Three hours into my second day of skiing I already needed a break. It was a powder day, but here in the Pacific Northwest “powder” is still heavy, requiring effort to get back up if you go down. I had already required several extractions that morning: double ejection face-plants necessitating climbing uphill to search for buried skis. Invisible branches hid under the light snow and grabbed hold of my ski’s, pulling one or both into the deep with me attached – and pretzel twisted. I was exhausted and headed to the lodge for a snack.
I was enthralled by a group of girls that stopped to chat next to my table while I sat in the lodge waiting while Neil skied a few runs without me, They were everything I’d once wanted to be. Athletic, beautiful,carefree, they had all the gear that implied they knew what they were doing. Avalanche transceivers strapped to their chests, they carried backpacks filled with shovels, probes and other gear for backcountry safety. They were talking animatedly about the pure lines they’d skied in the backcountry and I knew they had the latest, fattest skis waiting for them outside. I was consumed with envy. 6 years ago I’d dreamed of becoming a backcountry diva, complete with helicopter trips and a place on ski patrol. I’d imagined skiing with grace and style, easily hiking to the best lines, never fearing an entrance, hucking (small) cliffs to the cheers of friends with no worries about injuries. Back then I saw myself full of effortless strength and bubbling enthusiasm. But years later here I sat, exhausted.
It didn’t matter that they were twenty years younger than I. Or that they had, in all likelihood already been skiing for more years than I had. That they had not had children, knee and shoulder surgeries, or cancer didn’t change the tightening in my gut, the deep sigh that rose from my core. All I could see was what I would never be – the youth and opportunity that had slipped away.
Cancer treatments left me with nerve damage that eventually blossomed into fibromyalgia – full-blown pain that makes it hard to walk some day. I rarely feel inspired to go running like I used to or enthusiastically seek out tight tree lines in ski season. I lost reckless abandon in the face of not knowing how my body would respond to what I wanted to do. Even feeling good, I still have to judge if the pain I might be in the next day is worth the activity level. I don’t recover well, I don’t have endurance. The price of my relative health was the enthusiastic, competitive person I was. Already having fought for my life, I’ve since lost the thrill of riding the edge of danger, the desire to push myself to see how far I could physically go. Knowing what constant pain is like, I shy away from the possibility of adding more. Most of the time, I am really okay with not working as hard, not trying to prove anything to myself or anyone else. But, I’d be lying to say there aren’t days of regret.
A few ski days later, I rode the chair with some old ladies who had come up on the ski bus. I listened to them talk about starting at age fifty and skiing into their 80’s; how they thought these new skis were harder than their old straight skis. They admitted they didn’t ski hard, that they didn’t take chances, and were afraid of falling and getting hurt. But there they were, sharing the chair with me, brilliant blue sky overhead; their love of the snow, the smell of the pitch in the trees and that thrill of turning skis down the slope every bit equal to mine. I wondered what they thought about me, my fat skis and apparent youth in my bright-colored outfit. Did they regret what they could no longer do?
Disembarking the chair, I skied the run with attention to style and technique, delighting in the scratchy swoosh of the icy snow, the vvoot, vvoot sound of corduroy under my newly waxed skis. On groomers, I ski faster than most people; the predictability of the terrain allows me to “shop” my turns, the long sight lines increase my confidence. It is easier for me to stay balanced, to keep my mind where it ought to be instead of worrying about if I can do it. Slower, quick turns are just as fun as long swooping speed turns, and I can work on technique instead of puzzling out how to be safe. I can feel my strength there and I love every second.
I rode the next chair with a ski bro’. Sun Valley tan, too long shaggy hair, aviator sunglasses instead of goggles, all the right gear including the backpack brimming with backcountry equipment. I waited for the conversation to begin as the chair headed up the hill, knowing the ‘bro banter was about to start. “Sweet day, huh? I’ve had some epic lines today, how ’bout you?” He appeared to be all I didn’t want to be – probably a great skier, but a store-bought attitude, cultivated to sound younger, hipper, and more stoned than he probably was. As the chair lifted over the rise, I made appreciative agreeing sounds, when he suddenly switched gears, pointing uphill. “You know, I almost died up there.” He only partly had my attention – up there was in the cliffs and was exactly where I would have expected him to claim to be. And, claims of “almost dying” was part of bro show. “Yeah?” I replied without much enthusiasm.
“Yeah, back in the days when I was on ski patrol. I was up there trying to do a rescue and I fell. Shattered my leg. They were going to amputate. I said no way, man. They said it would never be any use to me. I said I would hold it together with duct tape and drag it around behind me until I could figure it out. I was on crutches for three years. But look at me now! Doing what I love. Every day I can get up here is awesome, man! Another good day to be alive!” He beamed. Not a sheepishly affected ‘bro smile, but a full on childish grin. I’m sure he wasn’t skiing the way he used to. And I know enough about injury and recovery to know he is familiar with pain and the heart-wrenching loss of what used to come easy. But his enthusiasm was genuine, and he was right – any time on the mountain is good time.
When Neil joined me for a run, we headed off to terrain I simply wasn’t feeling. Hard, volkswagon-sized moguls wanted to direct my turns, the steep pitch causing images of my ejected gear racing my limp body to the bottom, flashed before my eyes. I was side-slipping and hip-checking away when Neil gently suggested I cross over to terrain I liked better. Years ago, this would have enraged me. How dare him insinuate I couldn’t do it! This was exactly where I wanted to be – I wanted to be the backcountry girl – I had to be able to ski anything ! Lacking any skill, I would have continued making my way clumsily downhill, with him skiing slowly behind to pick up the pieces. After all – I wanted to be those girls! They could do this and I could too!
But today, I looked at the smooth expanse of steep and fast groomer terrain just a trail away. This run wasn’t my thing today – maybe another day, but not now. I scooted off to find what I would enjoy most instead of fighting my way through what I used to want. Any day on the mountain was a good day.