Making it down the mountain with dignity, and skis, intact


I'm writing this on Monday morning at The Berkshire Eagle's headquarters, my 27-year-old limbs intact following my first-ever full day of skiing yesterday. But my dignity still needs to be airlifted off a ski trail at Ski Butternut.

The day started well enough. I arrived at the Great Barrington ski area at 9:40 a.m., bundled in a puffy winter coat, sweater, snow pants, gloves, hat, long underwear and wool socks. I wasn't quite sure how much to wear; the last time I had gone skiing was about 15 years ago, and it hadn't actually involved much skiing. I had accompanied my mother, brother and some friends to a mountain in eastern New England. After joining a lesson late, I found myself barreling down the beginners' "bunny" slope, knocking down cones, barely avoiding small children and finally, mercifully, slowing to a stop a few feet from the side of a cabin. This experience didn't deter me; eager to join the rest of my crew, I made the poor decision to hop on a lift to one of the trails. I ended up walking down most of it and pouting in the lodge for the rest of day.

Thus, for all intents and purposes, this was going to be my triumphant initiation to skiing. I would learn what all the fuss and turtlenecks were about. More importantly, I would learn how to properly "pizza."

(You may have read sports writer Mike Walsh's recent piece about ski season starting from the perspective of a ski junkie, now we'll give you the view from a novice.)

Upon entering Butternut's rental building, I indicated that I would like the first-timer's package, a $75 option that includes a beginner's lift ticket, rental equipment and a group lesson. But a staffer told me that, for $25 more, I could have access to the whole mountain instead of just the bunny slopes. And when you're offered a mountain or a couple molehills, which would you take? I went for the all-access pass.

I was subsequently fitted for boots, skis and a helmet. (The helmet costs extra; goggles must be purchased.) Putting on the boots was the day's first challenge. Designed to hug your shins, stuffing your feet into them is a bit like trying to wiggle wet toes through the legs of long underwear (not speaking from experience earlier that day, of course). It's a struggle.

Fitting a boot into a ski is considerably easier, requiring a dip of the front toe and a stomp of the heel. I did just that after placing my belongings in a locker for the day ($1), grabbing some ski poles and heading outside.

I had been told the beginner's group lesson was starting at 10:30, but when I waited in the designated area a few minutes before that time, I saw that the class was already underway. I joined a father and son, who had already received some guidance on duck-walking and maneuvering in and out of their skis. Pat, our instructor, expressed some concern that I had missed this instruction to a colleague.

"He'll catch on quick," the colleague responded.

Biting my tongue, I nodded and silently hoped that history wasn't about to repeat itself.

Pat, who has been instructing for 28 years, led us through some more footwork, teaching us how to side-step up the mountain with our skis parallel and pointed perpendicular to the slope. We subsequently began gliding toward one of the smaller "carpets," or black conveyor belts, that deposit you at various points on the bunny slopes. My glide over to "Carpet 1" was far from graceful, skidding at one point as I tried to remember how to "pizza," or rotate the skis' tips inward as a means to stop. I also made the mistake of jamming my ski poles in front of me to halt my momentum, a no-no according to Pat.

The poles would be a recurring hindrance during the first half of our 90-minute lesson. Once we were situated at the top of a short hill, Pat showed us how to make turns, shifting weight to the leg opposite the direction we were trying to go. She said to think of it like pushing on a gas pedal, except that we would be alternating feet each time.

A series of awkward forays to the right, with poles flailing about and jabbing at the ground, followed. After a few runs, Pat had seen enough. She confiscated my poles, as well as the boy's (his father refused to give his up), sticking them in the ground next to the carpet. No more poles, she said.

I was skeptical at first, but without the poles, I started concentrating on my lower half to maintain my balance, keeping my knees bent and my shins forward in my boots. I was moving slowly, but I made a few smooth turns before the end of my first complete run.

"Told you," Pat said as I stopped at the bottom.

Buoyed by my success, I got too ambitious. Near the end of a subsequent run, I tried to make a sharp right cut too late. My footwork askew, I began flying toward a little girl in a different class. While I'm built more like a ski pole than a tree trunk, I knew that a collision could do some serious damage to this small child. I dove to my right and stopped a few feet short of her, sprawled on the snow. I apologized and, with Pat's help, rose to my feet.

I played it much more conservatively the next few runs and regained some of my confidence. My 9-year-old classmate was a natural, which was a bit frustrating. His father, reassuringly, wasn't.

Toward the end of the lesson, Pat took us to the top of a larger hill to repeat the same turning lesson, this time moving wider laterally. From there, it was all about repetition. At noon, Pat left, but the rest of us kept making runs. I stayed for about an hour before I decided I was ready for something a little more difficult. My cuts could be tighter, sure, but I was in control of my skis. Plus, my story needed an ending. And conquering a real trail would be a nice 180 from the last time I had visited one of these winter resorts.

Unaware that a novice trail called Paddy's should have been my next destination, I boarded a ski lift heading for Nuthatch, one of the easiest of Butternut's 22 trails. I figured that if it was too challenging, I could always make really slow turns. Or, I could walk down, but I really didn't want to do that.

My journey didn't start well. Upon exiting the ski lift, I lost my balance and ended up on my back. A couple of skiers helped me up, though, and I was gliding toward the trail.

The trail was far less kind than the lift. Following a horde of other skiers, I was moving at three or four times the pace (at least) I had been going on the bunny slopes. My turns were wide and, on a narrow path, ultimately too wide.

Early on, facing the distinct possibility of crashing into a tree to my right, I went into a quasi-baseball slide, the snow spraying in my face as my skis dug into the snow. Eventually, I stopped sliding a few feet from where the pines met the trail. I quickly gathered myself, released my boots from my skis and crawled out of harm's way. Skiers, many of whom were likely a quarter of my age, zoomed past. I was shocked by how adeptly adults and children alike could navigate the steep terrain and sharp curves below. It was demoralizing.

Fully aware of the symmetry between my current situation and my prior skiing experience half a lifetime ago, I decided I had to give it another shot. I couldn't let myself walk down the mountain again. I stomped into my skis and pushed out into the trail.

My determination lasted a few more seconds before I was clawing my way back toward the side of the trail again. Enough, I thought. I picked up my skis and began walking down the mountain.

At that moment, a couple of skiers veered to the side to ask if I was OK. They were the same guys that had helped me by the ski lift. (Soul-crushingly, they had already completed two runs.)

Yes, I told them, I'm fine. Just playing it safe, I said.

One of them admired the restraint; the other didn't seem satisfied. He wasn't picking up his kids for another hour, he said. He could lead me down if I would like.

I was hesitant, but the man seemed abnormally confident. A few minutes later, I was following his tracks, trying to mimic his movements.

"Use the whole trail," he kept saying when I cut a turn too short.

The next hour was one of the more humiliating ones of my life. Every turn or two, I would fall, sometimes head over heels. My new friend (I didn't explicitly ask if I could use his name for the story) would offer encouraging words and humor along the way. When I told him I covered arts and entertainment, he told me I was providing plenty of the latter.

We still had about a quarter of the trail to go when he had to leave to pick up his children. We shook hands. I thanked him for his assistance.

"Don't give up," he said.

I concluded my trip with the best stretch of skiing since the bunny slope, remaining upright as I looped my way down to the bottom at about 2:45. It has never felt so good to be on flat ground, and it was nice to be wearing skis this time.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder if I had set the record for longest trip down Nuthatch and if my early progress was just a figment of my imagination. To know for certain, I suppose I'll have to put on the skis once more. I owe the man on the mountain at least that much.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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