As a father to three sons, I have embarked on a mission to impart in them life lessons of the utmost importance. These are my stories.
Life Lesson #44- How to Downhill Ski
The Southern Comfort lift at Big Sky is a high-speed quad, which is shorthand for the 4-person detachable chairlift. Such lifts whisk skiers and snowboarders uphill at around 12 miles per hour, but the chairs slow to make loading and unloading considerably easier than with old-school, fixed-cable models.
Even though we were creeping into Southern Comfort’s top terminal at about 2 miles/hour, we were about to have a big problem.
I was with my two oldest sons- Josh, 14, and Gabe, 11. It was our second day of skiing at Big Sky, which is close to my hometown of Bozeman, MT (I grew up skiing mostly at Bridger Bowl). Gabe was to my right, between me and his older brother. He and Josh had been on chairlifts several times, so I had ceased reminding them of procedures like keeping ski tips up.
Maybe because Gabe had never been on this particular lift, he got confused about when and where to disembark. He stood up way too early. He fell and we passed right over him as if he was on a conveyor belt beneath us. One of my skis whacked him in the head (Exhibit A in the case for wearing helmets on the slopes).
The lift operator was alert and immediately shut down everything. Josh and I slid off while she helped Gabe gather himself and make his way to us. In the process, she gave him some gentle pointers about when to stand when unloading. He responded politely, including his textbook, “All right.”
Reunited, the three of us debriefed what happened for a moment, and then commenced with our next run. That was it. No tears. No howls of frustration. No vow to walk down to the lodge and never ski again.
It was then that I knew Gabe had become a skier.
I was a preschooler when I learned to ski. As with most early beginners, I was on tiny skis and didn’t have poles. Poles often aren’t introduced at first to place emphasis on controlling skis.
I learned to put the ski tips close together into snow plow formation for turning and stopping (these days this technique is called “pizza slice”). When I was a little older I got poles and transitioned to parallel skiing (now “French fries”).
In early childhood, skiing was mainly a family activity. I skied some with my dad, but I frequently hit the slopes with my mom, who was a terrific skier in her day.
My younger brother, Jeff, was fun to ski with (well, most of the time) because he’s fearless. He’s the one who would sniff out crazy, death-defying routes down, involving such obstacles as trees, cliffs, rocks, and jumps.
In high school, skiing became more social. My friends and I would carpool or caravan to the slopes, usually Bridger Bowl, and ski as a group. Once we were off to college and beyond, skiing was a great way to reconnect.
A day on the slopes provides tons of time for conversation, especially on chairlifts (we didn’t have high-speed quads back then, so the uphill trips afforded more discussion).
I would love for skiing to be as interwoven into my sons’ lives as it was for me as a kid. But geography’s an obstacle. They were born in North Carolina and we live in Charlotte, hours away from slopes that pale in comparison to those out west. Yes, I am a ski snob.
But the magic has started to happen. We’ve now skied in NC and enjoyed it (even me). Our trip to Big Sky has them all hooked. I’m thrilled for reasons other than nostalgia, or the passing of one of my beloved pastimes to them. Skiing, and learning to ski, brings many benefits.
Filling the Nature Deficit
In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv observed that for today’s youth, “Nature is more abstraction than reality . . . something to watch, to consume, to wear – to ignore (p. 2).” I am determined that my sons won’t ignore nature.
While I had ready access to wilderness during childhood, my sons are growing up in suburbia. So my wife and I have to be intentional about pushing outdoor experiences. Fortunately, they have opportunities close to home- our backyard, parks, neighborhood ponds, a small forest nearby.
Louv and others have argued that when children have strong bonds with nature the benefits are mental, physical, and spiritual. This is one reason why I want my sons to be backpackers. Although there are some indoor ski facilities (on conveyor belt contraptions), skiing is a quintessential outdoor activity.
Skiing is not quiet. Wind can be deafening. Skis carving snow make a distinctive noise. And your breathing can get very loud as your lungs labor to replenish depleted leg muscles. But all those sounds are distinct from what my sons get on a daily basis, like engines, televisions, and personal devices. Shifting their auditory environment on the slopes enables mindfulness.
And, of course, there are the sights. I think mountains are among the most beautiful things in the world. They are stunning in the summer, but they can only be fully appreciated in the winter. Snow creates contrasts in color and texture with ever-present trees and rock formations.
Skiing puts you right there. Once you have the capacity to turn, stop, and control your descent, you feel something more than being on the mountain. You’re with the mountain.
