I can barely remember what I did yesterday, but I clearly remember my first day of skiing. Well, maybe not clearly — more like an old Super-8 movie — but you get the picture.
Housebound on a gorgeous spring-break day sometime in the late '60s my hyperkinetic friend Mike and I were driving my mother nuts with loud Hot Wheels races and house-wide G.I. Joe battles. In a fit of desperation, she insisted we take some dusty ski equipment that was languishing in the garage — unused since the early '50s — to the nearby Don Valley Ski Centre, a riverbank operation in one of Toronto's newly minted suburban wastelands, and give it a whirl.
"It'll be more fun than tobogganing," she said, pretty much selling us.
We wrapped chubby hands around wooden, enamel-painted skis with bear-trap bindings, bamboo poles, and boots far too big for grade-school feet, and schlepped it all to the hill. It was an arduous journey of an hour or so, and when we arrived, impatient and excited at the sight of people zipping down the slope, we still had to figure out how all this gear worked.
We struggled with the stiff, cumbersome boots, cables, springs, and myriad straps for what seemed an eternity. The bindings seemed to defy any law of engineering gleaned from Meccano sets, Lego bricks, or tabletop hockey, but when the forward throws on the cable finally snapped down, it seemed the boots were attached to the skis. It didn't last. With each tentative step the bindings would let go, leaving us ski-less and frustrated. Only through the sympathetic intervention of adults who witnessed our comic plight (tsk-tsking over what kind of parent would cast neophyte children adrift like this), were we eventually affixed awkwardly to the planks.
We'd quickly mastered shuffling ahead on the skis, and eagerly got in line for the tow. As we waited our turn I watched the fat hemp rope whiz around a small truck wheel driven by a chugging diesel engine and studied the loading procedure. It seemed simple: tuck your poles under one arm, place one hand ahead of your body, another behind your back, and grab the rope. Which was just what I did.
My arms were literally ripped from their sockets as I saw snow, then sky, then snow again. I could hear the slurping, wet whoosh of a body being dragged through snow, the clack-clack of skis clapping together, and Mike's hysterical laughter. My eyes, nose, and mouth filled with snow. Finally, I'd let go of the rope.
I felt sick. The tow operator picked me up and shepherded me back to the line, where I had the satisfaction of watching the same fate befall Mike. Each of us tried a second time, with a similar result. Beaten, we'd snivelled around like wounded puppies until, again, someone offered to help. When we eventually made it to the top, it was like we'd been airlifted from hell to well... we weren't sure what.
The speed of sliding downhill was dizzying and intoxicating, the frequent wipeouts brutal and instructive. We continued having our arms yanked numb by the speedy rope tows, fell backward off a platter lift — a spring-loaded metal pole with a plastic disc you tucked through your crotch to pull you along by your butt, itself a novelty — to skid helplessly downhill upside down, plowed full-speed and out of control into hay bales, and generally took a massive beating from the tiny 35-metre vertical. The most vivid frames from this flickering film, however, are not of motion but notion — how it all looked and felt to my uninitiated senses.
Between runs we sipped scalding hot chocolate from a rancid machine and queued with tanned, sunglass-adorned hedonists who smelled like coconut and spoke of Collingwood and the Laurentians, the Alps, and Banff. Everyone but us — clad in jeans with flannel pajamas dangling below the cuffs — wore sleek, black stretch pants that disappeared into their boots. Smart knit sweaters, turtlenecks, and headbands out-polled jackets; scarves and hats made a James Bondian damn-the-elements fashion statement. European labels were legion — Piz Buin, Snik, Vuarnet, Carrera, Arlberg. This leitmotif created the very real sense of mountains, something I knew only from picture books. Amidst a monotonous suburban landscape we'd discovered a window onto a world apart. I'd stared long and hard, not realizing I was viewing a tiny corner of a worldwide diaspora, an entire galaxy of alpine travel, history, and endeavour.
Mike and I were too battered to walk home, and we sheepishly used our last dime to call my mother. She cried when she saw us: we were broken, bruised, and bloodied, our pajamas shredded by rusty ski edges, the palms of our mitts torn out by the rough hemp of the rope tow. Consumed by guilt, she overlooked our shit-eating grins and did what any conflicted parent would: screamed at us for not calling her sooner.
"It's OK, mom," I'd smiled. "We had fun."
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.
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