Off Piste


Los Angeles skyline and San Gabriel mountains.
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Off Piste

“Skiing: the art of catching cold and going broke while rapidly heading nowhere at great personal risk.” Anon.

In 1970’s Los Angeles, winter sports were comprised of baseball, basketball and AYSO soccer. Our bleak midwinter days were filled with mild sunshine and temperatures that lingered in the low 70s. Ice was confined to a silver bucket on your Dad’s wet bar – reserved for those who might request a Dewar’s and soda. Snow was a Currier and Ives sentiment and a meteorological miracle.

Having fled eighteen endless Chicago winters, my father considered any voluntary recreational sport involving sleet, snow or ice as the equivalent of paying someone to perform a root canal on a healthy tooth.  It was a completely unnatural act.

He had cured us of our desire to play hockey and ice skate with one ill-fated trip to a local skating rink.  However, every four years, the Olympics would appear on television and captivate us with the notion that skiing could attract girls like bears to honey. It was clear that skiing was reserved for the rich, famous and those who spoke with European accents. It was a sport for patrician royalty, like falconry and fox hunting.

For my mother, raising four boys on an ad executive’s meager salary did not qualify our family for a vacation in a far off Alpine fantasyland. She was also uniquely sober to the risks of snow plow, parallel and telemark turns having broken her leg while racing downhill with college friends at Lake Tahoe. To our delight, she graphically recounted her compound fracture, hospitalization and surgery, showing us the 8 inch shin scar and a repair replete with plates and screws that permanently braced her shattered fibula.

She, like so many others, had succumbed to the allure of the slopes and its après ski romanticism. She was fascinated with the advertisements of magnificently tanned, turtle necked intellectuals drinking wine and laughing with affectation. She could almost smell the pungent bite from the bubbling cheese fondue. But, in this fantasy, she could only see them from the waist up.  No one was wearing a leg cast.

My father was secretly relieved of her aversion to downhill skiing and made it clear to anyone who inquired that it would require a small fortune to equip our adolescent army. Our money could stretch more economically if invested in a fortnight summer beach house in nearby Newport Beach. He had zero interest in driving with chains on his car, layering four boys in wool and down only to have them declare that they needed to use the bathroom.

In California, there were enticing rumors of snow – great drifts of moisture rich precipitation known as “Sierra Cement”. It fell in copious amounts measured in feet, not inches – somewhere to the north and east of Los Angeles. Occasionally after a fast moving local clipper of cold rain, we would be enthralled with the snow capped peaks of Mt Wilson and the surrounding Angeles National Forest as they peered through a conveyor belt of gray cotton clouds. Yet, snow was an abstraction to native Angelinos. It was something to be experienced vicariously – on the news, on ABC’s Wide World of Sports or on the distant peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Yet, the lure of snow was intoxicating – to sled, build snowmen and barrage one’s enemies with an ordinance of hardened ice and snowballs was foreign and fun.  However, the thought of donning stiff plastic boots anchored by wire clips and leg breaking bindings did not really appeal to us. Playing in the snow seemed natural. Skiing was beyond our comprehension. To bind oneself into 205cm fiberglass spears and attempt to slide down an icy canyon, like a displaced piece of granite tumbling toward a certain compound leg fracture like our mother appealed to no one — except my contrarian older brother.

My brother discovered skiing in middle school after being invited by a well heeled friend to Mammoth Lakes, an exclusive ski resort. The alpine town rested at the base of jagged granite minarets that in some places, vaulted over 14,000 feet. On its tallest peaks, Sierra snow hid in sapphire blue couloirs year round. It was rumored that in good years, it was possible to ski in shorts and a tee shirt on July 4th.

I watched with green envy as my mother took my brother to the local ski outfitter, Sport’s Chalet, where he rented skis, purchased an arctic parka worthy on a National Geographic explorer, ski pants and gloves. To add insult to injury, he was given a $ 200 stipend to cover lift tickets, food and miscellaneous expenses. Apparently my father was unwilling to accept anyone’s charity for his son’s first ski experience.  To this day, I am convinced he pocketed the money.

