When you ski by yourself, you often ride up the lift with people you don’t know. I make it a point to say hello to every person I meet, if they don’t do so first.
This is an example of how traveling alone keeps my inner introvert flexible. It’s kind of like those singles parties you may have heard of, where you have about 5 minutes to talk to a stranger before you move on. Ski Lift speed dating, sans the romance.
This past month at Whitefish Mountain Resort, my favorite convo was with a little boy in a dinosaur decorated snowsuit and floppy polar fleece moose ears on his helmet. I had seen him zipping down the hill earlier on his snowboard, his small body as loose as a ragdoll as he effortlessly made tiny shifts in his balance to change directions.
At one point he zoomed into the ski lift area a little fast and used a controlled wipe out to stop, clanking into the metal gates that form the ski lanes. As he hopped up, his dad, a tall lanky 30 something version of his son, said, “Whoa dude, we’re just out here having fun, remember it’s not a race.”
“Yes it is! Yes it is!” said Little Dude.
A bit later, I happen to ride up on the ski lift with them. I am on one side, his dad is in the middle, and he’s sitting on the other side.
I say, “I sure like those moose ears!”
He immediately peeks at me around his dad, a small face with green goggles and a toothy smile still intact with baby teeth.
He is about 5 years old, the best year in the human lifespan, in my opinion.
I say, “I’ve seen you zipping down the hill! You’re good on that snowboard!”
His dad says “Yeah, but you gotta slow down a little bit, I think you kinda freaked out that other lady on the last run. Her eyes got real big”.
Little Dude says with a laugh, “I know! Her eyes bugged out like monster eyes!” Curls his hands to make big monster eyes around his goggles for extra effect.
You can tell by his laugh that the idea of slowing down, or being remorseful about spooking another skier on the slopes, has not occurred to him yet.
His dad says to him, “Do you want the bar down?”
He is referring to the metal bar on most ski chairs that can be lowered as a safety measure after loading the chair. Without it, there is nothing except sitting still on the narrow vinyl covered metal seat to keep you from tumbling out of the chair onto the ground.
My inner Mom is yelling, “YES OF COURSE HE WANTS THE SAFETY BAR DOWN. WHY ARE YOU EVEN ASKING?”
Little Dude says, “Nah, I’m OK.”
Dad says “Well, OK, just don’t tell your mom or she’ll kill me.”
Little Dude chortles again and says ”Let’s take a picture! “
Dad says ”No way, that’s evidence!”
They laugh and then Dad pulls up some pics of snowboard gear on his phone and they start looking at them.
All the sudden Little Dude says, “Hey Dad, can we put the bar down? “
Dad says, “Sure”, reaches up and nonchalantly pulls the bar down, without looking up from his phone. No big deal.
I’m impressed at this example of the power of Dad parenting.
Let him take a risk, let him tell you when he’s had enough, and don’t comment either way.
Don’t say, “Wow, isn’t that better with the bar down? Don’t you feel so much safer?”
Moms could learn from this.
Even so, I'm not a dad, so when I rode up with another little boy, about 8 years old, I was a little nervous.
When you rent skis, they put a piece of tape with your name on it so you can find them quickly (and avoid inadvertently stealing someone else’s) in the jumbled rows of similar skis outside the lodge. According to his skis, this boy’s name is Cody.
I say hello and then start to ask, “Shall we put the bar dow...”
I didn’t even have the sentence out and he said.
I don’t pull adult rank, but I am really uncomfortable riding with the bar up on the chairlift, with a young boy and no parent in sight. I shift both poles into the opposite hand so at least I can grab him more easily if need be.
I asked him how his morning had been. He thinks about it carefully for a minute and says “Pretty good.”
“When did you learn to ski?”
“Oh, about 3 years old.”
I point out a little kid down below us on the slope and say, “Oh, like that little guy?”
He sighs and says “Yeah, that’s my brother, he’s like 3 or 4 or something. And that’s my dad”.
So, it turns out there is a parent in sight, more or less.
His dad, on the slope below us, is teaching his little brother how to ski and has sent Cody up the lift by himself. This might explain why Cody’s morning is “pretty good” rather than excellent.
It also explains his nonchalant dissing of the safety bar, mandatory use of which would have been guaranteed by a pact signed in blood if Mom had been involved.
I honestly admire Dad energy, I see the empowering result in letting kids choose risk, provided they don’t fall, or at least survive, a tumble off ski lifts, swing sets, boats, barn roofs or cliffs.
