Humbling lessons in learning to ski

learning to ski
Author Julie Kailus is learning to ski partly so she can keep up with this kiddo.

It’s well documented that “novelty”—literally trying something new—can help ward off dementia, and that physical and mental stimulation appears to create new connections between nerve cells. I’m not that old (38), but I recently decided to take up a new sport—skiing—precisely to help generate these new connections.

Well, if truth be told, I also did it to keep up with my kids, who at 5 and 7 already move disturbingly rapidly down bumps and black-diamond runs. I’ve snowboarded for 15 years, but large planks of polyethylene can only carve so quickly in large moguls and turn so tightly between trees. Honestly, I’m afraid I’ll be outpaced.

learning to ski
Learning to ski through powder at Copper Mountain; photo courtesy of Copper Mountain Resort/Tripp Fay

With both my brain and my kids in mind, I signed up for a beginner ski lesson at Copper Mountain, a Colorado resort whose naturally divided terrain works wonders for skiing families with varied abilities. Plus I’d heard about a brand-new newbies package: three lessons, rentals, food, and a season pass for $199. I could learn to ski on the bunny slopes and eventually make my way to the east side with my family, I thought.

But first, the lesson. I went for a nicer pair of K2 all-terrain demo skis and tried to ensure a solid boot fit so equipment wouldn’t hold me back. Turns out that wasn’t the problem. I was truly a beginner, having only skied a few times in my early 20s before switching exclusively to snowboarding. Upon exiting the first lift, I was the girl with her rear end sticking out, with an awkwardly twisting upper body, with poles that had a life of their own, seemingly unable to shift my weight forward enough to make a smooth turn. “Shine your headlights,” my knowledgeable Bronx-based instructor, Barry Brock, who has taught at Copper for 31 seasons, instructed me about turning my knees to turn my sticks.

learning to ski
While learning to ski, a big powder weekend made Kailus wish she were still on her board.

Note to self: Skiing is nothing like snowboarding. I’m competitive (although I try to cover that up). I’m used to learning athletic endeavors quickly. This was humbling. I kept trying to lower my center of gravity like I do on a snowboard. It didn’t work. Unlike snowboarding’s ridiculously steep (and painful) learning curve, skiing’s arc, I knew immediately, was going to be lower and longer. There’s a subtle shift of weight that’s required. There’s a finesse that I will need to master over time. After realizing I couldn’t muscle through it, I tried, as Barry explained, to relax my upper body, continue to push my shins, adopt skiing posture (which is “bad” posture in real life), and stop, oh please stop, leaning back. Ultimately, I needed to trust myself. Did I mention this was a sobering process? But, then again, that’s exactly what I’d signed up for.

Things got better run by run. I learned controlled J-turns, which when combined with letting gravity do its thing, looked a little more like those linked S-turns that experienced skiers carve. It still wasn’t pretty. To add to the emotional challenge, it happened to be an absolutely epic powder day, and I found myself salivating at the snowboarders hooting as they floated through knee-deep snow, as I stood with the two ski poles Barry had secured in a “cage” around my waist to force my arms out in front of my body. I looked like a dork. I wouldn’t look like a dork in that powder, on my board, I mumbled to myself.

Learning to ski
Learning to ski at Copper Mountain; photo courtesy of Copper Mountain/Tripp Fay

So I had to suck it up. Like every other beginner. Like anyone starting over. By the end of the lesson, Barry attempted to “fix” my very individual issues, along with those of the two other newbies in my class, and I remembered, slowly, over a number of hours, runs, and lift rides, the beauty of learning. The more pointed questions I asked, the more helpful tips I received. The more I listened and executed upon demonstration the better I fared. The more I embraced “beginner’s mind”—that lovely Buddhist attitude of openness, eagerness, and no preconceptions—the more I let go and accepted that I couldn’t expect to be an expert in a day.

Like a child, I initially wanted to be so good so fast—so I could keep up with my own children. What irony I found in beginner-hood. The ski lesson became a big, old metaphor. In the end, it was worth it. I remembered how interesting learning anything is. I pushed new neural pathways. I discovered a renewed humility that I can take into other aspects of my life.

And then, the very next day, I sailed through powder from the comfort of my snowboard. One step forward. One step back? I’ll have to reconcile that another day.

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