PHOTOGRAPHY BY BENJAMIN RASMUSSEN
From the vantage point of a ski lift, everything about the slopes is unbearably picturesque. I sit on the broad, padded bench with my heavy skis dangling below, the poles resting side by side in my hands, taking it all in: the trees lightly dusted with snow like decorations from an elaborate holiday window display; the merry and bright primary-colored puffer jackets and ski pants dotting the white background; the snowboarders cutting a soft, wavy path through the powder with a gentle sound like a librarian’s shhhhh. I feel the cold pressing gently against my face, mixing with the warmth from the sun, and it’s impossible not to smile. It’s peaceful on the lift, floating above the fray, so weightless and light. But then I see the roof of the terminal looming in the distance and realize that nothing good lasts forever. In about 300 yards, I’m going to have to jump off.
Although I grew up in Colorado, at 33, I’ve never dismounted a ski lift in my life. I’ve never ridden one at all, in fact, before this afternoon. And until this morning, I had never been on a pair of skis, much less gone on an actual run down even the mildest of slopes. That’s all about to change. But first I have to get off this chair.
I look over at my ski instructor, André Koslowski, who gives me an encouraging grin. “Up there,” he says with smooth, easy authority, “is where we dismount. Now, this lift won’t stop, so when I say it’s time to go, you’ll have to propel yourself off. Put your hand on the seat and push yourself forward and out. If you just drop yourself down off the seat, the lift will still be coming behind you and you’ll need to duck if you don’t want to get clipped.” I smile bravely, trying to project a can-do attitude.
We seem to be moving in fast-forward toward the terminal. “Remember how we dismount?” he asks, illustrating the pushing motion he wants me to use. I nod. “Then we go!” he says, launching himself off. I push away from the moving seat as well and land on the ground, my skis settling into the well-worn snow of the terminal. It feels as if I’m hardly doing a thing—just riding the grooves already cut by those who came before me. The air is cool and crisp, and even the little bit of speed we’re gaining as we head to the top of the run feels exhilarating. When we reach a beginner’s area called The Meadows, I stop to assess the view. Though the slope is moderate, it’s a genuine slope, full of zooming skiers, and the bottom feels intimidatingly far away. “Are you ready?” André asks me, and I look at him and nod with as much confidence as I can muster.
In Boulder, Colorado, where I went to middle school and high school, weekends were for skiing. On Friday afternoons, the luckiest kids got picked up by their parents in Subaru station wagons with ski racks affixed to their roofs year-round and were driven two hours to Vail or Beaver Creek to spend the nights in cozy pinewood cabins and the days on the powder at some of the world’s best ski resorts. Monday mornings were for sharing how much air you caught on your way down Copper Mountain, how fast you turned at Eldora, how many black diamonds you navigated at Breckenridge.
As one of the few kids in town who didn’t know how to ski, I always felt hopelessly lost in these conversations. I spoke up only when one of the other kids, noticing that I wasn’t saying much, asked me why I had never learned. I had a dozen good answers to that question: I preferred books to athletics, I didn’t like the cold, my parents didn’t ski. But the biggest reason was my age: I knew that everyone around me had learned to ski at age 3, 6, maybe 8—when their light, elastic young bodies could fall and bounce right back into the action, when their young minds could soak up new skills as naturally as a sponge. At those ages, I’d been living in the flat Tidewater region of Virginia, or the dense suburbs of New Jersey, or the sunny San Gabriel Valley. When my college professor parents moved us to Colorado, we were greeted by the odd combination of the seemingly endless plains all around us, and then the Rocky Mountains rising impassably up to the West, like a warning. Even as a teenager, I had felt that my place was in the flatlands.