Connecting and Reconnecting
As I mentioned, skiing can facilitate bonding. On our Big Sky trip our family of five divided into two teams, so to speak. I was with Josh and Gabe skiing, while my wife snowboarded with our youngest, Luke.
Though for the most part the skiers and boarders did their own thing on the slopes, we convened for lunch and, of course, at the end of the day. These were great social moments as we shared exploits and mishaps.
Luke had never snowboarded before and struggled at first (more on that later), but his morale improved considerably when he heard his older brothers talk and laugh about their tumbles.
As we neared the end of our last day, Gabe, Luke, and my wife packed it in. But Josh suggested that he and I take one last run together. As most parents would agree, it’s wonderful having all of your kids together, but it’s also really gratifying to spend individual time with each child. He and I had several minutes on the chairlift talking about my life at his age, the Rockies, and when we might ski again.
I’ve found that being on the slopes tends to bring out humor. The first run I took with Josh and Gabe away from the bunny hill was on a trail called Pacifier. They had a terrible time on it.
“Resilience is the most important reason I want my sons to be skiers. It’s literally about how to get back up after falling.”
The next day we were forced to take it again and on the way down Gabe declared, “Dad, this is the part where the baby spits out the pacifier and starts crying!” Perhaps in part, because he was laughing at himself, he did much better that run.
I’ve played a lot of sports, including basketball and rowing. Skiing is uniquely challenging. One reason is that it involves coordinating lower and upper body. Put simply, you have to do a lot at once.
It requires balance and trusting in counter-intuitive actions. For instance, it is critical to lean forward, pressing your shins against your boots, and staying over your skis. Leaning back, which is reflexive when in trouble, is the worst thing to do because it severely limits maneuverability with skis.
There is a rhythm to skiing that is hard to describe. I had difficulty explaining it so my sons (more ski lessons are in their future). Being able to initiate that rhythm gives the confidence to take on a very difficult terrain.
Every time I ski I work on some nuance to technique such as pole positioning or carving turns. I identify and then solve problems. Skiing teaches you things about your body.
Challenges can arise with equipment and environment. Getting boots into bindings is fairly straightforward at the base of the hill where the ground is smooth and flat. But when a ski comes off on a steep slope and/or in powder, several degrees of difficulty are added.
Josh and Gabe had to deal with this plenty. In some instances I could rescue them, setting their skis and clearing their boots of snow. Other times I was a consultant, reminding them what to do or prompting them with questions as I watched. But they wiped out several times and had to handle matters on their own.
Stepping Back In
Skiing is different from many sports, such as basketball and rowing, because mistakes are often physically painful. Though soft and fluffy in small amounts, packed snow is really hard. Skiing involves speed, and acceleration times mass equals force (which equals ouch if that force meets an immovable object, like the ground).
“A day on the slopes provides tons of time for conversation, especially on chairlifts!”
Continuing the physics lesson here, catching the edge of the ski can turn the skier into something like a Class 3 lever, whipping the upper body and head to the ground with what can be injury-inducing speed (again, helmets = good).
I never told any of this to my sons before they took to the slopes. Absent the specifics from Newton, they experienced it from the outset. There were falls, there were tears, and there were achy bodies afterward. And they are ready to do it again (maybe with fewer spells next time, though).
Luke watched the 2018 Winter Olympics like all of us and was especially fascinated by snowboarding. He became a fan of Shaun White, Chloe Kim, Red Gerard, and others. So he decided that he’d learn to snowboard rather than ski.
Luke’s first couple of hours on the board were brutal. He had an instructor and his mom with him, but he could slide just a few feet before crashing (again, like a Class 3 lever). He actually cut the lesson short, stepping out of his board and stomping away in frustration. My wife was fairly certain at that moment that he’d never snowboard again.
Rather than admonish him for quitting or cajoling him into returning, she and Luke grabbed an early table for lunch and rejuvenated the soul with hot chocolate. After grilled cheese, French fries, and hearing about his brothers’ miserable experience on Pacifier, he was ready to step back into his bindings.
That afternoon Luke was making full runs without falling. The next day he was cruising. Will he compete in the Olympic half-pipe? Probably not. But he shredded a major mental barrier- at age 7, no less.
Difficult technique, tricky equipment, fatigue, sometimes inclement weather, Newtonian physics- skiing is hard for a lot of reasons. But as Tom Hanks’ character said in A League of Their Own, “The hard is what makes it great.” Resilience is the most important reason I want my sons to be skiers/snowboarders. It’s literally about how to get back up after falling.
Be sure to check back next month for another of Craig’s Life Lessons for his sons. Have a suggestion? Something you are teaching your son or daughter? Please share in a comment!