On learning to like falling

Chris Hewitt/Staff

This spring break, while many UC Berkeley students were venturing away to warm and balmy places, or just lounging in the warm and balmy wonderfulness of Berkeley, I flew like a bird against the seasons up into the cold, wintery regions of Seattle, where I learned how to ski (more or less) over three days. If you’ve never gone skiing, I hope you will consider giving it a try. And please do learn from my mistakes.

Day 1

It’s cold. Very cold. Having grown up in San Diego, California, anything below 60 degrees feels thoroughly unnatural and cruel. Trying on ski boots for the first time: also unnatural and cruel. The rentals guy who’s helping me makes a lackluster joke about how ski boots violate the Geneva Conventions. I’m quickly realizing that ski bros and surf bros are two sides of the same coin. The rentals guy reminds me of Crush from “Finding Nemo.” I’m counting down the minutes until I can go outside.

The first lesson is very low-key. The surf-bro-ski-bro instructor says the word “edge” what seems like more than 30 times. For example (as close to verbatim as memory permits): “You gotta ride that edge, you guys. Feel like you’re slippin’? Just lean forward and get back on that edge. You feelin’ it? Feel that edge?” Yeah, man. I’m feeling something.

We start by using only one ski, pushing with the non-ski boot. The experience is very similar to riding a skateboard. Turning is harder. The snow where we’re warming up is more ice than snow. Falling here hurts. The little girl in the group seems to be taking the pain better than I am. I tell myself that this is only because I’m falling from higher up.

The group is me, a mom, her daughter (mentioned above) and a random middle-aged guy. None of us have skied before, supposedly. The four of us are quite the uncoordinated little hodgepodge family. I wonder what the instructor’s eyes would look like if he weren’t wearing ski goggles.

Things get much easier when we move to two skies, but the instructor is making us “duck walk” up the little mini-hill every time we ride down to the bottom. There’s no chairlift for brand-new beginners. I’m sweating freely beneath four layers of clothes. The little girl wants to take off her gloves. The instructor consents. I ask to take off my coat. He looks at me as if to say, “You should’ve planned ahead, son.” Within minutes I’ve fallen again, and there’s snow in my underwear. Mistakes, mistakes.

After lunch I ride the “Magic Carpet,” a conveyer belt type thing that takes you up to the top of this little bunny slope covered in ice and children’s tears. I fly down the hill at breakneck speed, having made not even the slightest attempt to learn how to control my speed, in true Ricky Bobby style. Parents look on in horror and abject fear as I (all 6 feet and 7 inches of me) hurtle past their children, dangerously close, and toward their expensive automobiles parked in the lot just down the hill. I struggle to stop, with no more braking power than Fred Flintstone. It’s not a pretty sight. I’m told to try the bigger hill, with a bonafide ski lift, on for size. I take this as a testament to my impressively budding skiing prowess. In retrospect, it surely had more to do with insurance liabilities.

The new, bigger hill is quite a challenge. Lesson learned: Skiing without knowing how to slow down invariably results in falling — hard. Or less hard, but hard nonetheless. Light powder is like falling on a frozen memory foam mattress, and snow gets in your underwear if you fall at the wrong angle. Falling on ice hurts – period. But so it goes.

learning to ski

Courtesy/Liz Blackburn

Day 2

Sleep has done little to refresh my inexplicably exhausted muscles. Everything hurts. The kind family I’m staying with provides me with hot milky tea and Aleve. A fried egg sandwich distracts me from what feels like the jutting iceberg tip of a timeless ache. Everyone else I’m staying with has already skied before. They don’t feel these beginner’s pains. The painkillers are starting to kick in, but I play up the soreness a little and receive a second egg sandwich for my woes.

Before long, we’re back on the slopes. Everything is magically easier today, like I somehow got in hours of practice during my sleep. I’m finally learning how to control my speed (turning uphill, duh!), and I’m falling way less often.

With another day, another lesson. The guy today is way less surfer bro-y, and I actually really enjoy talking to him on the lift. Turns out he’s travelled all over the world, has four kids and is incredibly adept at skiing backward. By the end of the lesson I’m able to make it all the way down the hill without falling, which I don’t think I would have believed would be possible just a day earlier. My feet hurt, but I don’t care.

Day 3

This is the victory lap. Just for fun I try going off some ski jumps. I fall, but it’s exhilarating. By the time the day is done, I feel that I’ve finally participated in an essential part of the human experience that I’d never tried before. I’m a step higher up on the Maslow Pyramid. My muscles are more sore than I ever thought possible and in places that I never knew existed. Still, worth it. One hundred percent would do it again.

Contact Chris Hewitt at [email protected].