A Mule, a Klutz, and a Pair of Skis: Learning to ski as an adult

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, Heidi shares her experience embracing cross-country skiing as an adult.
Heidi Walker Heidi Walker
18-year member & backpacking leader
December 03, 2022
A Mule, a Klutz, and a Pair of Skis: Learning to ski as an adult
Skis in powder. All photos by Heidi Walker.

Rain on the windshield distorted the headlights of other cars waiting in the dark parking lot. My older sister was in the backseat next to me, leaning against our dad’s headrest as she looked over his shoulder. He flipped on the windshield wipers just as a school bus pulled in. “Is that it?” my sister asked. Mom replied, her eyes intent on her husband. “Looks like it. They said the bus would be here at 6.”

We watched the bus park. A man dressed in a heavy raincoat with a clipboard stepped out and stood next to its open door. Other cars in the lot began to open, tweens and teens trailing their parents into the rainy dark. Dad glanced at my sister clinging to his shoulder. “Let’s go.”

Dressed in her new orange ski jacket with purple trim and matching ski pants, she opened the car door and walked across the wet parking lot with Dad. She was on her way to her first ski lesson. I asked my mother when I would be able to go skiing. Her reply was filled with loving concern – undoubtedly due to the several severe injuries I’d already encountered. “You don’t want to go skiing. You’ll break a leg. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

A klutz

For years, I watched my sister climb into the ski bus in the early Saturday morning gloom. Later over dinner, I’d listen to her excited stories of advancing from the bunny hill to the blue diamond slopes. I would watch her join her friends, and often mine, on the Friday night bus offered by our town’s community center for teens. In class I would listen to my classmates’ laughter and tales of mountain hi-jinks. They’d ask if I was going next time, but my reply was always the same: “I don’t know how to ski.” I went with my sister and our parents as they bought her more ski outfits, ski boots, and finally her own skis. I was jealous. I was afraid. I didn’t want to break a leg. My mother’s certainty that I would break a bone left me sitting at home, daydreaming of carving perfect turns with my sister.

OL-XC-00103.jpgTwo ski instructors from the Everett Branch kick and glide near Lake Wenatchee during class.

After my high school graduation, I went to live with my sister in Europe. She had joined the Air Force and was stationed at Ramstein Air Force Base in southern Germany. My parents thought giving me a year to explore the world would be educational, and my sister thought it would help me get out of my shell.

She and I took weekend trips through the German countryside and neighboring countries, exploring little villages and getting lost in large cities. For Thanksgiving, we booked a trip to an Austrian ski resort. She even paid for beginner downhill ski lessons for me. I showed up to my first lesson excited and eager to learn - I was sure that by the end of our long weekend I would be skiing the big slopes with my sister. The instructor, speaking in broken English, told me to ski down the baby bunny slope. I fell, but didn’t know how to get up. He yelled at me – “Aufstehen!” “Stand up!” I frantically fumbled with the planks attached to my feet, then slipped and buried myself deeper into the snow. He stood over me gesticulating, “Aufstehen! Aufstehen!” Frustrated with my inability to rise, he grabbed me by my skis and pulled me off the slope. I took the skis off, and with tears rolling down my cheeks returned them to the ski school. My dreams of skiing with my sister disappeared as quickly as the hot chocolate I bought to console myself.

I did decide to try skiing again, this time attempting cross-country. I signed up for a cross-country ski course through an extension program at a local community college. The instructor was an acquaintance and his wife encouraged me to learn from him as he, as she described him, was the best ski and climbing instructor she knew. He taught her how to ski, and since learning from a romantic partner hardly ever works out I figured she had to be right.

OL-XC-00075.jpgHeidi’s pack and skis are ready to go for a Mountaineers outing at Snoqualmie Pass.

During our first field trip he took us to a downhill trail through the trees at Snoqualmie Pass. I fell, struggled to rise, and fell again. Turning on skis was an enduring frustration. I tried to understand the mechanics of turning - shifting my weight and letting the skis do the work. But both the concept and the physical sensation remained foreign, and I never quite got it.

Frustrated with my lack of progress, the instructor left me with one of his assistants while he went to ski with the other students. “Point her at that tree. She’ll figure out how to turn before she hits it.” I hit the tree. Technically, I hit the snow berm in front of the tree, but I still didn’t figure out how to turn. After that lesson, I was bruised head to toe. I never went back.

Finding my balance

A lifetime later, I stood in a middle school library with 15 other adults trying to maintain my balance with one foot on the ground and the other in the air. Shifting weight, I lowered one foot and raised the other. At the encouragement of friends I had registered for the Everett Mountaineers cross-country ski course. All my hopes and fears drove my cursor to type my name and pay the course fee. I had read stories of skiing with bison in the frigid temperatures of Yellowstone National Park. I watched videos of arctic expeditions traversing far-away islands and ice fields. I wanted to learn to ski - to go on adventures in the backcountry and to discover a world that had been hidden from me for years except through the stories of others.