He was only gone for three days but when he stumbled through our front door, I could have sworn that he was speaking with a French accent. He regaled us with stories of snow storms, down hill ski racing, girls in hot tubs, gondolas and panoramic views of the jagged Ansel Adams wilderness. His raccooned eyes twinkled as he talked in a new foreign language that seemed to trivialize my plebeian suburban existence. “The key to skiing moguls is following the fall line and leaning over your tips” He said with expert familiarity. I had always thought a mogul was some kind of Indian prince or a businessman. He continued, “…and then Karl did this radical helicopter off a jump. I got some serious air when I jumped off the Cornice”.

I was insanely jealous. I wanted that cool neon parka, skin tight ski pants and raccoon tan. I wanted to be Olympic champion Jean Claude Killy seated on a bear skin rug, holding a Courvoisier brandy as I seduced my latest French model girlfriend by a roaring alpine chalet fire. I wanted to ski but all I could think about was my Mom’s twisted fibula.  Each Saturday my paranoia would be reinforced with the opening clip to the Wide World of Sports where Jim McKay would voiceover: “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…” At the point where McKay said “ and the agony of defeat” a ski jumper would descend down a massive ramp, catch his ski edge and hurtle sideways off the ramp,  presumably to break every bone in his body. As he crashed through barriers and exploded in a rag doll mass of spandex and equipment, you could not help thinking, “why would any sane person do that?”

There were apocryphal stories about this guy and his horrific crash. “I hear he died.” One kid said as we discussed the unfortunate ski jumper. Another more experienced liar chipped in, “I heard every bone in his body was broken and his head popped off in his helmet when they tried to remove it.”

My mother sensed my interest in skiing and encouraged me to accept a friend’s recent invitation to ski but I created all kinds of excuses to avoid the dangerous neck-breaking slopes to the north. I just could not help thinking of Hans-Peter Shatteredpelvis or whatever his name was. This was perhaps one sport I could do without. I was wracked with doubts. What if my ski bindings did not release – would I break a leg? What if my friends take me up to the top of the mountain assuring me I can traverse down doubled diamond runs called Spleen Alley and Tibia Twister. What if I take a wrong turn and get lost like the Donner party. Would I have to eat squirrels and perhaps another skier who had also strayed off piste?

As all parents do, I was forced to confront my demons and master them – lest they added to my bucket list of activities that I would regret never having tried. At gunpoint, I accepted an invitation to go to Mammoth for skiing. I was now the beneficiary of the investment in equipment and clothes. As I layered on itchy long underwear, pants, outer garments and a North Face ski parka, I wondered whether I should have worn a diaper as it would clearly take two hours to strip down to be able to use the toilet.

On that fateful day, I learned to snow plow and discovered the joy of a beginner’s ski run.  I developed a mild hemorrhoid going up and down an odd contraption known as a poma-lift.  I mastered the mounting and exiting the quad chair and by the end of the week had gone to the top of the mountain – only to wet my pants as I slid down a vertical black diamond face slope called, Dave’s Run.

My favorite part of the day was removing my cement ski boots and regaining circulation in my hands and feet.  We sat in a hot tub with fourteen other people including a cute girl who asked me where I was from.  For a moment, I entertained assuming a French accent and describing my parent’s modest ski chalet at the foot of Mont Blanc in Chamonix.  Instead, I blushed and dipped my head under a cloak of steam and bubbling water.  It was all too much.

Years later, I annually force my reluctant brood on to the slopes of a ski resort.  The mornings are always the same – a chorus of moans and complaints.  The death march to the first run is a time that is best forgotten with sharp words and hollow threats.

We ski together to gain an appreciation for the mountains in winter and for the sheer exhilaration of making first tracks after a midnight of soft powdered snow.  Unlike my family, I am able to consider the trip an investment rather than an expense.  We are making moments like snow angels. As we gather after a long day, broken and sore from moguls, tree skiing and chaotic racing, we lie next to one another – exhausted and content.  I am not Jean Claude Killy but I am Dad – – amie and provocateur of the annual winter ski adventure.

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