Author Aleksandar Hemon shares how the love of skiing was passed down through the generations of his family.
My earliest skiing memory takes place in the early 1970s, at Jahorina, a mountain near Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I grew up. My sister is 3 or so; I am 7. Neither of us wants to go skiing on an extremely foggy and cold day—or on any other day, for that matter but my father is determined to take my sister and me skiing, and all the escape routes are firmly blocked. This is taking place in the era before Gore-Tex or any other weatherproof material, so we are wearing weather-helpless wool mittens, hats, and socks. Our boots are tightly laced, which reduces circulation and guarantees frozen toes, and our skis are wooden, with steel edges and wire binders, all of which sticks to wool (and skin) at low temperatures.
During the 1984 Winter Olympics, which Sarajevo would host, women’s downhill skiing competitions would be held at Jahorina, by which point the mountain would be well developed, with hotels, many groomed runs, and fast chairlifts. But in the early ’70s there are only three unconnected single-chair ski lifts on the mountain, so I have to ride to the top all by myself, terrified of the abyss under my feet, while my sister experiences her own terrors in my father’s lap. There are no defined runs, let alone groomed ones, which is to say that the whole mountain is effectively out of bounds.
There are no ski patrols, and rocks and tree stumps are abundant and unmarked—all at a time when not even competitive international skiers are considering wearing helmets. My memory of our mis-expedition is largely visual: I can see my father with my wailing sister between his skis, plowing down a narrow groove in the snow that is up to my shoulders, while I struggle to keep up with them and not to fall, convinced that if I do, I will vanish in the thick snow and not be found until the next spring. There is nothing I want in the world more than to defrost my fingers and toes by the fire, but it would be hours before we would be safe.
After many such misadventures, including an injury or two and being bullied at a winter-break skiing camp, I grew to hate skiing. But we had a cabin at Jahorina and spent just about every weekend and holiday and winter break there. I had no choice but to ski, and so I kept skiing, despite my committed resistance and concentrated efforts at sabotage. My father kept at making me ski, and I eventually shed my fears and resistance. Around the age of 13 or so, I somehow became a good skier and started loving skiing, until I became a fanatic, which is what I am now.
I’ve lived in the United States most of my adult life, for about 30 years now, and have skied all over this continent: from the unchallenging Midwestern hills to Arapahoe Basin, Colorado; from Killington, Vermont, to Big Mountain, Montana; from Whistler, British Columbia, to Mont Tremblant, Quebec. I am the person who has claimed in print that skiing in powder can be better than sex, which my wife has frowned upon. I keep a screenshot of the Ski Tracks app showing my personal speed record (60.3 mph), achieved in Breckenridge, Colorado.
Dubiously enjoying a midlife crisis in my late 50s, I tear up at the sight of the first snowflake of the season and subscribe to snow reports for many a North American mountain. I read reviews of new ski models and randomly look up property in Jackson Hole or Lake Placid (another Winter Olympics site). I have been known to venture into extensive monologues on the metaphysics of skiing on a triple-diamond run and the philosophical value of improvising within a vanishing moment, all the while referencing the ideas on skiing espoused by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness. I am haunted by the likelihood that I will not have skied enough by the time I say goodbye to the earthly slopes. At the drop of a helmet, I can list my 10 greatest skiing experiences, the top spot presently shared between a morning spent in the fresh powder of an Alta, Utah, bowl and an afternoon in the Dictator Chutes in Big Sky, Montana.
But there is a separate, more important list of my greatest skiing experiences, one that features my daughter Ella, who is now 13. Due to the mountain torments of my childhood, I was determined not to traumatize my children by forcing them to ski when they didn’t want to; I would let them learn at their own pace. Still, Ella was 2 and a half when I took her up a short beginners chair lift in Jackson Hole and skied down on the greenest of groomed runs, holding her between my skies.
