Learning Later

It's not when, but if you learn to ski that matters

Marquee image: The author rips late May turns in Left Gully at Tuckerman Ravine, New Hampshire. PHOTO: Jamie Walter

The first time I skied down a blue square trail at Sunday River, the man who taught me how to ski, Steve, watched at the bottom of the run in horror, fearing for my safety and everyone else’s on the hill. I was wild. Poles everywhere except where they needed to be, goggles too small for my face, white cotton turtleneck soaked with snow and sweat, and my borrowed helmet, covered in an assortment of old stickers—I looked like a fool. But I was also resilient, a smiling 16-year-old girl on skis for the fourth or fifth time.

Unlike most of the people I ski with now, I was a sophomore in high school when I clicked into bindings for the first time. However, when people ask me when I learned how to ski, the answer, to me, is a bit muddled. It wasn’t until the winter of my senior year that it all came together, that I found myself regularly on skis. That was also the winter that Steve took it upon himself to teach me.

A lifelong skier from Connecticut, Steve is a family friend who taught his three kids how to ski as soon as they could walk. His family drove up to Sunday River every weekend, a little over two hours from our hometown in Southern Maine. During those winters, I often tagged along, and Steve taught me just about everything I know about skiing and being in the mountains.

He taught me technique (“Hands in front of you! Higher!”), and instilled in me that under no circumstance would I become what he called a “high-maintenance skier” or “HM Caitlin.” He taught me what to wear in harsh mountain climates, how to tuck your poles under your leg on the chairlift, and where to ski when the mountain was packed.

During one lesson on a cold Saturday in January, a storm put the chairs on wind-hold. I refunded my day pass, and we boot-packed to the top of the peak, claiming fresh snow untouched by those who rely only on chairlifts.

We always got an early start, but Steve was the one who taught me that last chair is sometimes more rewarding than first chair—the way the slanted winter sunlight dips behind the mountains, the snow-guns erasing the tracks from the day, the emptiness of the base lodge.

The hours it took to become comfortable on skis never amounted to one specific moment or epiphany. Instead, in my mind, learning how to ski was a series of moments: the February day that I was no longer snow-plowing wide turns; the feeling of floating through powder for the first time after a storm called Nemo blanketed Sunday River in almost four feet of snow; the bluebird day in late March skiing my first natural glade.

No chair? No problem.
No chair? No problem.

Most of the time, though, I remember being frustrated—frustrated for being slow, for falling. Steve would always say to me, “You’re not getting better if you’re not falling.” At that time it was true. Annoying, but true. I hated being flat on the ground, the feeling of snow in my coat and melting down my neck as I collected my scattered skis and poles. But his words also made me believe I was getting better, slowly. And even this season—my fifth winter as a skier—even after a fall that tore my ACL, it still remains true. Willingness to learn and keep learning takes courage—courage to keep coming back to the mountain, to keep falling, to ski faster.

Skiing, I’ve found, is also about patience. Patience for the big snowstorm, patience for the practice, to get better, faster, patience to slowly accumulate skis and boots, and patience to heal from a season-ending injury.

And, of course, skiing takes resources—money saved from waiting tables until 2 a.m., all for a lift ticket or new skis. Learning to ski also requires generosity from others who might let you use their old helmet or poles as you slowly acquire your own gear.

Last May, when most had hung up their gear for the season, I found myself chasing corn snow, staring down a fifty-degree slope in the White Mountain backcountry. I was skiing Airplane Gully off of Mount Washington with Sam, Steve’s son, and our friends. It was a scary line—the steepness plus the rocks that lined both sides made it no-fall territory. The guy who skied before me grew up in Whitefish, Montana, and at 10 years old was skiing lines I dream of now. The girl taking my photo is on the college racing team. She started young too. We all learned to ski at different ages, on different mountains, but today we skied together. And one by one we pointed our skis and dropped in.