On Sunday, February 24, after two months of procrastination, I finally succumbed to a friendly challenge from DCSki columnist and noted author John Sherwood to try skiing again after a near disastrous first attempt almost twenty years ago. No one got hurt that night on a small slope in the Catskills - the only casualty was my ego. Now almost 49 years old, I had managed to bury the frustration with two decades of the thrills and dangers of sky diving, extreme hiking, scuba, motorcycles, and living in Baltimore.
During the brief, beautiful drive to Liberty I was fortified by my 15-year-old son Gordon, a very good skier and the last person I wanted to think I was intimidated by something. Besides, with temperatures in the upper 50s, I figured there was little chance I would have to reveal my 20-year-old secret. A wave of relief washed over me as we passed golfers clad only in light sweaters at the foot of Liberty Mountain.
No such luck. At noon on a mild Sunday, Liberty Mountain Resort was up and running, the parking lot more than half full already. After some friendly, expert advice from the equipment rental folks, I dispatched my son to the blue slopes and trudged over to face my gremlins. There was a glimmer of hope: I had arranged for a private lesson, which I had not done the first time. I’ve always been a pretty good athlete and have worked at staying in shape, so my failure at skiing had weighed pretty heavily. After nearly 50 years, I had finally decided that success was more important than pride. I decided to actually listen to my instructor and do what he said.
Otto Matheke - now there’s the perfect name for a ski instructor. I figured he would be a young ski bum from Austria or Germany, but Otto must be 40-45, from Washington, DC, and has been skiing 35 years. He’s calm, attentive, encouraging, and has a great sense of humor. He put me through the basics at the huge instruction area at the base of the beginner’s slope, or First Class Slope. What I really liked was that he explained why I had to do that this way and do this that way. We did it until I got it. Slowly, by increments, I worked my way farther and farther up the gentle slope and “skied” back down, concentrating on Otto’s simple, clear fundamentals for beginners. I was pleasantly surprised at how few there are.
Finally the time came that I had to reveal my secret. “Okay, Mark, this time when you get to the bottom (30 feet), turn right.” I had executed a fine left turn just seconds before. But now I had to face ignominy squarely in the face: “Otto,” I said, “I can’t turn right.”
That night in the Catskills I had made long, looping left turns down the bunny hill for an hour and a half. Every time I tried to turn right, I went down. When my hands got sore from breaking my falls and hanging on to the old-style lift rope up to the top, I decide to take on the intermediate slope, right turns or not. At least I would ride a chairlift to my doom.
I got out of the chair okay but went headlong down the hill, gathering speed. That’s when I started executing the patented Gatlin Loop-turn left until you crash into the fence. I’d take off again downhill and loop down and around until I hit the fence again. I even tried a right turn, but went down right in front of someone who toppled over me. I got up and still had a long, steep shot to the base. No more fences, I decided. I’m going straight down.
I just pushed off and careered down the rough hill, building speed in an Olympic downhill crouch. I flew three feet into the air over moguls as if I knew what I was doing, still building speed and silently thanking the skiers downhill as they began to move to the margins and clear a path right down the middle of the slope. I noticed people at the bottom pointing up at me. A small crowd was gathering and had cleared a landing area. It looked like one of those round tarps firemen hold for folks leaping from fiery buildings. I didn’t know what I was going to do, as there were only buildings at the back of my “tarp.” At the last second, as if on cue, I executed a perfect, magnificent stop-to the left, of course, sending up a huge spray of snow on the small crowd and the building 15 feet away. No wipe-out, no blood, bones intact. Everyone quietly melted away, and I made for the bar to melt down.
Twenty years later an image of that night passed through my brain as I pushed off, with Otto saying gently: “Just think the turn. Look forward, lean over your boots, and just turn them.” It worked. It wasn’t pretty, but it got better. We made two runs down the beginner slope making left and right turns. It was exhilarating, as if twenty years of weight had been lifted.
And then Otto was gone. “You’re ready,” he said. “Go for it.” My son led me down the beginner slope a couple of times and then he talked me into trying another Green slope, the “Dipsy Doodle.” He said it was about the same as the First Class slope. Wrong. It is a good bit steeper and has a tight S-turn, one to the right and one to the left, hence “Dipsy Doodle.”
There was no time to think about it, we vaulted out of the lift and were just gone. As I dipped over the edge and headed down, I thought-“elevator shaft.” Otto said that’s the term folks use to describe the far steeper slopes in the Rockies. But I just reacted and somehow it came to me. I was able to handle speed and turns beyond my learning curve because Otto’s fundamentals worked. I was able to relax and take turns easy by thinking through them. It was a real boost to be told by other instructors and lift operators how well I had handled this or that. They seemed to be everywhere.
After showing me a few things, my son went off to take on more challenging runs, so I took on Dipsy Doodle several times by myself, working on the more dicey areas and making some wild right turns. I went down a few times, but only because of downed skiers or because I was having so much fun celebrating a particularly cool right-hander that I lost concentration and tumbled, laughing out loud at myself.
What a difference a lesson from an experienced instructor makes, and a willingness to listen, take things slow, and think - the kind of things you tell your 15-year-old to do. We will both be back to Liberty, probably this weekend. I’ve got about twenty years’ worth of catching up to do, and from what my son said, there are plenty of exciting challenges on other Liberty slopes. On the way out to my car, we saw the night shift coming in; an entire new group of skiers and snowboarders ready for action under the lights. Count this old dog in for some of that, too.