My ‘epic’ day on Fanny Hill (and why I still can’t get a date in Aspen)
February 4, 2004
It’s the moment in the conversation I always dread.
I’m chatting away with a pretty girl at a bar, explaining that I’ve been coming to Aspen since I was a child and I moved here in October to work full time as a writer (sounds sexier than reporter). Things are going well, we’re laughing and flirting and getting intimate until ” wham ” she asks, “Do you ski or snowboard?”
The dialogue that follows is so sparse and desperate and hope-crushing it could easily be lifted from Samuel Beckett:
Pretty Girl: “So, do you ski or snowboard?”
Pretty Girl: “Oh.”
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I try to scramble back, of course, try to explain that my decision not to ski or snowboard is a professional one, that I am here as a reporter, a social observer, a Tocquevillean outsider who necessarily requires some distance from the mainstream culture of this town. But, alas, the damage has been done and pretty soon the girl has excused herself to “the bathroom.” By that she means a large snowboarder at the bar, complete with woolly hat (it’s not cold), sunglasses (it’s not bright) and savage tan (it’s midwinter).
The fact that I have not once been on skis or a snowboard is, of course, inexcusable. A non skiing Aspenite is like a New Yorker who has never been mugged; you’re not a true local until you’ve been so initiated.
My inexperience provides its fair share of confusion, especially when I’m conducting interviews. It honestly took me a few weeks to discover that “ripping powder” does not refer to cocaine use (“I can’t believe this guy is telling me this,” I remember thinking as I scribbled excitedly in my notebook).
My other trusty excuse is that I work too hard as a reporter and that my evil editors ” two of them, just like the evil stepsisters in Cinderella ” don’t let me leave the office except on assignment. In reality, my editors are always stopping by my desk, themselves often flushed and invigorated from a few lunchtime runs, to ask me when I’m going to get off my ass and finally, for the last time, Harrell, get up on the slope! (They don’t actually refer to me by my last name, nor do they ever really shout. This is just a movie-inspired fantasy.)
So last week I finally decided to put my editors to the test. I shuffled into one of their meetings and sheepishly asked if it’s OK, I mean if you wouldn’t mind, please, sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but could I take a day of work to learn how to ski?
“Sure,” they said.
A quick call to Jeff Hanle, the friendly spokesman for Aspen Skiing Co. (reporters love this guy ” he actually returns phone calls), and I was all set. A day of what the Ski and Snowboard School of Aspen calls “Beginner Magic” waited on the slopes of Snowmass.
I recruited a close friend, Nathan Kitchens, to go with me. Nathan, who was famous in college for bellyaching over an A minus, had just finished his first-term exams at Harvard Law. He’s about 5 foot 7, 125 pounds, more bookish than brutish, one of those guys who knows all the statistics for sports he’s never actually played, a guy you would go to for advice, for emotional support, for a measure of intellectual excellence and moral goodness; in short, a puny, snivel-nosed nerd.
Taking our cue from what little information we could glean from movies and commercials, we woke before sunrise the day of our lesson. Dressed in five layers of thermal underwear, we carbo-loaded for a tough day on the slopes, each of us force-feeding the fifth and final McDonald’s sausage and egg biscuit.
We arrived at the Skico building with just enough time to get fitted with equipment and sign legal waivers. As a general rule, I do not participate in sports that require any legal statements covering liability in case of death, dismemberment, or other violent events. Though I’m sure I signed away something important in the fine print (organs? my firstborn?). Nathan, armed with a whole semester of legal training, encouraged me to ignore it since lawsuits would be the least of my concerns if I tumbled into a heap at the base of Fanny Hill.
After buckling our rented ski boots, we waddled to the lesson about 10 minutes late. This worked out fine, because it meant that we had our own instructor, George Perry. Skico has a seemingly limitless supply of instructors, and if you show up late for a group lesson they call the bullpen ” before you know it you’ve got a new instructor.
George was everything I hoped a ski instructor to be (except female, young and pretty). With a face as weathered as a well-worn ski trail, but still in phenomenal shape (it took a few minutes for my hand to recover from his powerful handshake), George has a degree from Dartmouth, which he has put to use by spending his entire adult life as a self-described ski bum. Dashing back and forth between hemispheres has allowed him to teach skiing now for 40 seasons.
We started in an area above the “kiddy cave,” a gently sloping knoll fenced in from the skiing public. Before we were allowed to put on our skis, George gave us a spiel on “the art of centering,” a yoga breathing and meditation technique that the ski school uses. A few years ago, Tom Crum, a local aikido instructor and spiritual guru, helped map out the beginner curriculum, and it’s clear the instructors still follow his precepts.
