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...and for 20 years it’s been all downhill

Christmas just past — and let’s all be thankful it’s over — included a personal milestone, an anniversary of a life-changing event.

Christmas just past — and let’s all be thankful it’s over — included a personal milestone, an anniversary of a life-changing event. While the halls were decked and the carols droned incessantly about town, I was the guy walking around humming Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“It was twenty years ago today….”

It was twenty years ago December 27 th I first clicked into a pair of skis. Ever.

I did not expect to particularly enjoy skiing. It wasn’t my idea to go skiing and, left to my own devices, skiing was something I never would have thought of doing. I agreed to go reluctantly, the way someone agrees to do something their partner enjoys but they’re pretty certain will fall squarely into the why-am-I-doing-this category.

But I got double teamed. My Perfect Partner — who, at that time, was only my Future Perfect Partner — had a mild jones for skiing. I knew this when I got into the relationship but assumed it was both latent and just one of those things I’d have to overlook, much as she tried to overlook my penchant for slipping Frank Zappa or discordant jazz into the playlist of life.

But when we journeyed to New Mexico for Christmas 1986, a meet-the-family trek already wrought with enough potential landmines to start a guerilla war, she and my younger sister conspired to not only go skiing but to drag me along for the slide. Faced with a partner who had graciously agreed to spend the holiday in terra incognito, an emotional landscape of slippery surfaces and sharp edges, it would have been churlish of me to tantrum out of going. Coupled with the taunts of a sister who knew where all my long-dormant buttons were hidden and could push them like an accordionist in a mariachi band, taking a pass on skiing was out of the question.

Late on Boxing Day I trundled on down to a “sports” shop listed in the Yellow Pages under “ski rental and orthopaedic appliances” and placed my fate in the hands of a rental tech who was reputed — by himself — to be a hot skier.

“I need to rent some ski equipment,” I said.

“Skis, boots and poles?” he inquired.

“I need all those things to ski, right?”

“It helps,” he said, curling the right side of his mouth in a gesture I wasn’t sure was contempt or opportunity.

“What kind of skier are you?” He asked the question, I’m sure, to taunt me into admitting I was no skier at all.

“Reluctant,” I answered. “Actually, I’m certain I’ll be an injured skier… but until I actually go skiing, I’ll never know, will I?”

The rental boots he brought out of the back room fit like a glove. If only my feet had been shaped like hands, they would have been perfect. But on my feet — shaped vaguely like feet but given a twist not unlike a special effects guy might employ to suggest alien origin — they hurt like hell.

“Are they supposed to feel like they’re amputating my toes?” I asked.

“More or less,” he answered, adding, helpfully, “They’ll stop hurting in a minute.”

He was right. As soon as my toes went completely numb, after I’d clunk-walked around the shop for five minutes wondering how I might disable myself on the spot to avoid carrying this charade any further, they stopped hurting. The pain that rushed, along with blood, to my toes when I took them off, however, brought tears to my eyes.

By that time, Mr. Techno had returned with poles and skis that were longer than any skis I subsequently ever owned. He mumbled something about DIN settings, release pressures, radial fractures, detuned edges. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about and finally broke down and admitted I was 35-years-old and had never, ever skied, a choice that, at that moment, was seeming particularly sane.

I had almost skied before. I’d bought a pair of castoff skis from a friend — wooden skis with metal edges and beartrap bindings — when I was 16 for five dollars. I even bought a pair of leather ski boots and was all ready to give it a try when my natural clumsiness left me with a splayed-open knee and a noticeable limp for the rest of Albuquerque’s short winter.

Be that as it may, the next day I was at the base of Sandia Mountain taking a “ski lesson.” I may as well have had a “Rube” sign pinned to my back. Rising from my torture chamber ski boots was a pair of K-Way nylon pants; above that my trusty North Face parka was baking my internal temperature to new heights. A balaclava and borrowed goggles completed the picture. The overall effect was Frumpy Terrorist.

The “instructor” spent an hour teaching us how to stop our forward motion. Fall down was, as I recall, the gist of his advice. Except for me. Looking at my nylon pants, he warned that if I actually fell down on a slope, I’d probably accelerate faster than if I somehow managed to stay upright. His advice to me was, “Pray.” Being an experienced mountaineer, I was comfortable with my ability to self-arrest but wondered how the ski hill would take to me carrying an ice axe instead of poles.

While this cutting-edge teaching was going on, my sister and Future Perfect Partner were skiing their butts off and plotting my very humiliating future.

They took me to the top of the mountain where I successfully managed to get off the chair and remain upright. It was the last success of the day. Getting down the mountain took most of the rest of the afternoon. I’d ski a few feet, fall, discover the teflon-like qualities of K-Way pants, get up again, curse unlovingly at women I was supposed to love like a brother and lover, slide a few more feet and repeat the whole mess all over again.

About half way down, a miracle happened. I made a turn. After which I fell down. But then I made another turn… without falling. Somewhere near the bottom — admittedly an hour later — I linked two turns and, yes, felt a refreshing breeze caress my sweat-soaked face.

No one was more shocked than my sister and FPP when I got to the bottom and skied right back onto the chairlift! No one, that is, except for the woman I skied right up behind who was already waiting for the chair to come around. Whoa, skiing and lap dancing.

I don’t know if my Perfect Partner would have insisted I go skiing 20 years ago had she known we’d eventually conspire to leave high-paying jobs and move to Whistler and become ski bums. But on the scale of life-changing events, Christmas 20 years ago was most definitely a high point.