As we practiced shifting and balancing our weight, I thought back to when my sister got her first pair of skis. Knowing I wanted to learn, she set them on the rug in the living room and showed me how to step into the bindings. I placed one foot, then the other, careful to follow her instructions exactly. I was standing in skis! I turned to look at her with childish pride, but in turning, I began to sway, topple, and soon I was on the ground.

In class, shifting weight from foot to foot, I wondered if I would be able to maintain my balance on skis in the snow. As a kid I wasn’t even able to maintain my balance on flat carpet. During the equipment demonstrations, I listened and watched. I played with bindings and twisted boots. I touched, explored, and asked questions of the experienced skiers. I stuffed myself full of information, hoping that along the way some of it would translate into the ability to stay upright.

OL-XC-00074.jpgA skier in the Methow Valley.

Our first lesson during the class field trip was falling and getting back up. Our instructors fell, rolled on their backs, and kicked their skis free of snow over their bodies. “Roll around like a bug,” they said. “Get everything free. Drop your skis parallel to each other. Use your poles for leverage in the snow like this, and push up onto your knees.” They demonstrated the technique several times, then watched as their small group practiced. “Wiggle free.” “Imagine a beetle on its back.” “Stretch your legs and arms above you.” “Well done.” Laughter flew about in the snow flurries - falling had never been so fun.

Now on the Nordic trails for ski class, my already-small group diminished in size as I became one half of a remedial group. The other student and I were given one-on-one instruction, as we weren’t quite ready to advance to the regular class yet. I wasn’t upset. I was happy that I would get a little extra time learning the basics: balance, posture, step-and-glide, stay loose, and of course “aufstehen” when I fell. In fact, I was getting very good at rolling over on my back and wiggling like a capsized beetle.

I went through several pairs of gloves and mittens, my hands growing cold and my legs becoming tired. I was exhausted. We had been practicing skiing down a slight slope - less of a slope than even the baby bunny slope in Austria. Nearly flat compared to the slope I had faced at Snoqualmie 20 years earlier.

Learning to let go

I looked at this tiny slope with a slight turn at the bottom. I had fallen so many times that the instructor asked if I wanted to go back to the parking lot. I looked at the slope, looked at her, and said “One more try.” I skied to the top, got into position, slouched like a dejected teenager, and pushed off. I let the skis turn in the grooves without fighting, resisting my desire to control every motion. I somehow came to a stop still standing, and a grin cracked across my frozen cheeks. I shared cheers and high fives with my instructor. We were finally ready to head home.

OL-XC-00091.jpgStudents in the Everett Cross-Country Skiing Course practice their technique near Lake Wenatchee.

But between me and the hot chocolate at the ski hut was a steeper, longer hill. My gut clenched as I stared down the slope to the bottom. More experienced skiers glided past and made it look easy - shift, turn, shift, turn. My instructor stood behind me. “It’s ok if you want to walk down.” But I knew if I didn’t get down the hill now that I might never make it. I watched a skier pass, then tried to get my skis in their pie shape. They began to bounce and wiggle – panicked, I fell to control them. I didn’t look at anyone as I got back up and repositioned my skis sideways on the slope. I looked at the walking route down and heard my voice say “No.” I looked back down the ski slope. You can do this, I thought. The skis are going to bounce and wiggle, but just ride them. Ride them like you rode Patsy.

A mule

Patsy was a riding mule I tried to make friends with in college. She was owned by my landlady, who would often take me on rides along the forest roads of southeast Ohio. She’d show up, pull out Patsy’s saddle, and give me a look. Anything I was studying would be put aside, and soon Patsy and I were arguing about leaving her beloved pasture.

One afternoon we left the farm for a cross-country trek through the forest to explore a nearby creek, Terry on her horse and me on Patsy. While Terry’s horse stumbled over rocks and roots, Patsy always walked steady through all obstacles. Her even pace made the ride enjoyable. The sun lowered through the trees and the moon rose as we turned back towards the farm. Eager to be back in her pasture, Patsy started trotting down the dirt road. Then her trot became a full gallop. It was dark with only splashes of moonlight along the way, but Patsy knew her way home. I tried reining her in to a manageable speed before I remembered that this was Patsy, my sure-footed steed. I loosened the reins and let her run. Moonlit leaves around me became a kaleidoscope of yellow and green. I sat back to enjoy the ride as Patsy galloped through the forest sure and true.

OL-SK-00058.jpgPerfect turns on virgin snow, Mount Rainier National Park.

Like Patsy, my skis know the way. They want to go downhill. I needed to trust them; to lean over my toes and enjoy the ride. I pointed the skis downhill again and pushed off. I let my knees become springs, bouncing with every bump. The forest around me became a blur of white and green. I moved my hands to the right and leaned in as the slope turned and my skis followed. There was a group of skiers at the bottom and I yelled a warning to them that I’m not good at stopping. They watched as I steered past them and came to a stop on the hill beyond their group. Then a cheer went up. They were cheering for me; my classmates, our instructors, even people in the parking lot. And the little girl waiting in the car for her sister’s ski bus let out the biggest cheer of all.

This article originally appeared in our winter 2023 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

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