Now, I am usually highly skeptical of gurus of any sort; I have always had a suspicion that they are fakes, quacks, modern-day swamp-water salesmen who cater to the frizzy-haired, pursed-lipped, multimillion-dollar housewife hysterics in town. But I’ve met Tom Crum, golfed with him a few times, and I know him to be a smart, reasonable man. He’s also a phenomenal athlete. So I decided to let go and allow myself to be molded by the art of centering. It really works. Although in retrospect I hardly know what it means, George really did help me find my center.
So, as George has me on one leg doing some sort of Zen breathing exercise, along comes another instructor, Danielle Mason. Danielle, in her second year of teaching, is a gorgeous 25-year-old blonde, fun and vivacious.
“I’m just here in case we have any TLCs,” Danielle tells George. After some prodding, George explains that “TLCs” are people who require a little Tender Loving Care.
“Ah,” I say, “you mean retards.”
“NOT RETARDS,” Danielle and George retort quickly.
They are defensive, but a little undercover research that night with an unsuspecting ski instructor revealed that “TLCs” are indeed the ski instructor’s headache, those pupils who for whatever reason can’t quite master the basics of balance and coordination.
I’m sympathetic to the instructors though, and understand if occasionally and in private they mock TLCs. Skiing comes as naturally to instructors as breathing. We’ve all been there, we all know how humorous and frustrating it can be to watch someone flail and struggle at something we take for granted; think of the hapless idiot at the ATM machine who can’t figure out how to use a debit card, or the parallel parker stopping traffic with a deft 15-point maneuver. That ski instructors don’t openly point, laugh, and guffaw at their less-adroit students shows remarkable restraint.
Anyway, as soon as I hear what TLC means I turn to Nathan to ask him what moron in our group of seven beginners will turn out to be the TLC. Unfortunately, Nathan’s already on the ground, equipment scattered, struggling futilely to stand up. He finally does manage to right himself, only to slip over again while reaching for his pole.
Poor Nathan. I don’t think he ever really took to the “art of centering.” Being a law man, I suspect he took “centering” literally, as in “to fall inward on oneself.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of my good friend, standing unknowingly at the top of the hill, talking away, while, almost imperceptibly at first, he starts sliding backward downhill. If you’ve seen the famous Edvard Munch painting, “The Scream,” in which a man grabs his distorted head in nightmarish horror, you can begin to understand the look of pure terror on my friend’s face. I shudder to think what would have happened were it not for the quick reactions of one of the instructors.
My sympathy for Nathan was short-lived, however. Within five minutes, beautiful Danielle had identified him as the TLC, and Nathan got to spend the rest of the day under her one-on-one instruction. Always struggling to find the positive in failure, she complimented him on being “fearless” for repeatedly plowing into a snowy embankment after each aborted turn. It seemed every time I looked, he would be arm in arm with her, chatting cheerfully, laughing each time Danielle momentarily let go and he began his inevitable flailing. She’d catch him though, usually in some sort of intimate-looking embrace.
In the end, Nathan’s private instruction with Danielle was probably for the best. It turns out Danielle and I had met before, once, at a bar, an encounter of which I have no recollection. At lunch, I asked her what I had said. She told me that she had had a little difficulty understanding me, but she had a hunch that I had been trying to ask her to marry me. Suffice it to say I was a touch embarrassed. We haven’t yet set a date.
Also, being free of Nathan allowed me to hone my skills at something faster than a glacial pace. By the afternoon, I was stumbling my way off a real chairlift (not the laughably phallic Poma, but a real lift), ready to ski down. For a brief moment I surveyed the ski trails below me and tasted the crisp air as a real skier ” this was the highlight of my day. But skiing can be a cruel sport ” I couldn’t quite manage the dismount from the chair and spent the next few minutes buried in snow trying desperately to clear myself from the path of dismounting boarders, their headphones rendering them oblivious to my plaintive cries.
Still, the run down the hill was something I’ll never forget. Remarkably, in a few hours a small group of us had been taught to ski, or at least taught how to go down a hill on skis without killing ourselves. Of course all it took was a swarm of 5-year-olds zipping past me at thrice my speed to remind me that, alas, I was still a few crucial notches below Olympic standard. But still, with the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and spectacular vistas laid out before me, I felt like a real skier. It was glorious.
As I came off the slopes, dizzy from a pleasant elixir of invigoration and exhaustion, all I could think about was what a stud I am, finally a real skier. Full of life and confidence, I marched into a local bar for my first apres-ski cocktail (as opposed to my usual apres-sitting-around-the-house-waiting-to-join-the-skiers cocktail). Sitting at the bar was a pretty young woman, fresh off the slopes herself.
It didn’t take long for me to return to earth. This is how our conversation went:
Me: Man, it was epic up there.
Pretty Girl: Yeah, it was. Which runs did you do?
Me: Fanny Hill.
Pretty Girl: Oh.
Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org