After high school, I moved to New England and then to New York City, where what passed for good winter exercise was walking as fast as you could to the subway—which is why I was so surprised to find myself on vacation in Telluride last winter, longing to carve down fresh, powdery slopes. I had been planning to do only the “après” part of the après-ski lifestyle: hot cocoa, hot tubs, and hot meals. But the town was so in love with skiing that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it too. I rode the gondola to the top of the mountain and listened, amazed, to the gentle swishes and swooshes of the skiers coming down the slope below me, so quiet and graceful that it seemed like a kind of magic. I watched the kids sliding down the runs with their skis in awkward wedges, gaining confidence and beginning to have real fun. And I watched the families spill back into the hotel lobby after a full day on the slopes, smiling and sunstruck, seeking cookies and warm drinks, and I felt that my own cup of cocoa was somehow unearned. Maybe part of the reason I had never wanted to learn was because I never truly understood what I was missing out on. And so I found myself booking a ticket back to Telluride to find out whether old dogs can, in fact, learn new tricks.
I return to the mountains just a week before the end of ski season and the beginning of a brief and awkward period between winter and spring that the locals call “Mud-
vember.” In late winter, the sun shines warmly on the slopes and the snow gets wetter, heavier, slower, creating an ideal learning environment for nervous first-time skiers afraid of careening down steep surfaces—or so everyone tells me. Wherever I go, the people I meet seem to sense my apprehension. The shuttle driver who transports me from the airport to Mountain Village tells me that it’s pretty near impossible to get hurt as a beginner, and the smooth-faced bellboy at the hotel assures me that if I fall I will probably fare better than a taller, heavier person. He adds that the snow is soft and I should wear waterproof pants just in case. I make a mental note to find all the waterproof clothing I can in preparation for my lesson the next day.
My first ski day begins with a gear fitting. I report to Telluride Sports, where a tousle-haired teenager notes my shoe size and height and returns with a pair of skis and a set of big, bulky boots that resemble souped-up Rollerblades without the wheels. I put the boots on and practice walking around the shop, a stiff-legged plod somewhere between that of a Wild West sheriff and a low-budget sci-fi robot. I get polarized sunglasses and a helmet and a pair of ski poles, which look helpful but won’t protect me if I ski directly into a tree, which my ski instructor says is not something I need to be concerned about.
Anything my instructor says I’m inclined to believe. André, a tall, graceful, incredibly dignified man from Bonn, Germany, started skiing in the Alps with his parents at the age of 6. A trained dancer and choreographer who runs TanzTheater, a dance company based in Pennsylvania, in the off-season, André has a way of standing—strong and straight and light on his feet—that makes you want to take notes and practice in front of a mirror.
We start at the very beginning—standing up on skis. André leads me out to a smooth, nearly flat field off to the side of the Inn at Lost Creek, the luxurious boutique hotel where I’m staying. At his command, I click my boot into the right ski and move it back and forth on the snow. It’s a new sensation, the absolute fluidity of the slide, the way the ski defines the direction and length of my leg’s movement—a tiny bit like being on ice skates when I was 8, but with a skate nearly as long as my body. I click into the left ski and slide that one back and forth, frictionless, wondering how I’m supposed to get anywhere if the skis won’t catch against the snow. When I ask André this question, which looms so large in my mind that it feels almost existential, he tells me not to think of the skis as something intervening between me and the snow, but to pay attention to the way in which I am grounded by them, stable and strong and connected to the terrain. Then he says I’m ready to go to the Magic Carpet. “What’s the Magic Carpet?” I ask, imagining the helpful animated rug in Aladdin, or maybe some new designer strain of marijuana—unsure how either of those things could help me ski.
The Magic Carpet, I soon learn, is a rubber-tracked version of the people-mover at the airport, and it carries beginners to the top of a slope so gradual that it looks mostly flat. Bunny hills and bunny curves give gentle structure to a gleaming white field of snow, nestled against the background of the Rockies. As I stand looking out at the beginner’s area, which is populated by a mix of children under the age of 6, a couple of older kids, and two other full-grown adults, I have the odd experience of feeling both intimidated and confident that I could trudge across the whole thing in a few easy minutes if I were wearing snowshoes.
André positions me at the top of a bunny half-pipe and tells me to let myself slide down the slope and back up at the other end—gravity will propel me and slow me down at the end, so all I need to do is be comfortable and stay upright with knees slightly bent. I slide down and back up the other side, hardly thinking about it at all, and turn around to gauge his reaction. He says I executed the move perfectly—I feel like a 5-year-old who just earned a sticker for a progress chart—and we can move on to a tiny slalom. We ride the Magic Carpet back up to the top of the small slope and start down at an easy pace. I promptly lose control and drive myself right into a fence at a speed that feels wild, but is rather slow.
