Friday, January 29, 2010

Big first day

Before I came to Banff, I'm not sure I was completely forthcoming about just how little experience I had on skis. That back when I was a snowboarding teenager, two or three times I traded gear with a skier friend for a single run, just for giggles (at each other's expense, of course.) That in 2006, I dabbled in cross-country skiing but had pretty much given it up because I spent more time on my butt and face than I did on my feet. No, when Keith asked me what my level of skiing was, I told him "beginner." I should have said "essentially a first-time beginner whose handful of ski outings only served to convince me that I was incapable of the activity."

Today, we hit Sunshine ski resort first thing in the morning. I was a complete stress case up the first lift of the day, trying to swallow an urge to hyperventilate as Keith calmly explained what we needed to do at the top of the hill. But as I coasted off the lift, much to my amazement, I didn't fall. And to my further amazement, the skis turned when I told them to. I guess it makes sense - skis are just like big extensions of feet. And when I started to think that way, flow just started to happen.

We made four runs on the lift and Keith was a fantastically enthusiastic teacher. He kept yelling out, "I didn't even tell you to do that! And you just did it!" I kept the wedge but started to make tighter turns as the day progressed. I was completely surprised that the skis were allowing me the simple pleasure of surviving down a hill. I've never been anything but a flailing mess on cross-country skis. I'm just not sure what changed. Maybe it's fat skis. Maybe it's edges. Maybe I just wanted it this time. By our fourth run, Keith took me up the intermediate lift, and I was started to forget I was even on skis, with the movement and flow evoking the feeling of being on my board, until I lapsed into a mindset that I was on a board ... which usually resulted in a few seconds of confused terror as I approached a horizon line and tried to lean onto my "back edge" (yeah, leaning back on skis ... not a good idea.)

But the four runs more than served their purpose, so it was time to go touring. We hopped the boundary line, put on skins, and delved into a part of skiing I could really get into: ski walking ... which peacefully carries skiers into beautiful and quiet places.

Here I am skinning toward some fantastically beautiful place. I should note that all of these pictures were taken by Keith, who took my camera because he wanted to document my "first time touring." I really should have just clarified the documentation as my "first time skiing," because it essentially was.

We skinned for about two hours along a ridgeline of the Continental Divide (crossing from Alberta into British Columbia), did a few turns in the powder (resulting in two serious entanglements on my part. That's one advantage of snowboarding over skiing. One piece of gear and it's difficult to get tangled in it.) We took an hour to skin back, floating over the knee-deep postholes left by boot-packing snowboarders (yeah, a skier advantage, for sure.) Then we did a few more lift-served runs. We finally ducked into the lodge at about 4 to sip coffee, dry our skins by the fire, meet up with Leslie and Stuart, and eat pizza and sweet potato fries for dinner.

By 6:30 we were back up on the hill for a "moonlight tour." We skinned up a pitch so steep I'm pretty sure it would have caused my well-worn snowshoes to slide backwards, but the skins held it together, to my amazement. We walked to the top of the lift and the scooted into the backcountry again, working our way though a thin layer of powder up yet another ridgeline. Because I had a mental image of the steep terrain we skinned up, combined with the darkness and weird depth perception, I started fight back an increasingly strong surge of fear. It almost overpowered me near the top (you know, mild panic episode.) But as soon as we started down, the fear just melted away. In the full moon light, the landscape glowed silver and blue. My friends' ski tracks carved dark shadows into a blank slate of snow, and I followed their turns like a child tracing a curving line - not perfect by any means; not even pretty. But the flow was there, and with it I found peace and satisfaction.

We returned at about 8:30, after a 12-hour day that included more than nine hours of downhill skiing and ski touring, all of it new to my brain and muscles, full of the stress and tension and fear of a novice. I'm deeply tired. My knees are sore. My hip flexors feel like a rubber band caught in a stretched-out position.

And I can understand why people love skiing.