The slippery slope

Posted: Jan 06, 2006 12:04 AM

We've all had our little jokes about how risk-averse Americans are. I've joined in myself, ridiculing labels on paint cans that warn "Do not ingest" and labels on beach balls cautioning "Not intended as a flotation device." But I've just been snow skiing for the first time and can now report that it is only the lawyers and their tremulous clients who are shaking in their boots. Ordinary folks are out there cheerfully taking their lives in their hands for entertainment.

Under normal conditions, I will go pretty far out of my way to avoid steep slippery hills. But since the other members of my clan were game for it, I went along. Jonathan, who had been skiing before, elected to try to snowboard. A snowboard, for those of you who have not been initiated, is a killing machine. It is chosen mostly by people between the ages of 12 and 20. The object seems to be to come as close as possible to skiers without crashing into them and then pivot loudly and dramatically with as much flying snow as possible, often accompanied by a rebel yell. Did I say without crashing into the skiers? Let's just say this goal is often more honored in the breach than the observance. Snowboarders, you see, are not looking forward when they barrel down the slope. They're looking to the side or even backward. And pity the poor beginner making her "pizza" on the same slope.

That was me. They call it making a pizza now -- as in a pizza slice. They used to call it a snowplow. Anyway, it involves pointing the tips of your skis together as you slide down the hill. In theory, this causes you to stop.

I found this ski resort to be quite heedless of my safety. We took the beginners' lesson, a civilized affair inside a fenced enclosure. We learned the basics of pizza-making on a slope no steeper than the White House driveway. There were exhortations about bending your knees and pitching your body forward. Fine. I aced the beginners' lesson. The instructor then led us out to the actual slope and invited us to ski on down to the bottom. The aforementioned snowboarders were whizzing by, along with tiny little kids not old enough to refrain from sticking their fingers in light sockets, who swoosh by on miniature little skis and use no poles. I couldn't tell if their parents were with them or not, they went by too fast.

There was another sight on the slopes that everyone took utterly in stride. Ski patrol folks (with wads of surgical tape hanging from special hooks on their belts) drove up and down the slopes on snowmobiles labeled with large red crosses. Trailing behind were sleds big enough for a fully-grown man to lie down on. Business was brisk. Those snowmobiles roared by carting poor guys and gals who had sprained, strained and broken various body parts. And amid this warlike scene, there were my husband and sons, gesturing for me to ski down to their location. My husband took to skiing like a Hollywood celebrity to an anti-war rally, and my younger boys (12 and 9) rapidly advanced to the point where they could ski all the way down the toughest beginner slope and take the big six-abreast ski lift back up.

"Isn't it exhilarating?" Bob asked after I had, in perhaps the slowest descent in skiing history, traversed the same ground. Well, not quite. Terror comes close, though. I fell down at one point not because I lost my balance but because there was no other way to stop. Why do people do this?

For the cappuccino. I can reveal it to you now. The absolute best part of skiing is apres-ski (after ski). That's when, your cheeks bearing a healthy pink glow and your feet released from the cement they call ski boots, you get your earthly reward -- a steaming cup of cappuccino or hot chocolate. Then you can relax and tell war stories of close calls with snowboarders, knowing that it's a good 14 hours before you have to get out on those slippery slopes again.