Graduation Day

Top of Expo Lift

My friend Jennifer taught me to ski when I was 15 or 16 (I was in 10th grade). Her family had a condo at Holimont in New York and she invited me up so that she could have a friend to ski with. Skiing was not something I’d ever aspired to do, not even an option on the radar. I’m think back then I only vaguely thought of skiing. Maybe I figured it was just something Olympians did. It never occurred to me that it was something I could or would do. Like figure skating, it seemed an unattainable goal to contemplate. So when Jennifer asked me one morning while we walked the halls of the high school before home room, “Have you ever thought of learning to ski?” I responded honestly that no, I hadn’t.

It’s kind of ironic, looking back, that an activity a friend off-handedly suggest I try has become one of my favorite activities. Especially since I was never formally taught how to ski. At my own insistence, I was pretty much shown how to do a snow plow and sent on my merry way down an intermediate hill with my friend coaching me through my wedged turns. I would have been kindly taught on a bunny hill but as soon as the words “bunny hill” came out of Jennifer’s mouth, I pictured kids and scared adults gathered together on some lame tiny hill and I would have nothing of it. Jennifer was never one for coddling; when I refused the bunny hill, she pretty much shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, okay.”

But I was a teenager and teenagers are damned determined. And stubborn. I’m still that way, so I’m sure I was doubly so as a teenager. Also, teenagers are not too old that they still feel that invincibility of youth. At that point in my life, I hadn’t had any serious injuries to remind me of what pain feels like, nor did I have to pay my own medical bills. I was free as a bird, you might say. We didn’t even ski with helmets back then. I was not fully aware of how dangerous an activity skiing might be. (I guess I never read the back of my lift ticket.)

Exhibition - My first run. Ever.

My first run, as I remember it, was Exhibition. This is a long, steady blue down the front of Holimont by main lodge. I know I fell a dozen times on the way down and in my memory it seems that I took an hour to get down that run. I don’t remember if it really took an hour, but I’m betting that even as slow as those lifts go at Holimont, someone could have skied up and down that slope five times before I got to the bottom. I remember at one point, as I stood up after my umpteeth fall, I panicked at awareness that my entire world was tilted steadily downward. I knew the only way off that slope was to ski down. I was scared out of my mind at points. But ever determined.

When I finally did make it down, instead of changing my mind and heading for that bunny hill, I shouted, “Again!” And up we went. Never once did I set ski on a bunny hill throughout my beginning days as a skier. I eventually did make it to some beginner runs, but none of them were the real learning hill. I know my ski instructor friends cringe at this story. Despite the fact that I took a long time to learn how to actually ski correctly, and I still have some pretty bad habits I’m working to break, I’m proud of humble beginnings as a skier. I can say that by the end of my first weekend skiing with Jennifer, I could mostly stay on my feet. I was what they used to call “snow-plowing” and everyone could see I was a beginner, but I was having fun. And that’s what skiing is all about.

We used to buy the junior tickets, even though we were above the age for junior tickets, which were $15 back then. At that age, before I started working, it was sure a chore to save and then spend $30 for two days of lift tickets. But I did it every time I had the opportunity. It was always worth every penny.

Exhibition: The word that changed my life.

I don’t know what it is about attaching two waxed boards to your feet and sliding yourself down increasingly difficult hills covered with snow, but I’ve loved it from the moment I first started doing it. It’s like a more complicated form of sled riding. Adult play, I call it nowadays, even though there are often more young people skiing on a given day than people my age. It is an activity that makes me feel like a kid again. I’m exhilarated by the cold air in my lungs, the wind in my face as I move, the sound of the skis swooshing in the snow, the world speeding by before my eyes, the slope getting smaller and smaller as I finish the run. I love the fact that just when I’ve mastered one skill, there’s always another challenge to attempt–steeper hills, moguls, different kinds of snow. There’s always harder resorts and different beauty to behold. Skiing has made me welcome winter with open arms.

Over the last two years, I’ve experienced noticeable improvement with my skiing. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve become a regular skier. As a result, my skill level has kicked up a notch. I’ve also had to admit my failings and take a few lessons to help make it possible for my improvement to continue. During these times, I’ve momentarily felt myself sliding backwards a little as I struggled to commit to muscle memory a new set of movements. But it’s all been for the good because things people have been trying to tell me to do for years are suddenly starting to make sense. I’m feeling more stable and more confident on my skis. I’m starting to enjoy skiing even more now as I push myself to ski slopes I previously feared. I never thought I would ever reach the point where I could comfortably do black diamond runs. But last year I started attacking them. And now I’m conquering many of them here in the east–sometimes fearfully. I’m actually starting to like steep. Even when it’s a little scary…

It’s only fitting that now at the crux of my metamorphosis to the level of an advanced skier that I returned to ski Holimont yesterday. It’s not the first time I’ve been back; I have skied there twice in the last five years. But I only ever skied one black diamond run there–Wild Turkey when I was there last year and I did it somewhat fearfully. When I signed up for this mid-week trip with the Fagowees back in January, I knew that this time I was ready to take on the black diamond runs.

