Saturday, March 23, 2013

Learning to Ski for Free

In early February, Carson and I had the opportunity of a lifetime - an all-expenses paid trip to Aspen, Colorado. For nine days we lived like the rich and famous. I write for a company that operates ski tours, and we went as hosts for a large (500+) group. Basically we helped check them in on the first day and then helped throw parties after that. We stayed with another couple who were there as hosts plus the owner of the company in a three bedroom condo that was literally on the slope of Snowmass mountain (the ski area of Aspen has four mountains). It was a little strange having people ski past our windows, but totally luxurious - we all had our own bathrooms for heaven's sake!

A rare sight - Carson on public transportation! (Riding
BART from Meagan's place in Oakland to SFO).
I took terrible photos of our condo, but you can see
some skiers outside the window here.
We stayed at Snowmass, one of Aspen's four mountains. Colorado is GORGEOUS, y'all! Though I was surprised there wasn't more snow. I guess there was less than average, but I still expected all the hills to be covered.
Snowmass base village
We were invited on the trip because I didn't know how to ski, and the owner decided I could write more fluently about the ski world if I had participated in it. So on our second day there, Carson and I got outfitted with rentals and rode the gondola to the beginner area of the mountain. He hit the slopes with his snowboard (my one strict rule was that we NOT INTERACT while I was skiing, knowing that boyfriends and learning a frustrating sport are not a good match), and I signed up for my first lesson.

The gondola ride to my first lesson (do I look scared?)

I wasn't particularly excited about skiing, and the first day was rough. It went considerably better once the group split into two and I got the non-condescending teacher, but I still fell down a lot and got frustrated and hated wearing the equipment and was too tired to finish out the day (a five hour lesson, holy hell!) so I stopped about 30 minutes shy of the full day and retreated to the condo to soak in the hot tub.

The next day I woke up not nearly as sore as I expected (knowing it would hit me the day after). We took a break from the mountain and headed into the town of Aspen to poke around before the Superbowl party we were helping to throw. Unlike Vail, Aspen was a town before it was a ski town, so it has a lot of personality (I didn't get any good pictures that demonstrate this, though). Unfortunately a lot of the stores were closed on Sunday, including the thrift store I wanted to check out, but we ate a good lunch at a local spot called Little Annie's. The public transportation around Aspen is incredible - free buses all over the place! That night the Superbowl party was a blast, and the game itself even turned around in the second half with San Francisco making it a less embarrassing loss to Baltimore. 

On Monday I woke up sore (as expected) and actually fell back onto the bed the first time I tried to use my legs. It took a lot of coercing on Carson's part to get met out of bed, let alone to my second lesson (which I was pretty much refusing to attend at first). But I would have felt like a schmuck passing up a free lesson on a trip that I was invited to strictly to learn to ski, so... I got my ass out of bed, put on my gear (thanks to my awesome family's thoughtful ski-based birthday presents, I fit right in), and rode the gondola to day two.

I was very lucky to get placed in a semi-private group with an incredible instructor and a middle aged Indian couple would could not have been nicer. Day two was actually pretty fun. By the end of the day I was riding the (super slow beginner's) lift with confidence, gaining speed, and turning well enough to complete a mini slalom course made up of pine branches on the ground. When Carson met me for lunch I was in a much better mood than when he'd met me on day one, and I managed to make it through the full five hours.

A happier me during lesson two.
View of the beginner hill about halfway down,
with the lift  to the right and the main building
at the bottom. Not much snow pack.
The next day we took an overnight trip to Beaver Creek and Vail so I could familiarize myself with the area. While Carson snowboarded, I took property tours - eight hours of looking at hotels and condos, some of which went for as much as 10k a night. Yikes. That night we went out for a "fancy" dinner in Vail, my one request being that we blew some money on a nice meal. Vail is like Disneyland - it's lovely, everything is in its place, and it's completely fake. We had dinner at an Italian restaurant called Campo Fiori. Carson's dish was good, but mine was something that the lowliest Italian kitchen in Philadelphia would have been embarrassed to send out - too-thick ravioli in a bowl of oil (this is not an exaggeration - the "sage brown butter" was a half inch of grease). Had I felt more comfortable in my surroundings I would have sent it back immediately, but feeling like a middle class girl out of her element, I ate it. It was an uncomfortable experience that revealed how easily my confidence can be shaken; looking back now, it's a good reminder that I am not only more comfortable in my middle class life, but unspeakably more happy.

