The Beginning Of The End In Ski Country

Harold E. CollinsI spent the first afternoon in Steamboat, Friday, sizing up the situation. It was Spring Break and Steamboat was very busy. There were people everywhere stomping around in space suits. Without skis they walked like the first men to land on the moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Skis on (or snowboards), they glided around like fish in water, but this water was hard and cold. They hadn’t had much snow for several weeks, so it was mostly ice from freezing at night and melting during the day— this was the end of March. The lower levels were in rough shape. The slopes would close in a few weeks.

Friedel prayed for snow as we lunched in a greasy spoon joint crammed with space people. They looked half human and half Martian when they took off their goggles and helmets. Those with sunburns looked like raccoons. All I can remember is I was eating indoors, but it was cold and everything was wet. The food was even soggy. It’s hard to forget a cold soggy greasy hamburger on a wet bun, but you try as quickly as your stomach lets you. The potato chips were limp from the humidity and equally memorable.

Looking out the window I could see space people in long lines waiting to be launched. One spacecraft was a simple flying 3-seater chair on a wire tied to a succession of erector set towers that worked their way up the mountain. I liked the other spacecraft better. It looked safer with the space people inside the space capsule. It too was tied to a wire that pulled it up the mountain.


On Palm Sunday we were bussed to the local Catholic Church. It was a small frame structure built to accommodate about 100 people, but not the holiday tourists. It was standing room only today. The priest was good. The vocalists were a cowgirl mother daughter duet in blue jeans and boots with guitars. Mom was middle age beautiful with a voice to match. Daughter was a better guitar player and a good backup singer to her mom, but all eyes and ears were on mom—not the priest. She was “hot,” better suited to a cocktail lounge than church, probably her night job.

Friedel and I wedged into a front row seat with a good view, but I was repeatedly distracted by a robust middle aged man sitting across from me, also in the front row. He had a fresh white cast on his left leg up to the hip. His crutches were leaned against the wall. But for the grace of God, that could be me. I said a special prayer to my Guardian Angel that it was not me as I watched him struggle to stand up for Communion with help from his son and wife.

The flight home was uneventful, except for the roaring doubts and confusion in my head. Something had changed when I got out of my natural habitat. Will I get it back? My crystal ball got turned upside down and I was flying away from a fog of snow, ice and bewilderment at what had happened that weekend.

Freidel’s prayers were answered the first night with 8 inches of new snow and again with 15 inches the next night. Everyone was ecstatic except me. I was blinded by the sun and snow as I walked with Friedel to sign up for a lesson on Saturday. I didn’t have any trouble seeing the bill for $190 and another $60 for a lift ticket. Why did I need a lift ticket for the bunny hill? It got me in the gate and I could go wherever I wanted all day I was told. My instructor would meet me and whoever else signed up at 2:00 PM at Gate A.

From the ticket office we went over to get me some skis. This was another $75. I didn’t have a space suit. Corduroys, wool sweater over a mock turtleneck shirt, leather jacket, leather gloves and a black wool Mick cap with pull down ear flaps would be my fashion statement for the day.

Friedel took off for the slopes and I stumbled over to ground zero in my rented space boots. I felt I was walking in quicksand, they were so heavy. The skis seemed to weigh another 100 pounds. I manned up and carried them, but wanted to drag them.

Only one classmate joined me, a young mother coerced into this absurd sport by her husband and children. She had that deer in the head- lights look, but was dressed for the occasion. I simply tried not to look too foolish in my Brooks Brothers casual wear.

The ski instructor looked and acted bored, as if he drew the short straw and got stuck with a 76 year old beginner and a terrified June Cleaver whose Beaver was somewhere skiing the mountain on a snowboard.