She enjoyed it and was subsequently willing to take skiing classes with a professional instructor. I can recall her first independent run, and her instructor skiing backward in front of her, telling her forcefully: “Red light, Ella! Red light!” as he worried that she was going too fast and might fall. She didn’t fall, and kept on skiing, and our shared memories (currently more valuable to me than to her) slowly accrued.
When she was 5, we skied through spring slush at 70 degrees in Stowe, Vermont, and ended up with raccoon eyes from the blazing sun. When she was 6, we skied in the trees at Copper Mountain, Colorado, which she loved. On one of the runs, she abruptly stopped at an awkward point, and I fell to the side lest I run into her. She said to me, “Tata, this might be a little too steep for you!” When she was 9, in Keystone, Colorado, she reached her personal speed record (32 mph), and I taught her to make a 360-degree turn on the slope. When she was 10, we drowsily drove on early weekend mornings to Wilmot Mountain, Wisconsin (the Matterhorn of the Midwest!), for her ski-team training sessions, which she didn’t enjoy because she doesn’t like competing.
As many a parent knows, there is something amazing about transferring your knowledge—whatever it is—onto your child. There is the delicate and necessary balance between authority and love, between insistence and cajoling, the trickiness of assuming that whatever is imparted might be useful (or not) in some as yet unimaginable future, the danger of projecting your own excitement and enthusiasm onto someone else. Of course, you cannot make your child love something she does not love, yet she might not love it until she has reached that point in the future when she is good at it—whatever it is—and can enjoy it at an entirely different level. Learning, like parenting, requires patience and courage. My favorite skiing memory with Ella is from the time we were in Jackson Hole when she was 7.
We would take a quad to one of the summits and ski down together for a bit, then split she would continue on a blue run, while I would break off and go through the trees, then down a slope with quite a few large moguls, then across a little 20-foot cliff to reach the top of the Moran Face, a very long and steep double-black-diamond run with hard humps and shaved crud. We would meet at the bottom of the Moran Face. After a few times, Ella wanted to join me. I never wanted to assume that she could not do something she wanted to do, but I did have to warn her and describe what she would have to go through: the trees, the first steep slope, the traverse of the little cliff, and the difficulty of the big run, from which there was no way to escape to an easier one until its very bottom. I would not be able to catch her if she lost control, I told her; I would be right behind her, but she would pretty much be on her own.
She still wanted to do it, and so on we went. I followed in her wake, ready to help if need be. Very carefully and cautiously, she made her decisions, never falling, never losing control. We made it down the Moran Face together, and she wanted to do it again. We did it a few more times, and on each run she got braver and more relaxed. Only once did I have to help her get up. I was a very proud father, as I could bear witness to her intelligence, focus, and determination.
Eventually, she was done with it, and we decided to finish up with a few blue runs together before lunch. On the lift up, I asked her if she’d been scared skiing the Moran Face. Yes, she said, she was. When was she most afraid? I pressed on. Through the trees? On the first difficult slope? Traversing the little cliff? Or facing the seemingly endless slope? I was afraid the whole time, she said. It was clear to me that her accomplishment was in her courage and resilience. She overcame her fears, skied through her trepidation. It was the first time—although not the last that I thought Ella might be all right in her life, because she had shown me, and far more importantly, herself, that she was strong and brave and did not back away from challenges.
But, as anyone who has taught knows, only when the teacher becomes unnecessary and obsolete, and the student can carry on to the next stage of learning, is the teaching successful. And, as any parent knows, there is always a phase (hopefully just that) when children find spending time with their parents fundamentally uncool. Ella still lets me ski black diamonds with her, but she has developed an interest in snowboarding, which I cannot help her with, and her enthusiasm for snow sports is now directly proportional to the presence and involvement of her friends. All of which makes me cherish every moment I spend on the slopes with her even more. I also hope, secretly, that in some snow-filled future she will vividly recall our adventures and her memory of the day when she skied through her trepidation. That moment will be my greatest skiing accomplishment.
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