Tuesday, March 14, 2006

It was just me and the mountain. One on one. Just the way it is supposed to be. I stood overlooking the steep, snow covered slope and felt it sneer at me. Daring me to take it on. I clicked into my rented Solomon ski's and pointed their tips over the edge of the slope. As I dug my poles into the snow I thought about "crossing myself" and remembered that I wasn't catholic. So I pushed off and felt the wind begin to rush by my nearly frostbitten cheeks.

It had been five years since I had skied. Sixty months of solid ground under my feet. The last time I had been on the boards I was in Colorado. I knew that i was not well but I did not realize just how sick I was. I had finished up a difficult month but could not have guessed that I had eight more ahead of me before I felt anything even approaching normal. After four runs down various slopes on that day I coasted off a lift that dropped me several hundred feet below the ridge of the continental divide. I love to ski. In the winters I have lived for it since I learned at the late age of thirty. On that March day I began my descent from above 12,000 feet. A quarter of the way down I had to stop short. I was still above the tree line and snow was blowing over the divide and skimming along above the pack making it nearly impossible to see what terrain was coming. Several hundred feet lower I had to stop again. And yet again as I entered the tree line. I was suffering vertigo. My head was spinning and I could not catch my breath. I looked below at Interstate 70 where it enters the Eisenhower Tunnel. It looked like it was a mile away. I limped the rest of the way down the mountain, clicked out of my ski's and turned them back in at the rental hut. After a mere five runs I realized that if I kept on skiing I would probably get hurt before the day was out. I felt sad and yet relieved. Sad to be unable to enjoy my favorite hobby. Relieved to be able to walk away without the help of a stretcher or a crutch.

And now the five years have gone their way. I have stayed healthy most of the time but the last two years have been very stress filled and I've got a relapse or two under my belt. The doctor calls it "adrenaline exhaustion." I call it "hell." But on that March day ... I skied again.

Where was I before I interrupted myself? Oh yeah.

My legs were not very stable. It's tough to do anything that really prepares you to make the quick turns and absorb the rough bounces of downhill skiing. You just have to get your legs back. So I was pointed down my first black diamond run for the first time in a long time. True, it was just cheese laden Wisconsin but it was vertical and snow covered so it counts.

Everything went fine for the first couple of turns. I struggled a bit through a dip that resulted in a short but very steep pitch. I told my skis to turn right. They caught an edge in a rut that went to the left. I didn't go right or left. I went forward. Over the tips of my own skis. I felt them fly away and then I was on my back looking up at the beautiful cobalt blue sky. I realized my poles were no longer in my hands. I was still going downhill but I was doing it head first and face-up. I probably only slid twenty feet but it felt like two hundred. When I coasted to a stop ... I smiled. Nothing hurt. I looked up the way I had come and my equipment was scattered across the mini-mountain in a way that resembled a yard sale. My sons skied up and gave me a very pathetic look. I am the guy that taught them to ski. Now they make me look like the old man that I often feel I am. and you know what? It's all right. I have done my job. I taught myself to ski on a small hill in suburban St. Louis, managing to put a hairline crack in my shoulder the first day on the bunny hill. A few years later I went to Colorado all alone and skied the highest (though not the steepest) peak that the state offered before I even told my family I was going to try it. And then I came home, taught them to ski on the same suburban hill, and took them to Colorado with me. Now they make me look silly at every turn. That is a dad's job. Learn yourself and then teach your kids to be better than you are. I did ... and they are. Mission accomplished.

The next day I felt like I had been run over by a Hummer. My sons felt great and did most of the driving home. And I did not mind at all.

Life ... is good.