My biggest struggle is speed—specifically, how to have less of it. But after a few bunny-slope runs practicing how to decelerate, I’m finally ready to go on a real run at The Meadows.
“Are you ready?” André asks me again. It’s a beginner slope, but it’s also being used by skiers of other levels, passing through on their way to lunch at Big Billie’s Restaurant, at the foot of the mountain. I inhale deeply before taking the plunge. Out on the broad white slope, the appeal of skiing becomes viscerally, physically apparent to me. The fresh Colorado air against my skin makes me alert in a brand-new way, the speed is exhilarating, and the sense of friction as I turn in the snow reminds me that this experience is truly real. Off to my left and right, hushed pines line the course, and the grand peaks of the Rockies gleam in the sun all around me. We weave right and left in a long, lazy transit, slowing for passing snowboarders who zip across our path, speeding up to avoid the reckless downward transit of a boy I remember from the Magic Carpet, about 10 years old and learning to ski for the first time himself. André tells me not to look down at my skis or down the mountain but rather at his bright red jacket as he skis in front of me, blazing a trail. At the bottom, he asks me how that felt, and I answer effusively: “Great, amazing, and kind of like flying!”
We head back up on the lift for one more run—this time, André won’t be leading me as much, trusting me to decide on my own how to shape my turns, control my speed, and make my way down the mountain. I start off strong, carving a smooth and easy path, moving fast enough that it feels thrilling, but not so fast that I worry I won’t be able to stop. As I zoom right and left, cutting my curves into the snow, I see brief flashes of his red jacket in my peripheral vision, and I feel safe knowing he’s watching out for me. But as I approach the end of the run, I get distracted and lose my confidence; when I thrust the tails of my skis out to brake, it doesn’t slow me down as I expect, and I barrel toward a stand of aspens at what feels like a breakneck pace. I barely manage to turn away, but then I pick up more speed every second and realize, with horror, that I’m hurtling down toward the restaurant at the mountain’s base, where the plaza is busy with people enjoying coffee or beer. In a last, desperate bid to avoid crashing into someone, I fall down backward and turn, my skis churning up a fine white cloud that swallows me whole. When it clears, I’m lying on my side covered by a faint layer of ice crystals, my skis a few feet away from me. The guy I nearly crashed into looks down at me and says only one word: “Whoa.”
After changing out of my damp socks and snow pants, I contemplate my first day of skiing over a trip to the hot tub, followed by a meal of mouthwateringly crispy Thai-style duck and a passion fruit spritz at Siam’s Talay Grille. (Turns out the après-ski is much sweeter once you’ve earned it.) The whole day, I had been anxious about the possibility of falling. There’s nothing like experiencing the thing you fear to cure you of that fear.
I want to get a sense of the scope of the resort and to peek at where else I might continue my skiing education, so a helpful resort manager arranges for me to ride on one of the groomers—gigantic bulldozer-like vehicles that roam the resort from close until open, smoothing the runs for the next day. I head back outside, belly full, and climb into a cozy, warm cab set on an enormous pair of snowcat tracks, driven by a friendly Oregonian who’s been skiing since he was 5.
As we climb, I see unbelievably narrow and steep trails that seem to drop like waterfalls, and I spot a porcupine ambling along at a ridiculously languorous pace. At the top of Palmyra Peak, the resort’s highest point (13,150 feet), I step down to watch the sun set gloriously over the entire mountain. Standing in the thin, clear air as the sky turns warm, brilliant, liquid colors, I look out over the numerous branching paths of the ski runs, familiar to me from studying the resort map, but more real and more enticing than they ever were on paper—a landscape painting that you can actually enter, actually move through, actually become a part of. I feel a little regret at all the years I missed out on these things, but with age comes wisdom, and I don’t mind learning to ski at an age when I can tell myself, with confidence, that all the falls to come will be worth it.