Happy New Year! I did not set out to write an advice post, but learning how to ski over the course of the last year has had a profound impact on my general outlook on life, as well as how I view the outdoors and winter recreation. Here are some things that I learned along the way. Kirsten   

It took me 31 years to finally learn how to ski. Aside from one trip to the ice glazed hills of Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands with my high school ski club, I had gone through life as a non-participant in this winter past time.  My hometown of Pittsburgh may not be as prolific a breeding ground for future shredders as say, Tahoe, but it did have the essential ingredients of hills and snow in spades, so the necessary environmental conditions for skiing to occur were present throughout my formative years.  But at some point fairly early on, I accepted that skiing was just not something that I did.  It was too expensive, hurtling oneself rapidly downhill while attached to wooden planks was scary, broken bones were certain to happen, my family and most of my close friends did not ski and perhaps most critically, I didn’t know how. Thus not being a skier became part of how I self-identified, despite trips to visit friends in Big Sky and beyond where the opportunity to learn was present.

I spent the 2012-2013 winter in Breckenridge, CO and still did not try to learn to ski, though I did take up ice climbing, which is arguably as expensive as skiing, while being more dangerous and somewhat less pleasant. (A new set of ice axes, boots and crampons will run one over $1,000, accessing most ice lines entails traveling through or below avalanche terrain and screaming barfies are largely accepted as being the worst.)  But during that snowy Colorado winter, as I watched friends return, rosy-cheeked and radiating happiness after dawn patrol sessions on the mountain, an internal interest was peaked. It seemed as though the act of skiing was directly correlated with experiencing joy.  But alas, an inner voice whispered, you shall forever be excluded from the joy-experiencing world of skiing, because you are 28 and you don’t know how. If you try, you shall look as awkward as a baby deer trying to learn to walk and inevitably attract predators due to innate and obvious weaknesses. And isn’t learning to ski something that children do, before they learn fear and their bones take longer to heal?  Yes, I concluded, certainly 28 was too old to learn this complicated knew trick. So I climbed ice instead and wallowed through deep snow with inadequate flotation.

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Leading the first pitch of Ames Ice Hose when it was super fat in January 2015.  Still not a skier. Photo credit to Nathaniel Harrison.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2015.  Despite my decades-long resistance effort, I found myself at Mt. Baker Ski Area in Washington, clad in poorly fitting rental boots and short skis, holding on to the rubber tow handle that drags one up the bunny hill during beginner group lessons. The average age on the hill was probably six and I and my fellow newbie Natasha were certainly on the upper end of the age spectrum, though our motivation was as high as that of our fellow waist-high beginners.  What caused the change in my openness to learning? It was a culmination of things, really, coupled with good timing. I had fallen hard for a man that loved and lived for skiing and patiently encouraged my interest in this new sport. I was tired of snowshoeing on winter climb approaches. And in Natasha, I had found the perfectly positive person to enter the world of powder with, an equally green yet equally determined adult companion that had come to skiing a little late in the game. Together, we would fall getting off of chair lifts, fumble with gear and hesitantly navigate the steep and treacherous terrain of Chair 2 at Mt. Baker.  If our pizza turns and frequent tumbles more closely resembled Bambi stepping onto ice than the athletic powder hounds that we knew to dwell within, so be it. We were all in.

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First weekend skiing at Mt. Baker. It was glorious.

A little more than one year later, Rémy and I are spending most of our winter in Moby as ski bums chasing powder. We closed out 2016 with a quick lap on Mt. Glory off of Teton Pass, then promptly drove five hours to meet a friend in Park City, Utah and opened the first day of 2017 with a wonderful, bluebird tour through the Wasatch off of Big Cottonwood Canyon.  My form is a work in progress, steep slopes and trees give me pause, I still haven’t figured out the correct boot setting and I have been known to put the occasional skin on backwards, but spending time outside with friends while learning to slide around on two planks has been one of the most joyful and rewarding experiences of my life.  I view winter differently now and snow holds a magical quality of which I’ve never been aware. The silence of turns through fresh powder, punctuated by whoops of joy, is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.

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Getting fresh tracks in the Wasatch. Photo credit for this and featured image to Tim Barber.