Coincidentally, when I got on the bus for trip, I recognized one of the trip leaders. I didn’t realize at first why I knew him. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then pieces started to fall into place. Someone on the bus remarked that this person’s family had (or once had) a condo at Holimont. I did a double-take at the name on the information sheet for the trip. Then it hit me–this man was Jennifer’s uncle. I wrote her a quick message on Facebook with my BlackBerry to confirm because I was too cowardly to ask the guy if he was her uncle. I felt kind of stupid… so much time had passed… what if I was wrong? It wasn’t until three beers on the bus ride home that I worked up the bravery to reintroduce myself. About an hour later, Jennifer wrote me back on Facebook. Too late for me to introduce myself without sounding stupid, but oh well. Probably if she had told me, I wouldn’t have said anything. The suspense was killing me and I had to find out.

Anyway, I was on a mission yesterday. Despite having gone on a bus trip with Fagowees specifically to meet like-minded skiers, I decided to head off on my own for the day because I didn’t want to be peer-pressured into doing a run I wasn’t feeling secure about. Not that this happens to me often, but I will admit that I feel like I eat a lot of humble pie when I trek back off the top of a slope because I’m too afraid to go down it. I didn’t want anyone to see me have any emotional breakdowns, like I’m wont to have if I find myself on ice or in the middle of a slope that scares the crap out of me. Needless to say, not knowing what was ahead of me because I’d never even been in the black diamond area before, I wanted to go off on my own so that I could have my panic attacks in private. So after getting suited up quickly, I waited in line with a few other early birds, and was on the very first chair when the Expo lift opened.

To be honest, only the anticipation of the unknown caused my heart to flutter most of the day. My first run (where I made the very first tracks in the groomed snow) was down Meadow, a blue run that I remember as being more difficult, often icy, and pretty much the last stop before all the black diamond runs. I like to start my day on a blue run to remind my legs how to move like a skier. The conditions were much better than expected–grooming packed snow that cut like better when the edges of my skis pushed against it. It wasn’t the softest stuff. In fact, the bumpy groomed surface made a kind of weird noise as my skis cut across it. But it wasn’t ice. My confidence increased.

Meadow Lift (I think)

On my next run, I cut eastward, sweeping by the familiar condos on the aptly-named Condo Line run, and caught the Cascade lift to begin my black diamond experience. Part of me thought I should do another run on Meadow, but I heard my friend Janet’s voice in the back of my head, “You should do the black diamond runs early while your legs are fresh.” True that. No use prolonging the inevitable.

My first run was down Irish Whiskey. It was generally narrow but it went through the woods so I liked it. Again, no ice, and it was steepest at the end where I didn’t even hesitate to follow through with the finish. I then proceeded further left, tackling Wild Turkey, Sunrise, and Twisty Christy. (I skipped Cascade at first because I generally don’t like to do runs that go beneath the lifts, especially when out of my element, because not only do they tend to be icy, but you have people sitting overhead with nothing better to do than watch you and make commentary if you screw up.) Of these, I really enjoyed Sunrise and Twisty Christy.

My run down Twisty Christy brought me to a path where I could either head to the Grear lift or continue back to the Cascade lift to try basically the same runs I’d just done. But my mark was–nervously–Greer because it seemed it would be the steepest of all the runs in this area, if not the whole resort (though I found out later Punch Bowl is actually harder). I knew if I could handle Greer, a world of confidence and possibility would unfold for me for the rest of the day.

Thankfully, Greer doesn’t have a lift running over it, so I knew I could afford to take my time if need be. At the top, I was awed by the sweeping view of Ellicottville below. Sometimes getting perspective on how high I am can undermine my confidence. I tried not to take it in too much on that first run. A man I’d spoken to on the first lift up from the lodge that morning, to whom I’d revealed my intention to do all these black diamonds for my first time ever, came by just as I was standing over the edge of the run.

“Have you tried this one yet?” he asked chipperly. I told him no. “Well, this is one of the steepest,” he confirmed. With a smile, he added, “You’ll like it.”

I started down tentatively as I always do on a run I’ve never done before–one where I haven’t sent a braver friend down to report to me on the conditions first. My eyes seemed to assess that it was certainly steeper than the runs I’d done before it, but as I started making my concentrated turns, all the while repeating to myself the techniques I’d learned from a ski lesson last week, I started to realize that the hill wasn’t anything more than I could handle, that I’d done something that steep before, and I found my comfort zone. I skied the rest of the way down carefully but comfortably. Whew!

