Most of us remember the first time we strapped on skis or buckled into a snowboard. Often we were with a parent. At least I was, when my dad packed my brother Nate and I into a station wagon and we headed to Willamette Pass in Oregon for my first day on the slopes.
Back then, in the retro ski days of the early ‘90s, fewer parents placed their children in lessons and instead opted to teach them on their own. And the word “teaching” is relative. In this instance, the technique used was as outdated as the gear compared to today.
While I wore snow pants, jeans were far more common on the mountain than helmets. The rented skis I stepped into were heavy and skinny. Under my ski jacket I wore a fluorescent pink turtleneck — I suppose to warn everyone I was approaching. My brother and I carried no poles that day; best not to accidentally stab myself or someone else while we learned to shred.
The first run my dad pointed us to is still etched in my memory. It was called “Duck Soup,” perhaps the least intimidating name ever emblazoned across a ski trail. Still, I was scared as I stood at the top of the lightly sloped cat-track with my ski tips touching, forming the perfect shape of a pizza slice.
Dad’s teaching method mostly consisted of holding onto the back of our ski pants and letting go. He offered some pointers here and there, but like most DIY parents teaching their kids to ski it mostly involved repeating “pizza” over and over again and hoping their youngsters didn’t smash into a tree.
Our learning curve consisted of not wanting to fall. We couldn’t really turn, so those first few runs we simply beelined down the track and adjusted the size of our pie to brake, until we subsequently face-planted. Luckily, our skis were wrenched on so tight we rarely ejected and, also lucky, neither of us drew blood.
We couldn’t say the same thing for Dad.
After few hours of “lessons,” my brother I began covering more ground in between each tumble. We could turn a bit and even stop if we had a long enough runway. So Dad decided to take a different route down and meet us at the chairlift. It was a steeper run, during which he double ejected and ended up in the ski patrol headquarters. As always, he kept a good attitude about it and even joked about his misfortune on the ride home.
I wonder how long it would have taken to embrace the ski season if my dad hadn’t dragged us up to the ski hill that day. Ever since I was a child learning to stay upright on Duck Soup, area resorts have defined much of my schedule and social calendar through the winter. Skiing and riding is why many of us choose to live in any given area, especially here.
Decades later, my visiting nephew wanted to strap on a snowboard for the first time. The roles were reversed at Whitefish Mountain Resort as I stood with him at the top of the “Chipmunk” trail holding onto the back of his ski pants. “Tell me when to let go,” I told him as a well-worn teaching method was passed on from one generation to the next. When he crashed, I picked him up and let him go until he crashed again. By the end of the day, he began learning and looked more comfortable on the snow. The scene was a familiar one, a throwback to how I was taught, except my nephew was wearing a helmet and must have forgotten his pink turtleneck.