My parental energy is more Mama Bear - I was protective but not a hovering mom when my kids were young, I allowed them to fail and make mistakes, but I can’t say I could ever be relaxed enough to have sent their younger versions up on this ski lift alone. And that’s what makes Dad energy so great.
As the morning progresses, the lift line swells to a good-natured jumble of families, students in ski classes, instructors, and experienced skiers impatient to get up the mountain. Next up, I’m paired up with a young woman in line.
We chat as we inch toward the loading point. Her name is Ariel, she is very friendly and I learn within about 3 minutes she’s working as a “liftie” at the resort and this is her first day off. It is also her first day on skis in 4 years, and, she’s also from Austin! Small world.
As you may know, when you approach the loading point of the chair lift, you have to pause and wait your turn as the people in front of you get scooped up by a chair. Then you hurriedly scoot up a few feet to the white line to position your bum in front of the chair that is rounding the corner and coming for you.
You put your poles in one hand and look behind you to grab the chair. If you do it right, you sit down as the chair comes in under you and voila! You are on the lift. (If you don't do it right, there is an embarrassing outcome that includes you in a heap in the snow a few feet out, the chair lift stopping and everyone in line a witness as you flounder to get out of the way.)
Ariel from Austin and I shuffle up to the white line and look back to get ready to meet the chair. Much to our surprise, instead of seeing the oncoming chair, we are face to face with two young men who have jumped the gun, or rather chair, in this case. They had been talking and not paying attention, shuffling on auto-pilot onto the boarding area. They look as surprised as we are.
In the meantime, the chair keeps coming. The liftie on duty says “OK guys, slow down” and then pauses the lift so we can rearrange to sit side by side instead of landing on each other’s lap - or in a proverbial heap in the snow in front of the lift.
It turns out the guys are locals, about 15 or 16 years old. Like the boys I met earlier, they have been skiing since they were 4 or so. This is their first day skiing for this season.
I love the fact that they are so excited to be on the mountain that even after growing up on skis, they literally could not wait and gaffed the lift line protocol like beginners.
This lower lift only is only a first step to getting to the second lift that goes up to the summit and to the black diamond runs on the other side of the mountain. Skiing those runs makes the relative risk of not using the safety bar sort of quaint. In fact, on this ride, the question of lowering it doesn’t even come up.
I ask one of them about the other side of the mountain. By this time in the ski lift speed convo they know I’m a visitor and barely off the green slopes. My ski instructor classified me as teal, a combination of green, the easiest, and blue intermediate runs.
The young man pauses politely, not sure if I’m asking because I’m thinking about trying a run on the back of the mountain or not.
He must have sisters because he’s learned the value of choosing his words carefully. He comes up with, “Um, some of those runs can be kinda tricky. You want to be kinda careful back there.”
I couldn’t agree more. I have no intention of going all the way down the mountain in a pizza wedge, on my backside, or worst case, on a stretcher with ski patrol, even though some of those ski patrol guys are super attractive.
Ski patrol has a mix of ages, skewed more toward 20 somethings, male and female older versions of the kids I met on the lifts today, who have been skiing every winter that they can remember, developing a relationship with the mountain that visitors and beginners can't hope to replicate.
However, there are some men in their 40 or 50s who still work ski patrol and...well, let's just say they are in great shape and it shows, even with all the snow gear layers.
Ariel has more confidence than I do, even after not skiing for 4 years, and she takes off on what I would call a dark blue run. Not teal.
It is freezing this high up, so I decide to go for a cocoa in the summit restaurant. I sit down and, seeing some ski patrol off duty at the bar, contemplate what minimum injury I could fake to warrant an escort down the hill.
It's cloudy and you can't see much out the window, but doesn’t matter, it’s just nice to be part of the scene, even if I’m more of an observer than participant at this altitude on the mountain, far above the hubbub of the lower lodge, family vibe and beginner slopes.
It is very unlikely I’ll ever be a black slope skier, but I’m OK with that. Skiing is work, and every workout you skip (and extra adult beverage) will come back to haunt you on the mountain.
These precious trips give me a lot of motivation to stay fit the other 51 weeks of the year when I’m not here, trying to mix a little more blue into my teal with every trip.
I only fell twice this trip, didn’t wipe out exiting the ski chairs, didn’t plow into any other skiers, and my skiing is finally more parallel than pizza.
I cocoa toast these short 2 days as a success, and resolve to prioritize a month or two per year of slow travel living in the mountains for me and my Meximan, who, for a Mexico City native, looks pretty good bellying up to the bar in his snow gear, too! <3
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