Ski the East
TV weathermen who brave hurricane force winds do so for a reason. They’re getting paid. I could find no such excuse as I stood atop the Smuggler’s Notch ski resort in northern Vermont Tuesday morning trying to prevent myself from being blown into the woods and perhaps wrapped around a tree.
My suspicion is that this wasn’t climate change. It was normal weather for those smug or foolish enough to indulge the sport of downhill skiing in February in the northeastern United States of America. My excuse for hitting the slopes, figuratively speaking – I managed to remain upright until I called it quits after one run – is that my friend Bruce Shenker had the use of his sister Karla’s time share for a few days and invited me to join him.
The reason I doubt that brutal winds and accompanying snow weren’t proof of Armageddon is that I seem to recall the some of the more challenging meteorology I’ve faced over the course of my long career as an intermediate skier was while sitting captive on a chairlift heading up an ice-encrusted Vermont mountain.
In fact, if I had to guess the coldest day on record, at least in regard to my own body’s anguish, it would have been a February morning in the mid-1960’s at Sugarbush, another ski area that we’d planned to hit on our way home. Age exacts a steep price. But it also bestows data points, if not necessarily wisdom.
So as I donned my rental skis for the first time in five years that felt more like five centuries – don’t believe those who tell you that skiing is like riding a bike, a skill once learned that’s never forgotten – I saw my life flash before my eyes, at least my life as a snowplower.
It began in adolescence, indeed at Sugarbush. Memories from that bygone era had flooded my mind as I made my way to the chairlift for my inaugural trip up the mountain the previous day. It was a blessed morning by Vermont standards. The sun was shining, however wanly. The temperature hovered in the tropical mid-twenties. And the tempest was taking the day off.
Is it just me or does everyone experience trauma as they prepare to board a chairlift? Each encounter – whether embarking or disembarking – offers the opportunity for mortal injury. Maybe you’ll get hit by the chair as you get on, or your binding will release and your ski will fall off half way up the mountain, or you’ll fail to raise your tips and find your body splayed across the exit ramp as the following skiers prepare to run you over. All of which has happened to me.
Skiing under the lift is another source of soul-crushing embarrassment since those passing above are a captive audience, having nothing better to do than judge you. Skiing may pose the most mortification-inducing moments of any sport for the undedicated athlete. On the other hand, it awards the expert skier, offering him or her or they a canvas, if typically littered with ice and rocks, to strut their stuff.
Bruce is a very good skier but an even better sport. On only one occasion was he trying to reach me by phone at the bottom of a run, so long was he forced to wait for me to catch up. He also bit his tongue as I recited the obstacles that prevented me from posting Mikaela Shiffren times – weak legs, boots that cut into my shins, fogged goggles and eye glasses that were under the misapprehension that I could use echolocation to find my way down the mountain.
On that accursed morning when I called it a day after one run Bruce took twelve trips down the mountain and didn’t return to the condo until mid-afternoon, shortly before the lifts closed. Did I feel humiliated? Not totally. I’ve reached that charmed time in life when I realize my main assignment is to age as gracefully as possible. We each find meaning in our own way.
We decided to punt on Sugarbush after we learned the price of a lift tickets, choosing to ski at nearby Mad River Glen instead. The area, with its single-person chair lift and bare bones lodge feels like stepping back in time; it also harbors the most challenging terrain in the Northeast, according to Ski magazine. Even non-skiers are probably familiar with the area’s boastful bumper sticker – “Mad River Glen/Ski it if you can.” Turns out I could if I stuck to the easy stuff, abetted by the best conditions of this beleaguered snow-deprived season.
Skiing down the mountain, making gentle turns and pausing occasionally to absorb the vista that extends for what feels like a hundred miles, offered a feeling of expansiveness and release not unlike sitting on a white sand Caribbean beach, the turquoise water beckoning.
How’s that possible? The experiences would seem to have nothing in common. I gave it some thought as I caught my breath and made sure that some hotshot fourteen-year-old snowboarder didn’t run me over before I got to the bottom of the mountain.
I think the connection is that both experiences are all-inclusive. At its best you bond with your environment. Body, mind and nature become one. Don’t get me wrong. It didn’t happen a lot; I still contend that the best part of skiing is removing your boots at the end of the day. But just enough that it left me thinking that I might one day soon, though not too soon, go skiing again.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
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