Monday, February 20, 2012

Spooked by a tree

Skiing is certainly a physical endeavor. I am not going to call it a sport, at least not for me, because I do not compete in any way in skiing. Nevertheless, I work hard to be the best skier and best ski instructor that I can be.

Skiing is also a mental sport. So many details go into good skiing. Oftentimes, I’ll be working on one aspect of my own skiing technique, only to realize that I’ve abandoned all sorts of other relevant skills.

I show up early to the mountain on the weekends, not to go skiing by myself, but to go to training clinics with some of the best instructors we have. I often leave the clinics frustrated by the fact that I have not truly grasped the concept or achieved a goal with my skiing. I keep going though, hoping to improve. At age 50, I am still improving as a skier, probably due to the fact that I didn’t really get serious about skiing until age 38. Many of my contemporaries at the mountain have been skiing for 40 years.

After three straight days of CrossFit, I showed up this past Saturday morning feeling good. I didn’t feel as tired as I thought I would feel. After a warm-up run on some easy off-trail terrain, we headed to the summit to go after some tougher terrain. We skied in the trees, on the edge of a steep trail. When we finally came out of the trees and onto the trail, I was feeling warmed up and ready to go. I was moving through the moguls quickly, caught some air, landed, tried to turn my skis, and I twisted right out of one binding. I don’t remember the last time that had happened. But, I was fine, and I retrieved my ski and caught up to my group.

An hour or so later, we were in another tree run, and I caught some air, broke through a crust upon landing, and I twisted out of my ski again. This time, the binding probably did its job, as my ski was planted fairly firmly into the breakable crust. But, twice in one morning? I made a mental note to have my ski bindings checked the next time I got my skis tuned.

After a fun morning and some lunch, we headed back to the trees. On a holiday weekend, I often think that it’s safer to be in the trees, where there are fewer skiers than on the trails. Plus, the trees aren’t moving but skiers on the trails are moving, often very fast.

We started with a moderate tree line after lunch, a run I haven’t done a whole lot of times. I was trying to find some untracked snow and found myself on a slightly different path than I’d skied in the past. I dropped between two trees and quickly realized the pitch was steeper than I thought. I gained speed quickly and I was heading directly towards a large tree. I tried to turn quickly, but didn’t have enough time. Without really thinking, I dropped myself to the ground to arrest my speed. I slid just past the ski and the ski knocked both skis off my feet.

As soon as I realized, I hadn’t hit the tree, I began to take a mental inventory of my physical self. I’d bruised my left leg and my right arm. My left ankle had been jammed a bit, but it wasn’t too bad. I stood up, dusted the snow from my uniform and retrieved my skis. I put them on and caught up to my students.

But, I’d been spooked. By a tree. And it really got inside my head.

We skied another tree run almost immediately. This time, we were very close to a trail, and I didn’t want to be in the trees. I watched my students from the side of the trail and then spotted for them as they skied back onto the trail.

I got through the rest of the day without incident, but I did tell my wife about the tree incident. I had never had a narrow escape like that and it was in my head.

I got to the mountain early the next morning for training. Even though my friend Jay gave us a good clinic, my mind was elsewhere. I managed to ski well for about six or eight turns during the entire clinic and that was it. As we waited for our students to arrive, Jay suggested that we team up and ski together. Some of the more remote and difficult tree lines require two coaches for safety reasons. If one coach gets hurt, it’s important to have a second adult present. Also, with two coaches, one can lead and one can trail the group. This reduces the chances of people becoming separated from the group in tight trees, where visibility is limited. Jay and I have compatible groups. His group is a bit more aggressive, but the ages work and the abilities are close. Jay is a much better skier and instructor than I am, and he has been a mentor for me for the past decade. Because of his better skiing ability, I think it’s usually best to have him lead in the woods. I prefer the slower pace of skiing in the back of the pack.

As the day progressed, some very disturbing patterns emerged in my skiing. If I’m completely honest with myself, I didn’t want to be in the trees. This is very unusual for me, but I simply felt uncomfortable. I was skiing defensively, which is perhaps the worst way to ski. Skiing defensively takes more energy, is less fun, and is more dangerous than skiing with the appropriate stance and making appropriate movements. I was falling a lot. I was also falling behind the group at times.

Right after lunch, we were in some tight trees in really nice untracked snow. I’d skied there before, but not very often. I fell behind the group again (it’s amazing what lightweight kids with super short skis can do in the trees), and then I took a tumble and fell headfirst down the hill. My skis were stuck in some brush uphill from me. It took me at least five minutes (it seemed like hours) to get out of this mess. If there had been a lot of light, fluffy snow this could have been a very dangerous situation. By the time I was upright, Jay was calling my cell phone to find out where I was. I caught up quickly, but my confidence dropped even more.

Jay said he could see this happening in my skiing. I was scared, I got tired because of the effort it took to ski so badly, and I seemed caught in a downward spiral. But, I was also the instructor, and I’m not allowed to have an off day. I was frustrated and somewhat embarrassed by my skiing. My students gave me a lot of well-deserved grief for my slow speeds and frequent falls.

Luckily, the day ended with my body intact, even though any pride or ego was long gone. The good thing is that I have five days away from the mountain. I’m getting my skis tuned and having my bindings checked. I won’t work out this coming Friday, so I’ll be more rested this coming Saturday. I fully expect that I’ll be ready to head straight to the trees this coming weekend.

In a way, I believe my reaction was some sort of survival instinct. Fear reminds us of our mortality and helps to keep us alive. Hopefully, despite the way I skied on Sunday, I’ll end up being a better skier and instructor the next time I hit the slopes. But, I’ll also remember that I prefer to be skiing the spaces between the trees, and not skiing directly towards the trees.

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