After the disappointing meal we went for dessert at the Alpenrose. I'd read about their cheesecake and it certainly delivered. The drunk women at the bar were another reminder of what money can do to your life - they were well outfitted but fairly pathetic, wasted on a Tuesday night and giving off a desperate gold digger vibe. Yuck. I enjoyed my dessert all the more looking at my solid and wonderful country boy, remembering the great life waiting for us at the other end of this trip.

We spent the night at a lovely hotel (comped, so awesome) and drove back the next day (I may always regret passing up the chance to go to the Yampah caves on the way back). They day after that was Thursday, and I was gearing up for a day in my sweat pants on my laptop getting some work done, watching skiers scoot past the windows, and possibly taking a nap. No dice: I was informed that now that my ski lessons were over, it was time to ski on my own. Sigh.

Carson and I rode the shuttle down to the base to get outfitted with more rentals (comped, as well as our lift tickets - a real extravagance that we were really grateful for) and I rode the gondola back up to where I'd skied for two days. I was the first person of the day on the beginner lift (which I guess is something people care about?) and I skied down the hill I'd become familiar with. There hadn't been any new snowfall recently and the groomed trails were icy, but it was a gentle enough slope that I was okay. I decided it was time to rip off the band-aid and try the next easiest beginner's hill. It scared me and I fell at the bottom, which shook my confidence.

Unfortunately, at this point it was time to meet up with the others to help facilitate some races that the various participating ski clubs were having (we were hosting an annual trip attended by west coast ski clubs). For those of you who don't ski, let me tell you something: many ski resort mountains are HUGE, and Snowmass is definitely one of the big ones. Lifts, quads, and gondolas crisscross the mountain from front to back, with a cat's cradle of paths and trails connecting them together. While I tried to figure out how to get where I needed to be, several pieces of misinformation and bad advice resulted in the following series of events in which I:
  1. Rode the quad lift to the middle of the mountain, only to discover that I should have ridden it all the way.
  2. Had to ski a gentle but highly trafficked path, which I did without falling, to get to the next lift which would take me to the top.
  3. Rode the next lift to the top of the mountain, where I was instructed I would find a slope so gentle "it barely counts as a beginner run" which would take me right to the race starting point.
  4. Got on the "gentle slope" which was actually an intermediate hill jam-packed with people whizzing by me at top speed.
  5. Panicked and crashed in front of an instructor giving advanced nine-year-olds a snowboard lesson. She asked me if I needed help getting down the mountain, and I realized I did. She offered to help me down and told me to follow her closely, with the kids trailing behind me.
  6. Made a few successful turns but then crashed again, at which point the instructor told me she didn't feel she could safely get me down the mountain and was going to call ski patrol.
  7. Begged her not to. Began to cry. Sullenly gave in to her reassurances that I'd done really well for my third day of skiing, I'd gotten bad information, it wasn't my fault, this happens several times each day, etc. Weakly thanked her for her help as she and the kids rode away like the experts they were. 
  8. Trudged to the side of the mountain to await ski patrol, during which time no fewer than five people stopped to scold me (you can't stand there! you have to cross your skiis in an X! you should have known better!) and check on me (are you ok? do you need help??), all of which made my cheeks burn with the flame of a thousand fires (which turns out were just hot tears on a cold face).
  9. Provided the 20-year-old advance member of the ski patrol team with my basic information. When he tried to move on to casual conversation I managed to eek out a whispered "I don't really feel like talking" without collapsing in my own pathetic sobs, which earned me an aggressive "well FINE" response. Wished for the hundredth time that I was anywhere but there.
  10. Climbed onto the toboggan being dragged by the next ski patrol dude to arrive, mercifully older and less douchey than his coworker. Managed to make a weak joke of some nature as I got myself settled. He assured me we'd go "nice and slow." I assured HIM that I wasn't afraid, just incapable, and that he could go as fast as he wanted. "Cool!" he said.
  11. FLEW DOWN THE MOUNTAIN AT INCREDIBLE SPEEDS. Snow shot out from my savior's skis like water from a hose, covering me head to toe as he took us off-piste on what must have literally been the fastest way down. This was by far the highlight of my day.
  12. Sheepishly climbed off the toboggan, thanked him for the ride, and avoided the curious stares of the hundred people who saw him pull up with me in tow. 
  13. Caught the shuttle back to the condo. Considered turning in my two-day rental gear immediately, but didn't. Considered locking myself in our room and avoiding all human contact for as long as possible, but didn't.
  14. Summoned the will to put on my regular snow boots, find out how the "walkers" were getting to the race (mostly wives of skiers who wanted to watch the races but don't ski), and rode the correct lift to the base of the races where I managed to take some pictures for the company's website and have lunch with Carson and Jason and Monica, the other host couple. They congratulated me on having regained composure so quickly and shared their own rescue stories.
  15. Managed to feel okay about myself for the first time all day. 
I have to admit, riding the lifts was pretty fun.
You'd think after day three of skiing I'd be done, but noooo. The prevailing logic was that I couldn't let that be my last ski experience or I'd never ski again (fine by me). But I strapped on all that ridiculous gear AGAIN, taking advantage of our ski-in/ski-out location for the first and only time. Monica (an experienced snowboarder) offered to hang with me on the beginner slope, telling me it's way more fun with a buddy and assuring me it wouldn't be boring for her. She helped me down the slope outside our condo and then we rode the lift to the second easiest slope (the one I skied once and then decided I was ready to go to the top of the mountain). Of course, on my third day of skiing and my first day on my own I should have done nothing BUT that slope, over and over and over again, which is exactly what we did. I'll admit that I did have fun. I got pretty good at parallel turns and she told me I have a natural stance and excellent balance. By the end of our few hours together (I had pressing work that couldn't wait any longer) I was feeling better about myself and what I had learned, and certainly grateful to her for her time and friendship. But I still wasn't sold on skiing.

