The man I married and I share a few fundamental differences, but the most glaring is this: he is a proficient skier, and I am not. Multiple ski trips and at least three different encounters with private lessons have done little to raise my level of skiing fitness beyond “perpetual beginner,” as my husband lovingly calls me, and the first day on the slopes always sees me in a proverbial yard sale or two. (I’m not trying to tackle black diamonds when this happens, either – it’s usually on the beginner hills where I find myself lying in the snow while a toddler in full crouch whizzes expertly past.)
I have an almost Pavlovian tendency to panic and lose control during the initial hours of a ski trip, and I’ve tried to psychoanalyze this and link it back to some unremembered childhood trauma or latent control freak behavior that’s inconveniently only triggered when I’m several thousand feet above sea level. In all fairness, I do eventually gain some competence (Jeff might call me a perpetual beginner, but I’m more inclined to call myself a “timid intermediate”). We’d spent a weekend in Pennsylvania’s Poconos last year, and while using the term “mountains” to describe those slopes might be slightly disingenuous, I’d handled the blues, or intermediates, there quite nicely once I got the hang of it. But the first few hours are always a challenge, and I think what it comes down to is this: I don’t like heights, and I don’t like speed. So, of course, I agreed to go on a family ski trip during my children’s half term school break (which happened to coincide with my 40th birthday, which I’d always thought I’d celebrate somewhere warm, with margaritas and a Bob Marley soundtrack).
My reluctance to usher in this milestone anywhere except an equatorial beach – let alone a snow-covered mountain – notwithstanding, we pushed ahead with our plans, and decided on a resort in Austria. The extent of my knowledge about Austria had, until now, been: Edelweiss, mountains, secret tunnels. Plus Vienna, a city I’d always associated with string instruments and intricately designed confections. But now, I could add Saalbach to the list.
Saalbach is one of three resort towns – along with nearby Leogang and Hinterglemm – that make up a sort of ski trifecta in Southwestern Austria. We chose it because the UK Telegraph published an article describing its variety of terrain to suit all skill levels. The beginners among us could enjoy some leisurely shooshing down sweet gentle slopes, while the more adventurous among us would have their pick of more exciting piste. It might not be Mexico, but I’d relax, a bit.
Upon arrival, however, it was clear that Saalbach had been designed with strict adherence to some particularly merciless Teutonic principles, one being a general disdain for fear. It does not have green-level slopes – the lowest level is blue. How was I going to practice?
Another thing Saalbach dismissed was giving its ski trails actual names. In the US, I’d been involved in a marketing project for a Vermont ski resort where all the trails were named after rock songs. Trail names add a hint of warmth, an element of fun to the otherwise insane endeavor of flying at high speeds on ice and slush while your feet are locked into two pieces of fiberglass. Not so here at Saalbach. They’d eschewed trail names for simple numbers. I could imagine a bunch of Austrians, looking maybe like Iceman from Top Gun, poring over a map of Saalbach and concluding that trail names were an exercise in folly best left to other, lesser resorts. “Vee vill not name zeez trails. Vee vill give zem numbers. If some idiots get lost, vee have helicopter to find zee bodies.” Thus, I found myself dropping the kids at ski school and riding the gondola up to a run called, simply, 46.
Despite its non-descriptive and benign-sounding label, 46 was a blue that, from a distance, appeared to start very high on the mountain and led down to the village via a series of ninety-degree cliffs. I gamely told myself this was an optical illusion (it was a blue, after all, and I could handle a blue in the Poconos!). I assured Jeff I wouldn’t be scared, and gamely clicked on my skis once we reached the top.
Of course, it didn’t take long before I put myself squarely in Jeff’s category of “perpetual beginner.” A good look out across the vast expanse of Alpine terrain before me was enough to strike terror in my heart, compounded by my first look down. It was, actually, quite steep, with the first level area at least 800 feet down. Reminding myself to turn – the beginner’s mantra – I set off. I diligently assumed the pizza and French fries positions while I traversed the hill, but it was no use. The hill was steep, my left foot couldn’t seem to remember how to apply the perfect pressure to execute a right turn. (Like Zoolander, I could only turn in one direction.) I was committing one of the worst sins of the beginning skier: psyching myself out. Between the terrain, my muscle memory and my mental state, I didn’t even have time to think “screw this” before I lost control completely and ended up in my first yard sale.
Jeff stood by with shouts of encouragement as I gathered my poles, stood up on the one ski I still wore, and popped my foot down on the other one on. No sooner were my skis on, though, before I committed another ski sin: I had been pointing downwards instead of sideways, and off I went again like a reeling banshee.
Jeff made his way over to me, looking at me tentatively while I lay in the snow. “Ski school?” he offered. I was too encumbered by all the God-forsaken equipment one is required to wear to kill him, plus I was on the ground, so I just said, angrily, “No.”