And then, of course, I took it again. Two times is what makes the run count as conquered to me–it cements the fact that I did the run. Because I’m usually a lot less fearful on the second run, I can enjoy it more and appreciate every moment. This time, I stopped to snap a picture of the view.

Top of Greer revealing Ellicottville.

Sometimes skiers, when having a good time, shout, “Whoo-hoo!” to express the glee they feel. I had several whoo-hoo moments yesterday. The bad part about not skiing with someone else was that I couldn’t share the moment anyone. I could shout “whoo-hoo”–and I did–to acknowledge the absolute exhilaration of accomplishment with other strangers, who I’m sure understood my excitement, but the moment was absent of the friend who had taught me to ski all those years ago. If only she could see me now… (and she can’t at the moment since she lives in North Carolina). All too late I learned to ski the kinds of runs she could do when she was much younger than me. Oh the fun we would have had!

I stayed in the Greer-Cascade area, eventually doing all the runs, even Early Bird and Cascade which both go under lifts. Early Bird was like many runs beneath lifts–too narrow for comfort so I only did it once. The wider Cascade was interesting, but somehow not as much fun as Twisty Christy and Sunset.

The only thing I had left to do was the dreaded Punch Bowl, known to locals as Headwall. (Jennifer and everyone else I knew back then called it Headwall; in fact, I overhead someone yesterday call it that as they headed over to ski it.) Really, it’s a short, steep but wide hill that goes beneath the Plum Creek lift. The Plum Creek lift appears to only run on weekends for I’ve never seen it run on the week days when non-members are allowed to ski. Since Plum Creek is actually the lift we could take when skiing right from the condo, as a teen, I witness the steepness from an aerial view from the above many times before. Not to mention, I quaked at the story Jennifer used to tell me of riding on her uncle’s shoulders as he skied down it to get to her ski which had fallen off on the lift. I always thought there was no way, no how I was riding on anyone’s shoulders as they skied down any hill, let alone what looked to me then as a gaping wall true to its name.

With my advanced skier eyes, though, Punch Bowl seemed a lot less intimidating than it once did. From the bottom of the slope looking up as I passed the area on my way back from the Cascade lift, I thought with a new found brashness, “Yeah, I can totally do that.”

Nothing from the bottom every looks as steep as it does from the top. As I stood right before the top, I had a few moments of panic where I thought for sure I was going to side-step back up to the safety of the path that cuts over the top back to some easy trails down. I took a breath and I repeated, “You can do it.” I was thankful no one was around to see me quake.

I started down. I don’t know if I what I was feeling was left over from the beginner skier in me who could only snow-plow down a hill, but it definitely seemed steeper than Greer. I stopped once in the middle of the slope to get my bearings. This is usually a bad move because pausing mid-slope tends to freak you out more because you have time to notice just how steep the thing you’re descending is. A young guy came swooshing down across the other side of the slope and I started right back up again, telling myself that it was only a few more turns before I too was done with the slope. When I made it to the bottom, I let out a triumphant cheer. Ha! Conquered. So, true to form, I of course took another run down it to make it really count.

The rest of the day was less stressful and more fun. I found that I also enjoyed a few other black diamond runs that were interspersed amidst the blue runs: Razerback, Downspout and Fall Line. I did all of these multiple times as they were much easier than any of the other blacks and therefore felt like a relief. I also did manage to go down some old familiars: Snowbird and the ever so beloved Exhibition. I am sorry to say that I never went further than Exhibition, for I felt that I’d probably feel disappointed by Sunset, the long green I used to love. At the end of the day, it seemed like too much work to get myself over to a green run that I’d probably only want to do once before returning to the intermediate blue runs. The only black by Sunset is the terrain park, which is far more interesting to snowboarders than to me. I’m not at the half pipe or high jump stage of my skiing career yet. (And, yes, I said yet because part of me thinks jumping might be kind of fun…)

Downspout: A fun black among blues

It was a fun, full day, despite my anti-social mood. I feel as though going to Holimont and conquering all those black diamond runs in my old haunt has really brought me full circle with my skiing past. I’ve finally graduated. It’s only taken me 18 years. The diploma is in my hands and it’s now on to the higher education of advanced skiing. Whoo-hoo, indeed!

And to celebrate, I give you this new ski-ku as my commencement speech:

Skis etch lines in snow
Trailing small “s”‘s behind
Proof that I skied here.

And, by the way, I think I will be joining the Fagowees Ski Club. They hooked up speakers in bus, playing music off someone’s iPod, and people were dancing in the aisles of the bus the whole way home. I sat in the back of the bus with the “bad” folks. Them’s my kind of people!

Also. They promised me a spot on the shot ski at the next meeting. (The shot ski contains five shot glasses and five people line up next to it and simultaneously take a shot off the ski.) Graduation has not matured me enough to give up the partying…

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