Here's why: the ski culture, to me, is wasteful (i.e. all that electricity to run lifts and heat uncovered hot tubs 24 hours a day). It clear-cuts mountains and covers nature with elaborate structures, and restricts access to some of the most beautiful places in the world to only those who can afford it (I actually read an article in Aspen magazine that the millionaires were being pushed out by the billionaires - no joke). It's also just kind of silly -the equipment you have to wear is insane, both in terms of expense (high) and comfort (nonexistent). If I wanted to spend hundreds of dollars every year to get cramps in my feet and legs, I'd buy economy class tickets to remote parts of the world. But even if I could get past all that, the payoff isn't that great. Is going sort of fast down an ice chute kind of fun? Sure. But for me, it was just that - kind of fun. There are much more fun things that I can do for way less money and with way less inconvenience than skiing (gardening, for instance; reading a good book; going on the swings or down the slide at my local park). What can I say? I've never been one for adrenaline-pumping activities, even when they're free.

I feel like the opportunity was sort of squandered on me when so many people would have enjoyed it so much more, but I did get a lot out of the trip. I got to see Colorado for the first time, which is as beautiful as everyone says it is. I got to go on a vacation with my wonderful boyfriend that neither of us could have afforded, and we got to spend time with really cool people. And, in the end, I did get a very valuable sense of the ski world that will directly translate into how I write about it.

At the farewell gala, which was mardi gras themed. 
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the sport itself, I do want to mention the superior staff at Snowmass. With the exception of one slightly condescending instructor (to him, being an adult who couldn't ski was akin to having a first grader's intelligence) and the ski patrol dude who was just young and dumb, every single person I interacted with who worked in some way on the mountain was awesome. This ranges from the shuttle and bus drivers to the rental equipment employees to the ski instructors to the servers at restaurants. I was blown away by their quality of service and authentically positive attitudes, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that all of these people live and work there because they love it. They crave proximity to the snow and they form a very tight-knit community. Even though it's not my particular bag, I'm thrilled for those who can find a place to do exactly what they want to be doing. (I also want to mention that the skiers themselves on the trip were by and large down-to-earth, fun-loving folks who were very grateful for our services and didn't act like monied snobs at all.)

So that was our Colorado vacation, the third vacation in one winter (Carson might kill me if I try to get him to take any more time off this year). Anyone else want to share their "I was rescued by ski patrol" story?

Happy with my awesome new boots
on, feet firmly planted on the ground.

No comments: