Dec 23, 2010

Changing things up - how I learned to ski

I have a blog about cycling, I like to wear spandex cycling apparel (as you can see in my picture), I like racing bikes and I like building bikes. So you can safely say that I’m really into bikes. However, what some of you might not know, is that my second favorite activity after riding bikes is skiing. And because I’ve mentioned bikes and cycling so many times in this one paragraph, I don’t feel an ounce of guilt about the rest of this blog being (almost) about skiing, but feel free to check out if you wish. 

I don’t know about most of you, but I for one don’t really have a clear recollection of when I learned to ride my bike. As a toddler, I had tricycles; as a little kid, I first had a bike with training wheels, then they came off, then I had a bigger bike. I do recall moments of my dad teaching me to ride, but I don’t recall the point in time where I felt I had the handle on it. It seems like it kind of happened, as if by osmosis. (Yes, I do actually know what osmosis is and if you feel the need to point it out to me, then the humor was completely lost on you).

I do, however, recall very well learning how to ski. T’was the winter of 2006 in the snowy Chicago. December, to be precise. I apparently hadn’t had enough of the Chicago winter and decided to join a large group of my friends on a nine-day ski trip to Colorado. I have never been on a pair of alpine skis in my life up to that point. But I did have several friends who were very (and I mean VARY) proficient at the sport, so planned on them lending me most of the needed equipment showing me the ropes on the slopes. About a week or so before I was set to take off to Colorado, my friend Kyle said to me on the phone, “We should probably go to Wilmot so I can show you how it’s done.” (I’m loosely paraphrasing) Of course, I agreed. You see, Wilmot is the local ski resort small hill where my ski-racer friends practiced between trips out west and races abroad. 

I had purchased a pair of boots at a ski show about a month earlier and had picked up a pair of poles online. Kyle had graciously agreed to let me borrow a pair of his skis. And because he was betting on me not hitting any back country powder on my first trip out west, he lent me a pair of his slalom skis, which were about 154cm (I’m 186 by conservative measures). Kyle and I are actually about the same height, so of course it was perfectly reasonable for him to assume I’d be able to handle a pair of short, somewhat unstable pair of skis just like a seasoned pro. 

If he did harbor those assumptions, I think they fell by the wayside about 20 seconds after I clipped into those skis for the first time – I was on my ass so fast I think I forgot to blink. “Oh, boy!” I thought to myself, “Colorado is going to be fun.” Kyle, being a very good and incredibly patient instructor, realized that releasing me onto the green slopes of Wilmot would probably endanger the five-year-olds skiing the same run, so we dialed it back even further. After spending some time with me in the ski school zone, I was able to make a half-ass turn to one side, and was lucky if I wasn’t falling when turning to the other side. Stopping was a whole different issue altogether. So with that bit of knowledge and a few hours on the slopes of Wisconsin (yes, that’s as “great” as it sounds),  it was time to pack up and drive home - my body and mind couldn’t take in any more new information and I was clearly getting very frustrated. 

As I was driving home, I tried to recall as much of Kyle’s advice as I could: knees bent, feet shoulder width apart, roll the ankle first, hands up, body upright, chest forward, look forward ... Needless to say my head was spinning. But I was on the way to Colorado and I had to figure it out one way or another. 

Day 1 – Arapahoe Basin. This was the smallest resort we skied on the trip, but it also claimed to have the highest point reachable by chair lift, though A-Basing and Breckenridge frequently can’t resolve that issue between themselves. On that day one, I didn’t really care about how high those lifts go. I headed straight for the bunny hill to figure out how much of Kyle’s teaching stayed with me. It took probably close to 15 or even 20 runs down the bunny hill before I felt like I got the hang of the turning and stopping enough to venture out into the zone of green hills. Then, on one of the green runs, I got it, the turns worked, the stops worked, I was upright my entire way down and I was instantly in love with skiing. I can't say that that was the moment I "got it," as I feel that even now, there are still many thing which I haven't yet figured out, but that was definitely the moment I realized this sport would always be a part of my life. It was very similar to the feeling I had after my first road group ride.

Over the next few days, I would miraculously progress, and by day four, I was coming down some of the blue slopes in Breckenridge. Did I mention I was still on the same 154cm slalom skis? Yeah, fun times!

By day four, I also learned one important lesson – skiing hurts. And I don’t mean in the “fall on your ass and get a bruise” kind of way. I mean “why don't my legs bend” kind of way.  Somehow, that didn’t deter me from continuing to ski and pushing my limits, with each passing day, I was getting better and better. By the end of the trip, I was coming down black diamond slopes and was even dumb courageous enough to take the T-bar to the top of Breckenridge in howling wind and face-blasting snow. Of course, there is a huge difference between how I made it down that hill in 2006 and how I take those runs today, but from bunny to black in 9 days flat is … well … a good title for a book I would probably buy if I was a novice skier again. In all seriousness though, I was not only very proud of myself, but impressed with how quickly I got from the novice to intermediate level of skiing. 

Now, as I’m only a day away from another nine day skiing adventure – this time including Colorado and Lake Tahoe – I look forward to gliding on snow, the wind in my face, taking tree-lines and moguls. More so, however, I look forward to spending time with friends in a big house, sharing meals, ski stories from the day on the mountain and a ton of fun moments in the hot tub. These trips out west [from Chicago] (clearly I'm traveling east now) have become a tradition of sorts. I don’t think there’s been a year since 2006 where I haven’t come together with many friends on the slopes of Colorado, Utah or California. Skiing itself draws me to the mountain, but doing it with close friends is what moves me to travel to another state to do it.

As you’ve probably picked up from the above, I’m flying out tomorrow and I’m only bringing my iPad, so blogging might be a challenge. I will write something tomorrow during the day and will do my best to keep you up to date and entertained while I’m in Colorado and Tahoe (I promise it won’t all be about skiing), but I probably won’t be blogging with my regular frequency until my return to the snowless (thank you, Nature) San Francisco on Jan. 2nd. Happy holidays and New Year to all of you!


  1. Dude, your first experience sounds suspiciously like my first (and only) foray into the world of skiing - only mine ended with a twisted knee that had me worried about tearing ligaments for the rest of the day.

    Trying to learn to ski in one day just doesn't sound doable and definitely didn't work for me, but I think if I had a large lump of days together, that would give me enough time not to feel "pressured" to advance too quickly for my comfort zone.

    Good to know that there's still hope! Have a great trip!

  2. Thanks, Andrew!

    Ouch to the twisted knee! Yeah, learning in one day is not realistic, but stringing 9 days together does miracles. Though the way I ski now - way more aggressively - I don't think can survive 9 days non-stop.

  3. Vitalik, this is my first time reading your blog. :) so just wanted to say "Hi!" and thanks for the hospitality this weekend and I agree about the friends part. I am the worst skier to not give up on skiing there ever was. I think anyone half as terrified would've quit years ago, but the amazing atmosphere in those houses will keep me coming back again and again. (Olya)

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