“First toe, then heel.”
The neon green rental skis lay before me, perpendicular to the mountain. Snow had started to fall, and perfect white flakes were landing on them, illuminating each scratch and dent from inexperienced skiers who wore them before me.
I looked up to my instructor, a tall, slender man named Gunther with reflective sunglasses on. In them I could see myself bent into awkward right angles. I straightened my shoulders, and looked back to the skis. They looked more like big green boats, and I hate the ocean.
It was barely 20 degrees outside, but underneath my brand new ski coat, North Face fleece, and base layer, sweat was gathering at the small of my back. I pulled my goggles over my eyes with mitten-covered hands. My peripheral vision was limited because of the gigantic piece of plastic and foam on my face, and my range of motion was restricted because of all the layers. I pulled down the fleece neck warmer for a dose of oxygen, inhaled the icy air, and returned it to its position over my mouth. After that, I focused on the skis or, more specifically, the scratches on the skis.
Why did I let my husband talk me into this?
“Toe then heel,” Gunther repeated. “Downhill ski first.” His German accent was thick, reminding me of my mother-in-law.
Kids less than half my size zoomed around me, first to my front, then to my back. They traversed the mountain easily, back and forth, keeping their skis in a wedge shape. Each of them safely stopped at the bottom, not far from me and Gunther.
Toe. Then heel.
Balancing on my left foot, I picked up my right foot like I was told. The boot weighed at least five pounds. It took some navigating, but after several tries I got the toe of my boot lined up with the binding. I stepped down hard, and heard a click.
“Das ist gut!” he said. “Now your left foot. Dig the edge of your right ski in. Balance. Use your poles for support, right? Toe, then heel.”
I tightened my grip on the ski poles and tried to dig them into the snow. One pole slipped on a patch of ice, and I lost my footing. I fell forward, but my ski instructor caught me by the arm.
“Again,” he said, righting my shoulders. “Das ist easy. Don’t think too much. Just do.”
“Okay,” I said, “just do.” I found my center on my right ski and dug the edge against the mountain. I pressed my left boot in and it clicked. “Yay!” I squealed.
“Cool, right?” Gunther asked. The wrinkles on his face became more pronounced as his mouth stretched into a wide grin. He appeared to be having fun with my lack of experience.
“Yes,” I said. “Very cool.”
“Now, we ski.”
* * * * *
I fell eleven times on the bunny slope during that lesson, crossing my tips, turning too fast, or catching the edge of my green boats on ice. Each time, Gunther pulled by the arm to a standing position and told me to try again.
By the end of my lesson, the weight of the thick fabric against my skin felt like I had dumbbells hanging from my shoulders. Air was getting stuck somewhere in the top half of my lungs, never giving me a full breath. Sweat had pooled inside my mittens. And the muscles in the back of my legs were quivering, but I listened to him. I got back up and kept trying.
This is my fifth year on skis. I don’t use rentals anymore. Instead, I have my own. They are purple and black with silver sparkles. When I strap them on, they are an extension of me. I know exactly how well my edge will catch against the ice, and how quickly I can turn. After lessons with two other instructors and hundreds of runs down the slope, Gunther’s words are the only ones that echo in my head, guiding me down the mountain, and picking me back up when I fall.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash.