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institute Sesquiotic



Back on the Boards Again

I recently went skiing for the first time in thirteen years and only the second time since 1983. Now, it's only fair to say that in 1983 I was a fifteen-year-old high school student full of, um, spunk. Things have changed a bit since then. Last time I was skiing, there were no express quads, and if I had seen somebody on his butt on the hillside with both his feet bound to one wide board, I would have assumed he was being punished for something. Now snowboarders are all over, long lift lines are almost nostalgia, and I'm a married, gainfully employed thirtysomething.

I really would have gone back to the slopes sooner. I've been itching to ski for years. I've also been living in eastern cities for years. Without a car. And without skis. My dad mistakenly sold my prize 195 cm Dynastars at a garage sale while I was away at university. Was I unhappy? You don't want to go there. But a Christmas trip back to visit the family in Alberta finally gave me the opportunity for my glorious return to the slopes. Lake Louise! I was looking forward to skiing more than I was to seeing my family again (look, I'd seen them more than once in the past eighteen years).

My wife had skied before. Once or twice. I got some idea of her level when she talked about sticking to the "green square" runs. Oh, but she was very confident that she could do well enough. Ten years as a professional figure skater ought to confer a certain natural ability at sliding on things, no? So on December 27, 2001, Aina and I headed out of Cochrane at seven in the morning. The aim was to reach Louise at 8:30 and be on the first chair of the day at nine. I had this idea that it wouldn't take long to get through the ski rentals. Remember, I used to own my own equipment.

We got to Louise a bit later than planned, at nine exactly, and headed straight into the rental shop – or, well, the lineup for it. I took some consolation in the fact that by the time we walked out of there with our gear a bit over an hour later the line had tripled in size. Oh well, who needs the first hour of skiing on a gorgeous day, full sunlight and zero degrees Celsius? We still had nearly six hours to play with. We avoided the incipient lineups on the express quads and went straight for the leisurely Olympic double chair, a seventeen-minute ride through calm, fresh air, up 2100 vertical feet. A great introduction to the beauty of the area. What a view.

I asked Aina whether she'd ridden a chairlift before. She thought she had. I regaled her with the tale of my first time on a chairlift, in grade 7: I didn't stand up quickly enough and had to jump from two or three feet up, landing in a heap on the ramp. Aina was amused. We got to the top, flipped up the bar, raised our ski tips. "OK, now stand up," I said, standing up. "I can't!" she wailed. "Standupstandupstandup," I said in my most encouraging and understanding scream. She jumped from about two feet up and landed in a heap, hat and instant camera flying into the snow. The liftie punched the stop button, helped her up, handed her the hat and camera, and said a few calming things in a French accent, trying not to giggle.

But, ah! On the slopes at last! I was just itching to cut loose. Like a fish back in the ocean! After the obligatory photo stop, I skied a short ways and looked back, expecting Aina to be close behind. I squinted and could just make her out, about two metres down the hill from the photo stop. The she fell over. And got up, and snowplowed a bit further, and face-planted. And so on, redefining the term "fall line." But at least, being a skater, she fell gracefully.

Part of the problem was that her tips kept crossing. Perhaps she needed shorter skis, I thought, lending her a helping pole. I, on the other hand, had 188s and thought they should have been longer, as suited someone of my skill and experience. It seemed to me that perhaps then I'd have as good control over them as I used to have twenty years ago.

The green run from the top of the Olympic chair, Wiwaxy, is a glorious wide easy cruiser, 2100 vertical feet of lazy winding like a big old river. It's also a main traffic artery between the various parts of the front of Louise. After the first few pitches, Aina was finding her feet a little, but she was a bit nervous. I decided to take her around to the back of the mountain, where I thought there would be less traffic. Up the Eagle chair, stop for another photo, then down Pika, a nice, long, easy green... habituated by expert skiers on their way to black diamonds such as Ptarmigan or the double-blacks on the Paradise lift. I tried to snowplow alongside Aina but gave up. It was wearing on my legs, and I was going to need them for the black diamonds! I reverted to the ski-ahead-and-wait method. Aina was now a moving obstacle for all the eager experts whipping by and I was a serial slalom pole. I shepherded her to the Larch chair, as far "back" as Louise gets, and, after agreeing to meet at the rental shop at 4:30 and reassuring her that there would be enough people skiing on the green runs that she would be seen if she injured herself, I took off. It was ten to noon. Free at last! The wind on my face, in my eyes...

Can I just mention, by the way, that I had always assumed goggles were to keep the glare out of the eyes? So this time, not finding my old goggles, I just took along a pair of clip-on shades for my glasses. I now know what it feels like to have my eyes turn into ice cubes. Oh, but such a small discomfort for such glorious skiing! Slow down? Never! Freeze, eyes, if you must!

My plan had been to spend the morning warming up and then hit the really good stuff in the afternoon. Well, afternoon was pretty much upon me. I headed for the Paradise lift. No line-up for it at all – in fact, line-ups were minimal all day, another divergence from my recollections. As I sat in the middle of the triple chair, elbow room on either side, I surveyed Paradise Bowl below: a wide-open mogul field, half in shadow. A bit of bare rock or dirt here and there – no new snow in the last week or so. And at the top, to the right, hung the double-black Paradise Cornice: a leap off an edge into a half-vertical mogul field that funneled down between some rocks and into Paradise Bowl. Yeah! That looked good! Just like in the ski magazines. I could do that, sure, just as long as I could get my skis to stop sliding sideways when I tried to carve. I remember quite clearly skiing Paradise Bowl once before. OK, more like crawling from bump to bump all the way down. But that was then! I'm older and more confident now, and I'm sure I've gotten better just by letting it sink in. It's no steeper than a flight of stairs, after all.

I felt warm and ready to go. I hopped off the top of the chair and looked over toward Paradise Cornice. OK, um, where's the run? I just see the edge. Over to the left was the main entrance to Paradise, looking a bit more like the Inferno. I paused and thought, You know, there's a lot of shadow and flat light. I hate skiing moguls I can't see. And all those exposed bits. Maybe later in the day when I can see better. I headed down the ridge and onto a cat track, then dove down a short moderate pitch and onto the high-speed flats again. Oddly, my toes were a bit sore. I tried to shift back in my boots.

OK, almost one o'clock. Total tally: two green runs, a blue run, another green to Paradise, then – off that cat track, it must have been a black one, right? But the trail map had little to say about that. Come on, then! I'm a good skier, dammit! Well, I'm warming up, I thought. I'll head to the front and do Eagle Flight, a nice bit of a middle-black pitch with some moguls.

Actually, as it turns out, you can't get to the top of Eagle Flight from the Ptarmigan lift, which I took to get back to the front. So I aimed for blue-square Wapta, which turned out to be a rocky road with a nice dose of snowmaking in the schnozz. Then I missed the Top of the World lift and had to head all the way down to the base area. But! I went via Ladies Downhill. At last! A black diamond! I could ski it! Or, well, skid sideways down it, every so often making a "turn" and skidding on the other edge. But it was scrapy hard pack. Really.

I did a couple more runs on the upper front side on those mogul-heavy blue squares of which there seem to be so many at Louise. I kept looking with interest at the blacks and noticing with disappointment how there were rocky patches here and there. Gad, I thought, standing on the traverse at the top of Sunset Gully, what a nice little cliff this is! Pity about those rocks. I'm sure if it were a bit less steep or a bit wider I could be surer on my feet and avoid them. Why do my toes hurt so much?

That was something else I hadn't remembered from my youth. Sore toes? Of course, everyone knows you have to keep your weight forward and all that, which means your heels are at the back of the boot and your toes are not jammed in the front. Why would I be putting my weight back like some nervous tyro trying to dig his heels in? I was confident! No hesitant reflexes at all! I decided it must be that my socks were too snug. And maybe I should have clipped my toenails – you never notice something like that when you're wearing nice leather shoes all day. I decided to take the Summit platter to the back bowls, start on Boomerang the first time, a nice blue run, then see what I could get up to after lunch.

Funny thing: I'd forgotten about the narrow traverse at the start of Boomerang. Well, it's not that bad, even when your left ski is a foot higher than your right. You probably won't go slipping through the snow fence and onto the "Closed – Avalanche Danger" below (sometimes open as one of Canada's most blood-curdling double-blacks). If you feel yourself getting a bit fast for your liking, you can reach to the left and slow yourself with your hand against the mountain. Ouch, my toes.

But once into the bowls, it's wide-open skiing! You can start a high line and cut some nice turns straight down. Then nail a few moguls – whoops, I'm sure I meant to keep my ski more behind me – and, uh, pause. A bit strenuous, that herringbone from the top of the platter to the start of Boomerang, let's just give the legs a moment. A few more moguls and I was ready to stop for lunch, just as soon as I had poled (oh my arms) and skated my way back to the Temple Lodge, the backside rest stop at Louise.

As I sat in Temple Lodge with my burger, my eyes defrosting and my face feeling like an overheated radiator, I decided it would be a good idea to take off my boots and air my toes. That's all they need, I thought as I wrestled with the boots, trying not to wince. A nice bit of wiggling the toes. Wiggle (ah), wiggle (ooh). Then get! UGH! the! UNH! boots! OUCH! back! (suppressed moan)! on! OK, I've got nearly two hours left, I'm going to do nothing but the good stuff from now on, I decided. I'm warmed up, and I can ignore the pain in my toes! Big boy now!

When I was fifteen, I used to ski big GS turns on blue cruisers and groomed blacks all day long, sloppy snow smears, never a grumble from my legs. They were the best part of my body, hard like rock. Time to use them now! I went up Larch, aimed straight for the black mogul haven of Lynx... and saw one of those damn "marginal conditions" signs – not more rocks! Come on, it's late December! The snow here is usually better than this! I went down Larch Poma instead, formerly the lift line for the long-gone eponymous tow. Pounded right off a mogul and OUCH!

That was my legs! You must be joking! I've climbed the stairs in the CN Tower in seventeen and a half minutes [note: improved to 16:32 the next year]! My legs are great!

Hmm, perhaps climbing stairs uses different muscles than skiing moguls. It couldn't be from something stupid like sitting back on my skis. Well, screw it. One way or the other, I was at the top of a big pile of moguls and felt like I had just done a lengthy wall sit. And I had no way of getting down but using the same muscles again. And again. And again. Exactly when did they decide to become sore?

I made it down, mogul mogul, pause, mogul, pause, and so on. It chagrined me greatly to look like some nervous intermediate. But my legs were not to be argued with. I decided to retreat to the front side via Ptarmigan. Alas, when I reached the bottom of Larch, I saw the Ptarmigan chair hanging motionless, a long lineup waiting for it. I gazed up at it and thought how much Aina said she liked Pika, the green run off that lift. I knew her luck. I looked up at the chairs and tried to spot a white faux fur hat. Oh well, I thought, heading back to Larch, she's probably hanging closer to the top. I thought the same thing when scanning it a second time after my next run – down another blue square – and again after the following run, which was to take me down a nice steeper pitch but ended up staying on the green Lookout because the steeper run had more rocks and, uh, moguls, ouch. Finally, the Ptarmigan chair still hanging inert, my beloved surely dangling freezing above a cliff with moguls on it, I took the only other route to the front side, the Ski Out, a long, flat, narrow thing packed with hundreds of people with the same escape plan, many of them making turns across the whole width or blocking it with wide snowplows (did I mention how narrow it is?). Was it enjoyable? Don't go there.

Nearly four o'clock. The light was getting flat. Dammit, I wanted one good run! One last chair ride up the Friendly Giant express quad (the only lift I hadn't taken yet). A nice zip down Men's Downhill or Ladies Downhill, I thought, a flight down a largely mogul-free black to a glorious finish. As I rode up, the two other guys on the chair were talking about the runs they'd done. One of them told the other that the Men's Downhill was a sort of vertical ice cube tray. Then he groused about how the Ladies Downhill had started so nice in the morning but gotten scraped clean by mid-afternoon, nothing but hardscrabble now. Uh-huh. OK, I thought, a nice final run down the blue Juniper, one of those steepish blues Louise has. Some areas would call it a black, for sure.

Oh, heck, I don't care. Sore legs, toes in agony, ice cube eyes, hat hanging on by its stringy chinstrap (don't laugh! it has earflaps that beat any muffs!), I still love it. I ripped down that last run – why can't I get these edges to grab? – and even made some very nice wedels on the flats. Fine. As last runs go, it was almost the best run of the day. I should have done it first.

As I hobbled out from the rental return in my snug leather pull-on boots, trying not to wince too much, my big toenails a lovely shade of violet, I found Aina lined up to return her equipment. She'd had a great day! After I left her, she gradually gained confidence and had a wonderful time taking it easy. Didn't get stuck on the Ptarmigan chair. Looked like she could ski for another hour, light permitting. As I limped with her back to the car, I felt happy to have shown her the joy of skiing. And I plotted my next return to the slopes, when I would clip my toenails, use my legs right, and definitely ski some double blacks. Definitely. After a little warm-up.


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