By the third wipeout, I’d covered about 500 feet, and I was furious. My thought process went something like this: Hadn’t I just turned 40 years old? Didn’t I know better at this point in my life that skiing just wasn’t for me? How could I possibly have thought that I could ski this run? What the hell was I doing in Austria on my 40th birthday, anyway? I should be on a beach! In Mexico!
I wrenched off my skis. Jeff, feeling sorry for me, and probably overcome with more than a little guilt, also removed his, and the two of us clomped down the remaining 1500 feet of mountain in our ski boots. The sun, which hours before we’d hailed as being so warm it was like spring skiing, beat down upon us relentlessly. I was crying and sweating. Jeff was grim-faced, marching into the wind. Four-year-olds were spraying snow in our faces as they shot by.
We reached the bottom of that epic climb, both of us convinced that I would glumly spend the rest of the week in the hotel, staring out the window at the mountain I couldn’t conquer while the rest of my family shooshed and swooshed around the resort. We agreed for both our sakes that I should get some refreshment while Jeff would go gather his wits with a run better suited to advanced skiers who need a break from tutoring their sour-faced spouses. But what I found at the base of the mountain – the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the sunshine breaking through a cloud – would change the nature of the entire trip.
The Austrians may refrain from mollycoddling those in the act of skiing, but before, during, or après, dozens of establishments called “huts” dot the trails at every elevation and are almost French in their capacity for decadence. Spaghetti Bolognese for lunch, washed down with super-sized Steigl, and followed by a Coup Danmark – a multi-layer ice cream sundae adorned with shards of a crispy waffle cone – all yours as long as you show up after 10:30 AM. Need a rest in a stripey beach chair looking out over the mountains, the sun beating down on your blissfully-helmet-free face for a few minutes? Have a seat. You don’t need to order anything. This place is just for you. I found myself curious where the Iceman lookalikes had been during the construction of these huts. (Of which there were many: I later learned there are at least 55 spread throughout Saalbach, at every elevation, along every trail). It seemed like they’d be more impressed with the sadomasochistic American ski resort F&B experience: “Yes, serve zem boiled hot dogs and mystery meat nachos on zeir cafeteria trays,” they would say. “Zees is all zey need.”
But Saalbach skiers know that a visit to a hut is an entirely separate experience from being on the slopes, and that it is, in itself, a ritual to be savored and lingered over. I sipped my Stiegl and munched on a Panini sandwich and watched people gracefully zhoosh in from the end of the trail I’d just climbed down. They’d remove their helmets and shake out their hair, glowing with the satisfaction of a trail well run, then order a beer or two. It dawned on me that here, one could almost consider skiing a means to an end – you needed to get on skis to get down to a hut. You needed to get on skis to get over to a hut. Really, I reasoned, skiing was simply transport to get from hut to hut. The better you were at it, the faster you could get to your red wine and ice cream. When I looked at the act of skiing in this context – the short path to hedonism, rather than an intimidating sport at which I had little hope of ever becoming proficient – the fear started to melt away.
There is joy in alpine skiing, I thought.
Jeff returned to find a newly heartened spouse ready to retake the mountain. Together we conducted a quick Google search to see if maybe there existed any more forgiving piste in the harsh Austrian hinterlands, and we discovered there was, actually, a nursery slope. My husband, in his endless patience, escorted me to the hill, where I basically had to fight newborns for space to practice my turns. But I was encouraged! I managed a run without falling. I took the chairlift back up, and did it again. And again.
By the time we picked up the kids at Ski School, I was an expert. I wasn’t afraid of (relative) speed, and I wasn’t afraid of (mildly) steep. Yes, I was suffused with the warm glow of Stiegl, and that had served to chase the initial fears away. But even as the buzz faded, I found myself still enthusiastic, and gaining confidence. My left foot started working. I was getting my ski legs.
The next day, all four of us took a longer trail, known as “52,” which was relatively gentle and offered some gorgeous scenery out over the mountains (as well as at least four different huts at various points, all of which we patronized). There we were, shooshing along the trails, my husband and children expertly turning and speeding downhill, my daughter encouraging me along with tropes she’d picked up in her own lessons, my son insisting he wanted to go faster. I found myself finally, fully experiencing the love of skiing. The wind in your hair, the sun in your face…majestic mountains rising up to meet an endless blue sky. I, too, was one of those god-like skiers who can complete a run without falling. I was Julie Andrews in ski kit.
By the end of the trip, I chuckled to myself. I was 40 years old! I should have known better than to give up on something too quickly, as I’d been ready to do on that first day!
My only regret is that I never got back to conquer the trail known as 46. With any luck, next year, we’ll be back at Saalbach on my birthday. I’ll fall down, lose my poles, fight with Jeff, cry, then have a beer at a hut and regain the will to try again. But at least I’ll know what to expect. At 40, I realize that the only thing I know is that I don’t know much. Having an idea about what I’m in for is one small comfort.