Lesson #1: Put on the skis. This took ten minutes and I fell down trying.
Lesson #2: Learn how to take your skis off after you fall down so you can get up and put your skis back on.
Lesson #3: Sidestep up the slope 6 inches at a time.
Lesson #4: Sidestep down the slope 6 inches at a time.
Lessons #6 and 7: Turn it around and do it the other way. Whoops! How do I turn around? Bam! Down I went again. The skis went right out from under me as I got them aligned half way through the turnaround. The instructor apologized for not telling me which foot should go first.
Lesson #5: Move one leg at a time when you turn and don’t cross your skis. As you can see, Lesson #5 should have come before #6 and #7, but it didn’t. By now I knew our instructor was a space person. The space was between his ears, a career ski bum.
Lesson #8: The snowplow was easy.
My classmate was still sidestepping 6 inch steps up and down.
We had performed these feats of daring in an area the size of my living room. It was time to head for the Bunny Hill.
Lesson #9: We scooched over to the Bunny Hill. This too was easy. I had done some cross country skiing with my children many years ago.
Lesson #10: Was more of 3 through 8 at the base of the hill. This went well. June Cleaver could even sidestep up and down 5 to 10 yards in each direction now.

It was time to go to the top of the hill. Rambo the instructor showed us the treadmill that would take us to the top and as I stepped on he yelled to lean forward. Too late! Bam!! I was on my back again, skis crossed and poles hanging over the edge as I was being dragged up the slope, half on and half off the conveyor belt. Someone hit the panic button and it stopped before both my legs were pretzelled. Rambo and another instructor retrieved my poles and helped untangle me as I tried to get my skis off so I could stand up. I rolled over, but the skis didn’t, so I used my pole to pop them off backhanded. See, I had learned something already.

Undaunted, I reloaded and made it up to the top of the hill. By now I could see several dozen little junior skiers blitzing around the hill like Kamikazes. The snowboarders were the worst. They stopped only by falling down or hitting someone—usually both at the same time.

We were told to stay up at the top and work our way down 10 to 15 yards at a time to avoid the kids in their suicide missions.

Lesson #11: We needed to slalom from one side to the other— shish booming would be a suicide run. This I understood. At first it was snowplow one way and then shift my weight to cut into the snow and turn into the other direction. This worked well for 3 or 4 mini-runs from one side to the other, each time with a little less snowplow and a little more speed until I hit the snowplow again to make a turn, but all at the top of the hill. I was getting on to it, so the instructor ignored me.

It was tedious because after each mini-run I had to sidestep 20 to 30 yards back up the hill. June Cleaver was planted 15 to 20 yards in front of me like an ice sculpture while Rambo coaxed her to move a few yards at a time holding her from the belt on the back of her coat.

On my 5th mini-run I was doing well. I made 2 graceful turns without the snowplow and I knew I could do this with a little more practice. As I came out of turn 3 June Cleaver moved. Rambo had let go of the belt and she headed directly into my path. I successfully maneuvered a turn to avoid her, but then Wham! I hit the conveyer belt again and with the same result. It was a hard fall because I was going faster. When I set the skis to make my turn the snow was icy and I was going too fast to stop. There was no room to snow plow or maneuver as I narrowly missed June Cleaver who threw her arms in the air and lost her poles when she saw me coming.

This time I just laid there. Rambo and another helper came to help me but they first had to rescue June Cleaver who was in full shish boom mode rocketing down the bunny hill. One of them tackled her and they both slid down the hill in a snow dance that resembled break dancing with skis in the air.

While lying there motionless I heard my Guardian angel say, “Get off this mountain you old fool before you kill yourself.” I took off my skis, put them on my shoulder and started walking down the mountain. Rambo chased me down the hill to get my ticket stub. He apparently needed this to get paid. My words to him were very “direct” when I told him where to put the stub and offered to punch his ticket. June Cleaver could now have a private lesson if Rambo could coax her back up the hill. I never looked over my shoulder to see what happened.

That was the beginning and end of my ski career. Cold, wet, angry and sore, I felt old for the first time in my life. The cold freezing wind had frozen my wet leather gloves. The knees and butt of my wet pants were frozen stiff. After shedding the boots and heading for a hot shower, I realized I was exhausted and took a nap.

After that I spent 3 days writing, reliving my past in this strange cold beautiful place. Cramped in a hotel room or lost in the hotel lounge, there were no pleasant new memories in the making.