Lump in the throat, tightness in the chest, and numbness in the hands return unbidden. During quiet moments, I am on that lift going up and up to a destination that I cannot see over a near-vertical hill of moguls and trees. My six-year-old, who I have never seen ski, is next to me, and my husband is trying to reassure me that on my second day of skiing in my life, I would not have to ski down “that black diamond trail.” Panic. Fear. I still feel it even though this happened two days ago.
I am writing for myself so that I can learn and move on. I am sharing just in case someone might relate.
I took a family “ski vacation” and skied for the first time in my life this past weekend. On the first morning, I took a “first-timer” lesson. That was fun, and I felt pleased that I was able to pick up the basics easily. Maybe, I told my husband, it’s a good thing that my original request for a full day of group lessons on Day 1 followed by a morning group lesson on Day 2 could not be accommodated. Maybe that one morning would be enough for me to get going on the beginner hill. I recorded mixed feelings in my journal after the first day.
Day 2 started okay. I practiced on the beginner hill and became somewhat more comfortable with getting on and off the lift. I still felt, though, that if I let my mind drift, I would pick up more speed than I wanted. I talked myself through turning back and forth. I do not know much ski lingo, so I made up my own cues. “Breathe. Right turn. Skis down. Left edge hard. Go across. Breathe. Left turn. . . .” At the bottom each time I would feel a little shaky and amazed that I had not fallen. After a few runs, I told my husband that I would return to the cafe so that I would be sure to have enough energy for the afternoon with the kids.
I had just enough mental and physical energy to spare for an hour or two of skiing down the same easy hill as part of a two-family group of eight when the unexpected started happening. My younger daughter’s skis were not where they should have been because her instructor had mistakenly assumed that she would take an afternoon lesson. Either he was not clear about where they were or I misunderstood, but in any case, we spent a significant amount of time searching for them. We eventually connected with the skis in a location to the far right of the beginner area, and at around the same time, we found one of our friends with her younger daughter. This friend got lift passes for both girls, and then we all headed for the lifts.
I followed my husband and daughter. I did not want to be left behind. I was surprised that the chair was for four people, because the other lifts had been for two, but I was happy that I would be able to join them. We got on, and immediately I noticed that something was wrong.
“Where is this going?” The edge in my voice foreshadowed the panic to come.
On the beginner hills, I could see the top of the lifts. I knew where to get off and how far I would have to ski to get down. I could not see the top of this lift.
I could see trees. I could see a near-vertical hill. I could see bumps in the snow and someone flying down.
I have tried to draw the image that is still in my head without success. One of several attempts:
On a map, the difference between where I had practiced and where I found myself going is shown here in red (lesson location) + yellow (beginner hill lifts) versus orange (“lift to somewhere high”).
To compress the rest of the story, I proceeded to feel waves of total fear and panic. Sometimes I could control my breathing, sometimes I couldn’t. Sometimes I could make myself ski, sometimes I had to take the skis off and walk. My husband tried to help, but my fear was made worse by the presence of my daughter, and I wanted him to focus on her so that at least I would know that she was okay. When we finally saw the sign for the beginner hill, I felt tremendous relief — until I saw that there was one last steep bit that had to be skied down first. I could not do it. My nervous system felt shot. When I finally convinced myself that I had “no choice” and started down, I fell almost immediately. I did not want to get back up. I started inching down the hill on my bottom with my skis on, but that was painful and unbearably slow. Fear of skiing at this point outweighed concerns about my skis and poles sliding downhill, so I took them off, put them sideways in my arms. and used my heels to pull myself down while my butt made a path in the snow. I remember thinking, “I don’t care how this looks.” Totally exhausted, I told my husband that I could not rejoin the group; I would head for the cafe and meet everyone at the bus. Even though at this point I was back on the beginner hill, I could no longer ski like I had in the morning. In a nonstop snowplough position, I made it to the cafe, figured out that I had no time for a drink, and so headed straight for the bus.
I could not stop the tears from coming, so I kept my goggles on until I got to my room. Telling myself that it was over did not help. I kept reliving the feelings of total fear. Answering innocent questions from children about why I cried or why I felt afraid put me back into the experience. My children want to know if I am okay and if I will ever want to ski again. I don’t know.
More than anything else, I want to be able to be honest with myself and others and to be able to say, without feeling guilty, that maybe I am not motivated to try again. If skiing is not fun for me, then I would be taking lessons and trying to get better for the sake of others. That’s noble, perhaps, and I’ve tried that route with many things in my life in the past, but maybe it is time to say that I like summer mountains better; that the investment of time and money that it would take to get better is something that I would rather use elsewhere; that I can find my own way to join “a ski trip” without skiing and without worrying about letting anyone down.