and flew off into the trees, where a small elm broke his fall and both bones in his right calf. Lee still skis.
Two winters ago, I made a desparate sliding turn at high speed to avoid a beginner who had fallen in my path. I never got control and could feel something awful happening to my knee as I plunged into a snowbank. My bindings did not release and I found myself wrapped up like a pretzel and in considerable pain. A ski patrolman came by and congratulated me for my graceful swoon. Then he left. Approximately half an hour later I managed to get up and it took me two hours to complete a 30 minute run. My knee