Being from the Caribbean means that California’s mild winters feel like real winter, and the concept of skiing was a foreign fairy tale for most of my life. I’ll take sunshine and warm beaches over rain and gloom any day. Though I enjoy dressing in trendy boots and cute scarves during winter, I’d rather sweat through heat than wear sweaters for the cold.
“You like to sweat,” said a fellow Caribbean friend as I vented about the weather.
“Wait, no. I don’t like sweating. I hate it; it’s disgusting, actually. But I’d rather sweat than — ”
“No, you like sweating,” he interrupted jokingly.
Maybe I was in denial — who likes to sweat? — but truthfully, there is something reassuring about warm weather and the sun beating down on my face. It’s like God shining down from the heavens, enveloping me in a loving glow. I’d rather be sticky and feel loved than cold with chapped lips and numb toes, feeling like my mood has dropped as low as the temperatures outside.
But I can appreciate the beautiful snowscapes you encounter if you go north to a place like Lake Tahoe — only for a few days. A couple weeks ago, I went skiing for the second time. Skiing is one of those things I probably won’t do often, lest it lose the magic and anticipation of a long-awaited adventure. Plus, it’s expensive.
This time, we ventured to Arnold, California, hoping to ski at Bear Valley resort despite the winter storm warning that weekend. As we drove closer and rose in altitude, the slick rain turned to tiny hail pellets and icy puddles became piles of snow. The roads were lined by snow banks like bumpers in a bowling alley, and my friend — who had experience with both skiing and cold weather, and to whom we were eternally grateful for driving — carefully navigated the slippery roads.
Though sunshine uplifts me, I cannot deny the mystical and breathtaking beauty of the serene, snow-laden landscapes that I admired through the backseat window. But it’s easy to forget that snow’s a force of nature. Without thick layers of clothing and snowplows, we’d quickly succumb to the cold temperatures or become buried in the mounds that grew taller with each snowfall.
As we inched closer to destination, we were temporarily blocked by a pickup truck stuck in the snow. It looked like they’d attempted to turn around, and the tires had gotten stuck. We waited about 15 minutes as people shoveled snow around the wheels and pushed until they were able to free the truck. We’d also missed the turn for our Airbnb, Google Maps was glitching and our cell service was waning. I wasn’t too worried, though; the car was a warm, safe haven as we waited for the road to clear. But this small escapade was a reminder of the danger lurking just beneath the surface of a fairytale snowscape. The snow could trap you and change the stakes at any moment. We were at its mercy.
At the Airbnb, we hunkered down and cozied up. The quaint cabin was hugged by the snow on all sides, a wooden island in a powdered ocean. We turned up the heat and walked around in fuzzy socks and fluffy blankets draped on our shoulders.
When night fell, I was jolted from my sleep by a loud thud. You’d think rooftop snow would fall gently and meld soundlessly into the blanketed snow on the ground. Really, it falls with a noisy, swooshing thud, which is scary when you’re sleeping on the couch of a secluded cabin with huge glass panels that look directly out into the icy forest. Around 3 a.m., headlights darted around the room and illuminated the still trees outside. I couldn’t imagine what was happening, and tiptoed to the glass-paned dining room, curious and afraid. It was the snowplow clearing the driveway. I watched until it finished the job and backed away onto the main road like a masked hero disappearing into the night. Until that moment, it hadn’t dawned on me that, without the snowplow, we would be trapped in the cabin by the snow that accumulated overnight in the driveway — another silent danger.
When we finally went skiing, I braced myself for the biting cold and daunting slopes. We got out of the car to suit up — jackets, helmets, goggles, gloves — and within minutes my toes were numb. I tried to smile, but my cheeks and lips felt stiff, frozen into place. By the time we got to the ski rental line, I was mildly irritated and apprehensive, wondering how I would make it through a day of skiing when my extremities were already so numb they hurt. At the ski lifts though, I forgot about my numb toes because I had to focus on getting on in one piece.
“Sit like you’re sitting on a chair,” my friend told me.
He was calm and cool, while I scrambled to hold onto my poles and keep myself from sliding astray in my skis. I looked behind me. The lift chair swung nearer, and when it was upon us we plopped down heavily. The chair lurched forward.
As we moved over the snowy slopes, I realized there was no bar to hold onto. Last time, a bar had descended over our heads and kept us safely tucked in our seats.
“Where’s the bar? How are we not going to fall off?” I asked, slightly bewildered.
“It’s like sitting on a chair. Once you sit normally, and don’t lean forward, you’ll be fine. Have you ever fallen forward off a chair? No.”
He made it seem so simple. I didn’t want to admit that, once, I was so woozy from sleep that I fell head first onto my bed after attempting to stand. But I figured that if I stayed calm on the lift, all would be fine.
Once I got off the ski lift — smoothly, I might add — the real challenge began. I had to get down the slope somehow. My friends tried to give me tips: Lean slightly forward; push off the skis to turn; ski across, not down, the mountain; do a snow plow or pizza to slow down; keep your skis close together to maintain control … but it was hard to focus because the mountain loomed long and steep below me.
“Here we go … ” I muttered as I slid tentatively forward. But once I hit the actual slope, I shot forward, sliding dangerously out of control.
“Here we go!” This time, it came out as a startled shriek as I barrelled downwards.
Despite many demonstrations and tips, I never mastered the art of slowing down, which meant I could barely control my speed. Once I gained momentum on the mountain, that was it — watch out everyone, Astrid’s coming through! I didn’t want to be a menace to my fellow skiers and snowboarders, so I tried to keep a wide berth between us.
Skiing is exhilarating; it reminded me of my track days, sprinting the 100-meter dash. I’d cut through the air and all my senses were rooted in the present, focused solely on the task of making it to the end of the race. With skiing though, there’s an added element of fear.
There’s a moment I know I’m about to lose control. Even with the adrenaline that I’m convinced is coursing through my blood, I’m afraid for my life. I’m most afraid near the end, when I’m going at a breakneck speed and have to slow down and successfully stop to avoid crashing into other skiers or the ropes that demarcate the lift queues. Sometimes, I don’t stop in time or can’t turn skillfully enough to make it down the mountain in one piece. That’s when I fall, and it’s almost always a yard sale: Everything must go!
During these falls, both my skis and poles were torn from my booted feet and gloved hands, sticking in the snow as I tumbled through the powder. Sometimes I crawled back up to retrieve them. Other times, my friends or kind strangers brought them to me and stood nearby as I wobbled into my skis.
I nailed the runs less than half the time. During these incident-free runs, I still couldn’t turn or control my speed very well. I still zoomed down the mountain like a bullet, but somehow managed to slide to a graceful stop at the end, instead of tumbling into a heap. Even falls are fun, though, because they don’t hurt. The powder is a cushion, and I only felt sore the morning after, whether from my constant falls or from the strain of skiing itself.
Last year, I fell more and became easily frustrated — halfway through the day I took a long break and warmed up in the resort’s cafeteria while my friends endured. The learning curve for skiing is as steep as the slopes themselves. This time, I made it through the day without a break and faced each run with a healthy mix of excitement and fear, as opposed to just fear.
We spent a couple of hours out on the slopes, which was the perfect amount of time. I’d experienced enough snow and created enough memories to last for months, until next year, when I hope to take another ski trip. Until then, I’m tolerating these rainy days and awaiting the spring, when I can bask once more in the sun’s safe glow.
Contact Astrid Casimire at acasimir ‘at’ stanford.edu.