Beep, beep, beep, boop! The countdown at the starting gate sounded its tones and the two skiers pushed off, trying to get up to speed before swinging into the slalom gates. I was one of them.
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If you’ve watched ski racing on TV you’ve likely concluded that ski racers are all expert skiers, with a healthy dose of lunatic thrown in for flavor. While the various hobbies I’ve tried over the years might suggest I’ve been sipping from the lunatic trough, I’ve never been an expert at skiing.
I took up the sport back in the mid-80’s. Like many new enthusiasts, I tried to get up on the mountain often, and took lessons to improve my skills. One summer training method didn’t even require snow.
It was called an indoor ski ramp. It was, in essence, a conveyer belt with a carpet covering. You’d use similar techniques as with snow, with the difference it was always flat, had much more resistance (and leg burn) than snow, and catching the wrong edge might also add rug burn and a quick trip to the top of the belt. After taking a set of lessons on this gizmo, the instructors suggested that in the coming ski season I try a ski racing league called PACRATS. Not because I was especially skilled, just as another method to learn to ski better. Like most amateur sports leagues, PACRATS had several skill level tiers, including one for beginners.
And so I found myself at a real ski race starting gate, feeling like a real ski racer, listening to the beep beep boop and making like some hotshot trying to set world speed records hurtling down a ski hill.
It started off well enough, navigating through the first few gates without incident. Time that turn, set that ski pole and pivot around the gate, push off to the next gate – woohoo, here we go!
The thing is, there were lots of racers running this course. Ruts built up. At the turns around the gates, especially on tighter ones, berm walls formed, demanding you hit that curved pocket just right. Do it right and your skis bend into the depression – when you exit they spring back into shape giving you even more momentum going down the hill. Do it wrong…
When I was a wee lad, I had a toy called a jack-in-the-box. It was essentially a music box, crank on the side, that played Pop Goes the Weasel. When it hit “Pop” near the end of the ditty, a door on the top would open releasing a spring-loaded clown.
Most ski videos use rock and roll for background music. “Pop goes the weasel” set the tone for this run. When I hit one of those turns at the wrong angle and didn’t get through the pocket – suddenly I was that spring-loaded clown. But rather than having my spring attached to a box, my skis “popped” on top of that berm and launched me into space.
I am, at best, an average athlete. A coordinated person would have made cat like corrections in mid-air, orienting those skis to land without incident, and if they were lucky making it on to the next gate. I was more like the proverbial cat with buttered toast tied to its back, both demanding by tradition they be the side that lands on the ground. My arms and legs flailed around with a complete lack of elegance, and when gravity finally had its say I became a prime example of what skiers call a “yard sale.”
We use the term “yard sale” because all the gear items you have stashed away in their proper places are suddenly spread across the “yard” for public display. I was at least fortunate my yard sale did not occur under a ski lift – such an event often leads to catcalls and derision from the onlookers, sometimes including scoring for the scale of the wipeout and extent you’ve spread your gear over the hill. Extra points are awarded for runaway skis.
After getting up and doing an inventory of body parts to make sure they were still attached and in one piece, I collected gear. The skis had gone separate directions, too embarrassed to stay together, poles another, hat somewhere else – disguising itself by being covered in splattered snow, all conspiring to make it difficult to get my act together.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the hill, the timekeeper considered sending out search parties. The other skier had long since completed his run, and the length of my absence suggested lost hiker, or alien abduction, or another such calamity. But I did eventually arrive, covered in snow, saving a general call out to the ski patrol.
Not all my runs that racing season were that disastrous. I even managed a 5th place finish in a field of 60 “beginners” one race, and our team finished near the top of the league. (Our expert really was an expert). But I never became a great skier – solid intermediate at best.
In recent years I haven’t attempted hurtling down the mountain, racing or otherwise. In part because of laziness and not being in great ski shape, and in part due to a dislike of driving up the mountain in snowy/icy conditions with a mob of other skiers. Lift tickets have also become very expensive compared to the old days. But I have to admit, on a nice winter day I sometimes look up at Mount Hood and get to thinking, “you know what would be fun…”