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Look how happy! Proof that skiing (or split boarding) = joy

Learning to ski was just one facet of an entire year that offered endless opportunities to be a beginner.  I spent most of the past twelve months trying to learn a variety of skills that do not come naturally to me, from sewing to welding to being a compassionate and patient partner, to learning French to having the self-discipline to work remotely while on the road.  I fully acknowledge my tremendous privilege in being able to take the time to develop competency in these disciplines and focus on aspects of my character that need improvement.  But it can also be a little demoralizing to repeatedly not ‘get’ something, or obviously be the least skilled at something in a group of peers, especially when attempting several new things simultaneously. To ward off the mental pitfalls that inevitable early failures and mistakes tend to breed, I tried to focus on maintaining a ‘beginner’s mindset’; accepting mistakes and actually relishing in little failures as a type of progress as opposed to indicators of long term aptitude while simultaneously continuing to do the work to create the desired outcome.  In short, I strove to keep the optimistic outlook that children tend to have when attempting something new.

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One of us is stoked about the steep bowl below. One of us is equal parts stoked and nervous. Photo credit to Tim Barber.

Admittedly, keeping this beginner’s mental outlook requires constant effort (for me anyway…I’m not an intrinsically zen person) and it sometimes slips away. Most recently this happened less than week ago, when I fell most of the way down a skied out tree run at Jackson Hole. After several painful tumbles and an alder-induced face lashing, I was pretty close to bemoaning my decision to ski that day. But part of that beginner’s mindset is to accept wherever you are and recognize your progress, no matter how non-linear it may be.  According to this reasoning, my inglorious slide down the hill was a success because a year ago, I would have never chosen an un-groomed black run as my first of the day, or at all, nor even fathomed that skiing Jackson’s tram was within my ability or a possibility.  So instead of taking off my skis and crying, which is what 67.5% of me wanted to do, I wiped the blood off of my face and skied down to my afternoon lesson, this time in an advanced group to work on mogul skiing.  Yay progress!

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Another one from our Wasatch tour.  Despite the water splotches, I love this photo. Credit to Tim Barber.

For many, the dawn of a new year presents the opportunity to start afresh, to try and adopt new practices or learn new skills. Here are some of the tips that I’ve found helpful after a year spent as a constant beginner.

1.) Recognize when you are creating excuses. Then stop it.  For many of us, our internal voice is our own worst enemy.  Find a way to silence it and turn on your autopilot, which is pretty good at getting you out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other.

2.) Do not fear failure or foolishness. Adults often do, but children initially don’t. Like Adam and Eve feeling all bashful once they ate the apple of enlightenment or however the story goes, embarrassment is a learned behavior.  Instead of fearing embarrassment, try to reset your mind to embrace childlike wonder and excitement when confronted with ‘the new.’

3.) Surround yourself with a community that supports your goals.  Learning to ski was fun because of the people that I learned with; their enthusiasm and positive attitudes were infectious.   Special thanks to all of the ladies who I skied with – you know who you are.

4.) Progress is not linear.  Credit to my former roommate Ashley Feerer for this insight. Everyone experiences high gravity days at the gym or crag. It won’t be that way forever.

5.) Celebrate your milestones. Going back to recognizing that ‘progress is not linear’, if you pause to reflect on your milestone achievements, you’ll likely find that your path is trending in the desired direction, even if the line graph zig zags a good bit.

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Celebrating a milestone! First time down the Hobacks and a decade of friendship with the incredible Heather Unruh. Commemorated with cocktails at the Four Seasons, of course.

6.) Seek professional instruction and keep learning. Sometimes, your peers or significant others are not the best people to learn from. Education is an excellent tool for building self confidence and forming your own good habits. The money invested in two ski lessons and a recently completed AIARE 1 course with Backcountry Babes (ironically, in Breckenridge) has been well worth it.

Whatever your 2017 resolution may be, I hope you go get it! It’s dumping in Utah so we are off to Alta & Snowbird.

 

 

 

 

5 thoughts on “On Being a Beginner & the Joy of Skiing

  1. Thank you for this inspiring post. I learned to ski at 31 and cannot fathom doing what you have accomplished with the black diamonds. I’m still a green skier and still humbled by the mountains. It’s one thing in my life that refuses to yield to becoming easier the more times I do it…which means I am somewhat obsessed with breaking down why this skill does not come to me. I could learn to play the guitar or learn a new language with even a little effort. But skiing is not that. Thanks for writing a great article!

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    • Hi Vibhu, Thanks so much for reading! It means a lot to me that this post resonated with or inspired people. Do you have ski pals? Having a friend with a similar skill base and ambition was the single biggest factor in my improvement. We held each other accountable and pushed each other in ways that were challenging but still fun. I also worked on my mountain biking a lot this past summer and fall to get more comfortable with going downhill at speed. I like to think that some of it transferred. I’m still terrified of skiing trees and am working on looking at my path through them instead of at the tree. Good luck! I believe that you’ll get there! KG

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