We just got back from a weekend in Tahoe. Since we don’t have a ski lease this year, we have been getting up early on Saturday mornings to drive up so we only have to pay for one night at a hotel. This is a little bit hard on me since I am not so early to rise on a normal basis… but I suck it up. For this trip, we spent Saturday at Squaw Valley USA and spent Sunday in the backcountry.
I’m not a die-hard skier, that’s for sure. In fact, I only learned to ski four years ago. Having grown up in Iowa, my outdoor winter activities were limited to sledding and fort-building. I went skiing for the first time ever at age 22. It was an impromptu road trip with two guy friends from college to Colorado Springs. We went to Copper Mountain and I mastered the bunny hill without pushing my limits. The next opportunity for skiing came up after meeting Greg at age 29.
It was our second date. I was in the Bay Area for work and stayed all of Thanksgiving week, much to my mother’s dismay. It was scandalous that I should be spending all these nights with a man I just met, and that I should be spending a major holiday with him instead of with her. I couldn’t be bothered by this; I was there and loving it. Greg’s idea of fun on Thanksgiving had nothing to do with cooking up a big bird and watching football all afternoon. He was taking me to Lake Tahoe to ski! I had the heads-up on this plan and had borrowed ski clothes from a friend.
Rule #1: Always look the part, even if you have no idea what you’re doing.
We packed a small cooler of deli turkey, an avocado, bread , and chips and made for the mountains very early on Thanksgiving Day. My stomach started getting that nervous feeling as we climbed through the Sierra Nevada on Highway 80. Greg knew that I had only skied once in my life, but I’m reasonably athletic and I’m sure he thought this would be no problem at all. I wasn’t so sure. We parked at Sugar Bowl and made ourselves meager turkey sandwiches before hitting the slopes. I mostly wanted to throw up by this point because I was so nervous about making an ass of myself in front of my new boyfriend.
Greg got his gear around and led me to the rental shop. I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what gear to ask for. I didn’t know what size I needed. I didn’t even know what measurements the sizes came in. I felt abandoned as he was outside putting his stuff on and otherwise not helping me. Once I got my stuff, I had no idea how to put it on. Since he assumed I knew what I was doing, I didn’t want to appear completely ignorant and needy. I didn’t know how to step my boots into my skis. Once I got them on, I couldn’t go anywhere with them. I finally got the torture devices on (still my least favorite part of any given ski day) and clomped out to meet him, barely juggling my skis and poles.
We were supposed to “ski” over to the lift line on flat terrain. As if! I thought I would burst out crying at any moment. I was trying SO HARD to be brave and put on a happy face. I could see that he was completely in his element in the mountains. He was having the time of his life, blissfully unaware that I was about to explode. Once we got on the lift, I had about 30 seconds to relax before I started to think about what was going to happen when we got to the end of the line.
I was going to have to ski. Oh shit.
We got there, and I magically slid off the chair and down the small ramp without falling. This was probably a bad thing, actually. If I had fallen right there, it would have been abundantly clear to Greg that I had no idea what I was doing. Not me. I made it look like I was a natural. That is, until I was facing the mountain and he expected me to ski down it. “Okay, ready? Let’s go!” He takes off, swooshing down the mountain with a few easy turns. I am paralyzed. My knees are locked. My stomach is clenched. I am sweating in my layers of silk long johns and wind-proof outerwear. He stops to wait for me. “Come on! It’s easy!”
“I don’t know how.”
I must have thought that he would break up with me on the spot or something, as hard as it was for me to admit that. He patiently side-stepped his way back up the mountain to where I was. He stood beside me and explained that you just let gravity take you sideways across the mountain. When you get to over there, stop and turn and go back the other way. I felt I might be Better Off Dead… I started to try this and panicked. I was literally stuck. I sat down right there, refusing to go. I was terrified. I actually don’t know if I was terrified of falling and getting hurt, or of being out of control, or of looking like a fool in front of him, or what. I basically threw a temper tantrum. “I won’t go and you can’t make me!” He said there was no other way down, that the ski patrol only rescues injured people. We debated back and forth like this for awhile, eventually coming to a stalemate.
Rule #2: You gotta know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.
I reluctantly got back up and steeled myself to get off this fucking mountain and into the lodge where I could have a stiff drink. I slowly slid over to where he was. I purposely fell, turned my skis over manually, and made my way across the mountain sideways to where he was on the other side, repeating this over and over again. It was a miserable existence. I was humiliated. I was exhausted. I was afraid he really was going to break up with me because I couldn’t ski. At this point, I didn’t care much about that. Breaking up would feel better than what THIS felt like, I was sure. We finally made it to the bottom. Relief!
“Okay, let’s go again. You’re really getting the hang of it now.”
I politely explained that there was no way I was going again. Did he not realize that it had just taken me over an hour to get down ONE RUN and that tears had been involved? I implored him to go and have all the fun he wanted to have all afternoon long, and that I would be perfectly content at the bar. He protested with a lot of encouraging words. I dug my heels in and said no. With a long sigh, he skied away and I trudged as fast as possible to the bar. As I waited, I was nervous that he was really disappointed in me. I was not looking forward to the long drive home if that was the case. And I still had three more days of this “vacation” to get through. I was formulating my Plan B when he finished for the day.
As we were walking to the car, I apologized for wasting the day and said that I didn’t want him to be mad at me. He replied that he was not mad at me and that I didn’t waste his day. He said that if he were me, he’d be more worried about my lack of character for quitting.
Rule #3: Stand up for yourself.
I quickly got into the passenger seat and sat there in stunned silence. As he drove, I calmed myself for the argument I was about to make. Screw his disappointment. Screw his wasted day. Screw him breaking up with me. I was shocked at his audacity. I was livid.
“You don’t know the meaning of the word character if you are implying that I lack it. I have come out here to visit you twice, and each time I have done everything you have asked me to do with a smile on my face and fear in my heart. Kayaking, running, mountain biking, skiing. I haven’t told you no. I haven’t told you I’m scared. I haven’t asked you to do anything that is beyond your comfort level, so you don’t know what this is like. If you believe that I quit today because I made it down the hill and didn’t go back up and you believe that I lack character because of that, then we don’t have anything else to talk about.”
By this time, we had pulled into The Bridgetender, a rustic bar in Tahoe City. He quietly regarded me. And then he apologized. He said that he had no idea how terrified I was of any of those things because I was able to do all of them so well. He had no idea I was so far outside of my comfort zone. He was sorry.
Yes, folks, it could have all been over right there. As much as we thought we knew about each other, this was a real fork in the road for us and either path could have been taken. I am proud of myself for trying all the things he had introduced me to, and I’m proud of myself for knowing my limits. I am proud that I defended myself rather than letting him make me question my character. Mostly, I am grateful that he didn’t let his ego get in the way and he was able to apologize.
I didn’t ski for two years after that. I then met a friend who had been a ski instructor and asked if she would teach me. I was a motivated student with a fair amount of athletic ability. That season, Carolina and I spent most weekends at Alpine Meadows making turns, shifting weight, planting poles, bending knees, and leaning forward. It was an honorable moment when Greg said he didn’t recognize me from the chair lift because I no longer look like a beginner! I can now ski Expert Only terrain (just in case I follow Greg onto the wrong lift) and we can look back at our first day on the slopes and laugh.