The Mind of the Beginner: Learning to Ski in Aspen

It really began to feel like an out-of-body experience once I arrived at Snowmass mountain to start my skiing education.
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I started feeling like an imposter the moment I started planning the ski trip I just took to Aspen.

It started creeping in a little around the edges months before, from the moment I first decided that I would learn to ski, damnit, once and for all, and put the trip on the calendar. It grew stronger the night before I left New York, as I entered Princeton Ski Shop, and bought a bright red ski jacket (so my body could be easily found), and my first pair of ski pants -- what kind of an insane endeavor requires pants that adds padding to the hips?

But it really began to feel like an out-of-body experience once I arrived at Snowmass mountain to start my education. There was, for instance, the moment at the equipment rental, as I squinted at a nice young man from South Africa while he asked me how my boots felt -- as if I'd have any way of knowing whether the pinching discomfort I was feeling was the kind you wanted or the kind you didn't. Or, as I waited for the gondola and noticed that I lacked a helmet with embellishment (I especially coveted the ones I saw with rhinestones and the ones with plush red devil horns) sported by several of my colleagues in skiing-newness, the majority of whom stood less than three feet tall. It was this last observation, of all things, that made me realize how seriously I was out of my element --I am well known for my ability to properly accessorize.

(As an aside, readers familiar might wonder what I was doing at Snowmass, since Buttermilk has long been the "learning mountain" in those parts. It still is, but this season Snowmass opened its Elk Camp Mountain Learner's Area, a dedicated space up in the mountain that completely isolated from the other ski runs, so there's no chance of an expert whizzing by and freaking you out. And for adults such as myself, determined to learn to ski long after her center of gravity has shifted undesirably, there is an additional selling point: While there are kids that take lessons, it's not the primary ski school for kids.)

So after I am slotted where I belong -- level one please -- and I begin the slow learning process: first I jump around on the snow, then glide on one foot with a ski on it, scooter style, and then with both skis on, to walk sideways up the hill to a conveyer belt that they call a car wash, and that carries me up to the top of a gentle slope, where oblivious to the beauty of the blue sky, white snow and skinny pine trees all around me and with teeth gritted, I inch my way across the slope as slowly as possible until I got to the bottom where I could breathe again.

I felt fine on the skies, I realized, except for when I was sliding. A small problem -- obviously sliding is skiing. Without letting myself slide -- which I accomplish by keeping my whole body ramrod stiff -- I also can't learn to turn or stop or do much of anything. I quickly became one big ache. I didn't want to quit but at the same time, I really wanted to get outta there. As I sat to rest, I saw a teenager that started at the same time as me whooping down the slope and screaming "I am the skiing master!"

So that was depressing. That evening, over hot chocolate and mint schnapps at the J-Bar, I told my husband (an expert skier who hiked up the Highlands Bowl and freaking backcountry skied down it while I inched around a nearly flat incline) that perhaps I was not made for this, that maybe this was something that I could not learn. He said encouraging words, but I skulked around Aspen that evening hearing people chat about snow and runs and turns and gear and whatnot and thinking "that will never, ever be me".

I almost didn't show up for my second lesson. But it was good thing that I did, because my instructor that day, John Bokrum, did something very simple and very smart that ended up making all the difference. I told him I didn't like to slide. He didn't look surprised. He took me to the top of the slope and pointed me in a downward direction, a trajectory that would eventually end in a bit of an uphill. "You'll stop all on your own without doing anything" he promised. He reminded me about this thing called gravity and how it worked. Oh right, gravity -- it sounded like crazy talk to me. But then he did the simple smart thing: he offered to hold my hand. I liked that idea. So I clutched his hand and we went sailing down the slope. I had the feeling of the velocity -such as it was -but without the panic.

With that little boost to my confidence, I felt like maybe I could slide, um, ski a little on my own. And then maybe learn to wedge turn, and learn to stop and then learn to get on and off a chair lift. I noticed first that I was no longer focused on getting this over with. Then I noticed that I was having a little fun. Then a lot of fun. Then I borrowed John's cell phone to call my husband (also skiing that day) to arrange a later meeting time so I could ski still longer.

On the gondola on the way down at the end of the day, John pronounced me a level 2.5. "In terms of physical ability, you're a level 3," he told me -which would mean I'd be ready to take green runs on my own. "It's what's happening in your mind that's holding you back."

I was intrigued by this theory, and so I rang up John Eliot a performance psychologist and consultant, on sabbatical from Rice University, to get his take. You can hear more from our chat here, but he agreed with Bokrum. Adult ski students have several hurtles to overcome -- it is simply harder to learn a new physical skill as an adult, it takes more time and more repetition to get new moves down, he said. But a combination of a fear of death, a fear of looking like a fool, and, most damaging of all, impatience (what do you mean I can't learn this before lunch?) means that many adults give up learning a new skill before they even start. (As I very nearly did.) Fear of death also makes us tense, which makes it even harder to learn. The key, he said, to learning to ski or do anything like it -- rock climbing, race car driving -is to set your expectations low, low, low, and to take the babiest of baby steps, in order to relax as much as possible. In other words, the antidote to feeling like an imposter might just be to have someone hold your hand.

Incidentally, I was much more jolly over drinks that night by the fire place in the lobby of the Little Nell, which made me a more pleasant companion for the hubby. "Mixed marriages" like mine are not uncommon in ski country, I asked Kelly Wallace, mountain vacation specialist at for resorts best for couples where one is advanced and one is a beginner. In addition to Aspen, She suggests Vail -- it has enormous intermediate back bowls with great tree skiing for advanced, and plenty of beginner terrain; Beaver Creek, with less crowds that mean a beginner is not intimidated and an expert isn't hampered, and North Lake Tahoe (Squaw Valley), which also has easier terrain at elevations with pretty views, and expert terrain that includes opportunity for expert-like things like cliff-jumping.

Cliff jumping? I'm pretty sure it would take more than hand-holding to get me to try that.