Live. Ski. (Or try.)
Can a 53-year-old “ski virgin” actually learn the ropes of the state’s official sport in a single day?
By Rick Broussard
Ask anyone in New Hampshire if he or she is a skier and you’ll usually get a pretty definitive “yes” or “no.” Oh, there are always a few who will say they skied when they were young. This is just a wistful “no.” Skiers know who they are and so does everyone else. They are the ones wearing the bright parkas on Sunday morning, when everyone is either in PJs or church clothes. They are the ones with the lift tickets hanging from every zipper. To see them at Bagel Works, travel mugs in hand, chatting about “conditions” you could imagine them having a secret handshake.
I have secretly envied the members of the skiers club ever since I first moved to New Hampshire. Growing up in Florida, my friends and I would sometimes find an old plastic lid and try to ski or sled down sand dunes on the beach. So when this magazine decided to do a story on whether it’s possible to join the skiers club in middle age, I quickly volunteered for the assignment.
Irene Donnell at Wildcat Mountain invited me up to try out their scenic alpine slopes and to get a private lesson from veteran ski instructor Phil Ostroski, so I asked the first question that comes to mind when going to visit an unfamiliar culture: “What should I wear?” Irene pondered this for a moment and proposed that she get in touch with some friends at Eastern Mountain Sports, a world-class supplier of outdoor gear which happens to be based right here in the Granite State. With great dispatch, they had me suited up in luxurious layers. Folks at Concord’s Ft. Eddy Plaza EMS were friendly and helpful. When I donned the suit I felt stylish, though I had still not figured out the purpose of even half of the Velcro whatsits and pull cords and zippers that festooned my new snow pants and EMS Expedition Gore-Tex jacket.
On the morning of my ski trip, the weather in Concord was cool and dry. The little snow we had accumulated had long before melted, but the drive north revealed one of the mysteries of ski country. The barren roadside turned into fluffy snowbanks about half way to Wildcat and fresh snow began to swirl in the road ahead. I felt a tinge of the excitement that a skier must feel when a fresh blanket of white falls in the back yard.
I arrived at Wildcat’s Bobcat lodge by about 10 a.m. and joined a line of skiers heading to the door. I felt a bit like a spy in my disguise, but the lodge was big and rustic, obviously designed for use, and for fun — not at all the intimidating “club” environment I’d feared.
I quickly grew accustomed to hearing the Frankenstein clomp of ski boots on wooden floors. It took a little longer to accustom myself to having my feet bound in the contraptions, but with the help of Jeremiah, the bearded guardian of the Wildcat rental department, I was soon good to go. Jeremiah critiqued my choice of cotton ribbed socks — ribs or anything between the boots and feet will tend to leave an impression on the skin. He also said wool is better and “smart” wool (whatever that is) is best. The bindings on my Rossignol skis were programmed for my height, weight, age, experience and sense of humor, and suddenly there was no turning back. I was dressed, prepped and equipped.
Finally out on the practice slope, Phil eyed me up and down like a big project. He asked a few questions about my experience with outdoor sports. Satisfied that my mind was a blank sheet of paper, he began to etch the rules of the slopes onto my brain cells and nerves. The process of doing this consisted of having me climb up and slide down the practice slope a few dozen times. Each side-stepping climb taught my feet how to keep parallel skis and read the incline, how to tilt my skis to obtain traction. Each glide down the hill taught me how to maintain the classic wedge position that all beginners must master to control the speed of descent. Each fall taught me how to get back up and reattach my skis, which apparently were set to pop off at the first sign of distress. I quickly mastered climbing up the hill and became a pro at getting up after falling. The only part that seemed to evade my middle-aged mind and body was the actual skiing.
Phil explained in wizened tones that the only way to proficiency is through something called “mileage.” He pointed at my head. “What I’m telling you is going in here,” he said. He made a gesture about shoulder height. “That knowledge has made it down about this far. To get it to your feet takes mileage.”
Nonetheless, Phil deemed me ready to tackle the Snowcat, a quarter-mile beginner’s slope. I was helped onto the lift, kept my ski tips up as we arrived at the peak, stood and allowed the lift chair to start me moving, skied about six feet and fell down. This process would repeat (minus the ski chair nudge) the whole way down the slope. Phil seemed undaunted and we broke for lunch.
To be honest, at this point, with soreness creeping into every extremity, I contemplated arranging an “emergency” call from home that would spare me the ignominy of another trip up (and back down) Snowcat slope, but Phil seemed confident that I could obtain my one stated objective: to master the basics well enough that I could come back, unassisted, and practice on my own. Even that modest plateau now felt a bit ambitious and Phil’s primary goal seemed to be to ensure I made it home in one piece. Still, his confidence gave me the incentive to try again.
After lunch, somehow the lessons had sunk in. I was still falling, but I seldom lost my skis, and getting back up was just a step on the way to getting back into my wedge for another plow down the slope. Control came in fleeting moments. I realized, like flying a kite or bending a note on a harmonica, there are some techniques that can’t be explained; you just need help to keep trying as you discover the tricks for yourself. Phil was my patient guide and, as he said, mileage was my teacher.
Soon the evening approached, the lifts were closing and there was only the last stretch back to the lodge before I could release my feet and rest my sore muscles. Phil said to take off my skis and meet him inside as he went to retrieve my ski poles. It was about 100 feet to the bridge, a nice even slope with no hazards or kids about. As Phil departed, instead of popping off my skis I pushed forward, assumed my wedge and bent my knees just right. The snow turned to butter beneath me and I felt myself glide. The white world seemed to open up and let me in. I skied, actually skied, for the first time, controlling my speed and even making a little turn to stop at the bridge. I looked to see if Phil had noticed but he hadn’t. No matter. I saw it. I felt it. I had joined the club. NH
Former ski-virgin Rick Broussard is editor of New Hampshire Magazine
Phil Ostroski, director Wildcat Tracks Training Center, Wildcat Mountain, Rte. 16, Pinkham Notch, (603) 466-3326, www.skiwildcat.com Wildcat’s First Track Pass Program for beginning skiers includes four lessons and a full season pass.
Eastern Mountain Sports has nine New Hampshire locations. The Concord store is at 68 Fort Eddy Rd., (603) 224-8781, www.ems.com.