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Ski School

Determined to face her fears, our editor in chief clicked into a pair of skis for the first time and confronted a mountain. The mountain almost won.

ski-school

Like many people in my family, I am risk averse — especially when it comes to active adventures. I prefer to stay on the safe side of activities, where I know what to expect and the chance of injury (or worse) is minimal. You want to go skydiving? I’ll keep my feet firmly on the ground, thank you.

So the fact that I let myself get talked into a ski trip with a group of friends to Breckenridge, Colo., last winter — when I had never skied in my 30-some years — was out of character.

Don’t get me wrong: I had always wanted to learn to ski. My fear of careening out of control down a mountain, however, coupled with my anxiety about heights, had always stopped me short. As with too many things in my life, I was scared of what could happen.

But I was tired of being cautious to the extreme. As a mom of two young girls, I want them to be fearless in their pursuits and to embrace new challenges. How can I expect that of them if I am constantly holding myself back?

It was time to live on the edge — or at least get a little closer to it.

Getting Prepped

I knew I shouldn’t tackle skiing, no less skiing on a mountain, without some training — and that I shouldn’t rely on friends or family to teach me. So I bought a full-day “adult first-time ski lesson” through the renowned Breckenridge Ski & Snowboard School to learn the basics.

My friend Marina also signed up. She had skied at Breckenridge the year prior without lessons and, after a couple of treacherous trips down the mountain, decided they were a must this time around. “None of the friends I was skiing with were beginners, and I spent the majority of the time veering in one direction — typically toward trees, which is terrifying. I was constantly wiping out and chasing my skis,” she recalls. “I wanted to learn the skills so I could be more confident.”

With the help of my travel buddies, I rented skis, boots, poles, and a helmet from a shop close to our ski-in condo near the base of Peak 9. I borrowed other gear I didn’t already own from family and friends — there was no point in investing in my own equipment at that point.

On the advice of coworkers, I added more squats and lunges to my workout regimen to prep my legs for skiing. I also squeezed in more winter runs to build up my cold-weather tolerance and endurance; I had no clue how my body would adjust to the elevation.

Before I knew it, it was time to hit the slopes.

Basic Training

After the ski tech at the rental shop fit me for my boots and I tried to walk in them for the first time, my heart and mind began racing: Are they supposed to feel like this? What have I gotten myself into? How can I possibly go all the way up that mountain?

Thankfully, I had the afternoon and evening to let it all sink in. By the following morning, I was actually excited. It was a beautiful day — temps in the mid-20s, windy, a little snowy — and as Marina and I awkwardly trudged our way to ski school, I took in the stunning landscape, the growing lines for the ski lifts, the skill of fellow skiers. There was so much to learn.

Upon joining our small group — five beginners ranging in age from early 20s to mid-50s — we got our first lesson: Check our boots. “Only socks and feet inside them,” said our ski pro, Dave, a retired Navy officer. “No pant leggings, no waterproof linings. You want to avoid creating any pinch points.” Boot-compliant, we headed outside to practice putting our skis on and taking them off. So far, so good.

Then we began to move. “Think of it as skating rather than walking,” Dave suggested. We slowly followed him to the instructional area, where we spent the morning practicing basic skills, such as sidestepping up a hill, shifting weight from foot to foot, getting on and off the magic carpet and pommel lift, gliding in a straight line, skiing and stopping in a wedge, and making wide turns.

Each time we ascended the small training hill, I began to feel more comfortable about going down. By lunchtime, I had yet to fall and was feeling surprisingly confident about our first true trip up the mountain. Even better, I was having a ton of fun.

We All Fall Down

The first afternoon lesson focused on using the ski lift. As Dave explained each step, I felt my anxiety mount. I repeated the instructions in my head as we waited in line: When the gate opens, glide to the yellow line, wait for the chair to hit your legs, sit down, check in with other skiers before bringing the safety bar down. Oh, yeah, and remember to breathe.

Getting onto the six-person chairlift turned out to be simple. Disembarking was another story. As our five-minute ride neared its end, Dave reminded us to keep our skis parallel and push straight off the chair as we stood up. But, despite my best efforts, my ski tips crossed, I fell, and all but Dave toppled like dominos. The whole lift immediately shut down. I was mortified.

Once I knew no one was hurt and shook off my embarrassment, I took a good look around. The mountains were breathtaking, and I suddenly understood that it’s not just the sport that appeals to skiers.

We each snapped a few photos before Dave guided us to the top of Silverthorne, a green “easy” run. After demonstrating each technique, he skied a few hundred yards down the slope and watched as each of us took our turn. For the next few hours, we practiced wide “C turns” and tighter “J turns,” then began linking them together as we crisscrossed the trail. We fell and learned how to use the slope to get back up. We practiced using our edges and played around with speeding up, slowing down, and, in most cases, stopping.

Three o’clock rolled around in no time, and Dave gathered us together for a few reminders and a warning: “You might feel tempted to try a blue run tomorrow,” he said of the more challenging runs. “But don’t let anyone talk you into it unless you truly feel ready.” We thanked him for his guidance and patience and went our separate ways.

The lifts didn’t close for another hour, so Marina and I squeezed in a few more runs on the trail we’d come to know. It was freeing to move at my own pace — slow and steady on steeper sections, a little bit quicker on others. Back and forth across the slope I cautiously skied, fully attuned to my surroundings yet in a sort of meditative state. I felt ready to push myself a little harder . . . tomorrow.

Lessons Learned

I woke up the next morning to a few inches of fresh powder and a couple of aching calves. Walking to the ski shop, I wondered how I would be able to move once I put the boots back on. Still, other than being nervous about getting off the ski lift, I felt ready to get back out there.

My friends and I were soon headed up the mountain. I successfully exited the lift and made my way down the green run, applying all I had learned the day before. I practiced turns, experimented with the angle of the wedge, and picked up speed. When I felt myself losing control, I stopped by sitting down rather than actually falling — I still wasn’t willing to let go completely and risk a “yard sale” (a major wipeout where you lose all your gear).

Soon there were just three of us left on the easier slopes, as the others in our group headed off to more difficult runs. After a few more successful trips down, I decided I was ready to tackle a blue trail, ignoring Dave’s note of caution. We made our way to the lift that would take us up to Peak 8.

I quickly regretted my decision. The higher we went, the more anxious I became. By the time we got off the lift, I was bathed in a cold sweat. All I could see was the drop just below the chalet: One moment there were skiers, the next it was as if they’d vanished from the face of the earth.

Not wanting to hold my friends back, I urged them to go down so I could take some time to compose myself. Then, with shaky hands, I phoned my husband, who was a few peaks away. I began to sob. “I don’t know how I’m going to get down,” I kept saying. “Can you come over?”

While I waited for him to arrive, I became resigned to the fact that there was only one option. As scared as I was, I had to ski down. I had the basic knowledge, skills, and abilities to do it physically; I just had to get on board mentally.

I had to accept that I was going to fall, and it might hurt. I had to do exactly what I often remind my daughters: Face your fears, and when you fall or fail, get back up and try again. Even when it hurts, even when you’re scared.

It wasn’t pretty. But navigating through a steady stream of tears, I eventually reached the bottom.

And as soon as we were back at the condo for lunch, I signed up for another afternoon of lessons. Deep down, I really enjoyed skiing and wanted to get better at it. I wanted to return to those mountains with my girls some day. I owed it to them — and more importantly, to myself — to get back out there, challenge my fear, and take another chance.

is Experience Life's editor in chief.

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