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Facing the wild snowy yonder

Published: 11/11/2009
TRACY L. BARNETT, Houston Chronicle -- Curled up in front of the fire, I look out to a line of snow-frosted pines. Twenty-three inches of snow fell last night, so the snow is still fluffy and soft.

Beyond the trees, I can see the tops of the mountains I will be ascending tomorrow. I'm trying not to think of all the things that can go wrong.

I'm fluctuating between "Really, it's no big deal," and "What in the world was I thinking?"

I could have just spent the day going from the spa to the hot tub to the fire to the restaurants - there are so many après-ski options here at Solitude Mountain Resort.

But I discovered long ago that the enjoyment I derive from an experience is directly proportional to the level of effort I put into it. Add to that the adrenaline rush that comes from a touch of danger, and you have an irresistible combination.

Danger? On the bunny slopes?

OK, we're talking about a person who falls out of the tree pose after 30 seconds in yoga class, who regularly bangs into furniture while walking in flat shoes on solid ground. We're not talking about Kristi Yamaguchi here. We're talking about me. So, yeah, I'll be frank - I'm a little bit scared.

Regardless, at 9:15 a.m. I'll be gearing up, meeting my teacher and heading off into the wild snowy unknown.

What in the world was I thinking?

Really, it's no big deal.

Easy Street it ain't

Fortunately, I fall well - and it's a good thing, because I did quite a lot of it my first day.

My teacher, Lowell Elmer, is a kindly man. Gently he leads me through the first baby steps of America's favorite winter sport - all the while, in the background, people zigzag effortlessly down what seemed an impossibly steep slope.

For those who begin young, it all becomes second nature very quickly. But skiing is a complicated business for those who learn as adults.

First you have to master walking in these crazy forward-leaning astronaut boots. Then you learn to affix the skis to the bottom of the boots while standing on them without having them fly out from under you. Then you learn how to make a pizza slice (toes pointing inwards, the skis forming a wedge pointing forward) and french fries (parallel and straight forward).

Then there's the hourglass (pizza, french fries, pizza, french fries). Suddenly I understood what my daughter meant by her parting advice to me: The wedge creates friction, which slows you down, while the parallel skis remove resistance for smooth sailing.

You must learn how to position your weight - leaning forward, contrary to my body's proclivity to blanch and pull away from the frightening scenario of a landscape rushing toward it.

And, of course, you must learn how to fall - and how to get back up once you do.

I got lots of practice on that one.

After about an hour, Lowell decided I was ready for Easy Street.

The very name of it was an affront to my dignity as I slipped and slid toward the cheery green sign, small children sailing past me.

My skis seemed to respond fairly well to Lowell's guidance, and by the end of the two-hour lesson, I was zigzagging my way down. "Look at that - you're in control!" he cried out.

Now it was time for the ski lift. Getting off is the hard part: Your feet hit the ground and you must swiftly strike a pose and start skiing downhill as the chair swings past you. So far, every descent from the lift chair has ended with me on the ground.

No matter. The adrenaline rush was enough to make me return for an afternoon session on my own. I bolted the boots back on and clomped back to Easy Street for a repeat of my last smooth ride with Lowell. Not so fast, my skis balked. For some reason, my pizza wedges were not slowing me down; my careening body refused to lean forward; and I plunged into the nearest snowdrift while trying to make a left turn.

Easy Street was a series of dead-ends. It was a lesson in humility as I rode back in the Sno-Cat shuttle with a man who was returning from skiing with his 2½-year-old son.

But tomorrow's another day - and Lowell will be there.

Easier by the minute

I awoke to a gray, snow-filled sky and wondered what the tumbling flakes would mean.

"You're smiling!" Lowell greeted me. "That's a good sign! How did it go yesterday?"

"I forgot everything you taught me!" I confessed. "I fell three times going down Easy Street! I think I'm hopeless."

"Don't worry, that's all a part of the learning curve," he reassured me.

I went over the problems I'd been having - inability to slow down or lean forward - and he diagnosed the problem in short order. I had been allowing my upper body to interfere with my legs, throwing off my center of gravity.

"Your mind always tries to take over in these situations, and your arms and your upper body try to take control - and it doesn't work."

Posture is key, he reminded me.

"Back straight, belly button out, lean your shins into the front of your boots," he said. "Ride the horse: knees out, toes in."

Then he began to show me another way to slow down by cutting across the hill. He said something that made it all click into place for me: "Imagine you're riding a bicycle," he said. "You have to lean forward, not back."

And another bicycle metaphor: "It's like you're pedaling: Energize your left foot when you want to go right, and your right foot when you want to go left."

Before I knew it, I was zigzagging down the hill, slowing my progress by cutting from side to side across the fall line, speeding up by pointing my skis straight down the hill, curving past fallen snowboarders without fear. The pizza was there if I needed it, but mostly I didn't. I had it!

The next challenge was getting off the ski lift without falling. "Remember, belly button out, shins forward, and just start skiing!" Lowell was at my side and picked me up after the first fall.

"That wasn't supposed to happen!" I wailed. I had gotten used to being upright by now. The next time, I got it right - and kept it up the rest of the morning.

By the end of the session, the gentle snow had grown into a driving blizzard. The powder under my feet provided more resistance, though, and I was hooked, feeling the joy of a mountain moving under my feet. I was finding that Easy Street was - well - pretty easy, after all.

My feet felt strangely light as I turned in my gear and we headed down the mountain, all too soon. "I feel different," I told my friend. "I'm a skier now!"

It's true. I don't know where, and I don't know when, but I'll be on the snowy slopes again, the first chance I get.