Wouldn’t it be great if we could all have as much fun as kids do when we go outside? They’re like otters — not thinking too hard, just messing around and having fun. That’s not to say that they have no fear.
But saying that adults have forgotten how to play is as silly as saying that kids have no fear. One snowboard teacher says that some kids are “no fear” and others are “all fear.” I don’t know about that, but because kids have little history with grown up issues, they don’t freak out over sliding, and often prove that even falling is fun. I’ve been a ski instructor for 28 years, plenty of it with kids. While there’s no endorsement of any official teaching techniques here, I do have research from colleagues in pursuit of my main inquiry: What is so particularly fun (or funny) about skiing (or riding) with short people?
First of all, kids adore lift rides. Like many addicted-to-mountains kids, my own skied at age two and I was as emotional about that moment as if it were a baptism. Like an innocent entering into a lifelong field of joy, each sang out, astonished, in a tiny voice, “Look, look, Mama, look!” perched on the edge of forever. It’s a long way down, though, and children often have the judgment of puppies.
Take, for example, the day I tried (and failed) to teach one particular girl how to get off the lift safely, years ago in Germany. I explained that when we got to the top, we’d hop off the lift and slide down. But she hopped off right then and there, and was hanging on to my ankles in midair, as I hung on to her for dear life. We successfully managed the incident with the help of a lifty. When my heart stopped racing, I asked her what she thought. “Oh, it was fine,” she reported, as if this, too, was part of the fun. Try that on an adult.
An inventive Angel Fire instructor, a sort of Peter Pan character, saw that the moguls intimidated a group of kids. Taking off their skis (he carried them) the kids returned to “otter” status, using the tried and true “bellies and butts” technique. They weren’t afraid next time because they were familiar with the “terrain.” He earlier rolled an orange downhill (illustrating the definition of “fall line”), then they scampered after it on skis, hurrying to make turns to stay behind it. They ate the orange (with chocolate) and the next time, that hill didn’t seem so intimidating.
Silly adults. They fear skiing backwards, even though it’s physically simpler when you’re learning (it’s just that your eyes happen to be on the other side of your head). Skiing like kids keeps us adults unstuck in our thinking, and keeps us ready for anything. But one precocious kid took it to heart and to show off, flew backwards down the nearest steep cliff, scaring the bejesus out of me. Fearless and talented, freckle-faced seven-year old Zack also had a hero complex, so instead we searched for anyone needing help and rushed in for the rescue.
Jade, a first grader, told me, “When I’m older I’d like to be a ski teacher: but first I’ll have to grow up and also I’ll also have to get married.” That caveat is lost on many instructors. The bigger girls, fourteen-years-olds, were curious about the “underwear tree” — a ponderosa pine decked out with all sorts of racy lingerie. Something to do with Mardi Gras — ask your parents. What they mostly liked about skiing was giggling and singing on the lift. When the next day I brought them some huge cotton “Grandma panties,” they were beside themselves, wearing them over their ski pants and then flinging them off the lift to hang in the Underwear Tree. Big Fun.
Maybe teachers are the ones who should be afraid. One informant told me about some infamous twins, both small boys; they were biters. They were so horrible it took one instructor apiece to handle them. The biggest instructor available, skiing backwards, dared the kid: “come and get me.” Which he did. Skiing right into him at approximately crotch level, he delivered a bite that drew blood.
My own children were abandoned to the mountain at any early age; I was working. The seven-year old loved one particular black (advanced) run, which was right under a popular lift heading up the mountain. One day I overheard someone asking indignantly “what kind of mom would let their little kid ski alone like that?” Rhoda Blake, one of the original Taos Ski Valley owners, chuckled when I told her that, saying that that was exactly how her own kids were raised. At least they more-or-less “owned” the mountain. Who needs a mom when you can be raised by a mountain? Apparently it’s a lot like being raised by a wolf. It seemed to work for ancient Rome.
Likewise, local school kids are usually turned loose by themselves for half a day after their lessons. They learn important skills, such as how to leave a tip at the pizza joint, how to push each other down the hill, and how to get lost and unlost. Playing the bad boy, one eighth-grader joked, “It’s fun until somebody gets hurt…and then it’s really fun.”
They also learn to do things like drop a mitten “accidentally” off the lift right over their favorite steep run, forcing the class to go that route. Instructors can play that game, too, knowing just when to choose just the right dose of delicious fear (otherwise known as a challenge), like riding through the trees, finding a jump, or just diving into new terrain or new snow conditions. Ever seen a group of very small people come to a complete halt in deep powder? Nothing like having a bunch of wailing kids who need a tow truck.
Kids can teach you all kinds of things you didn’t want to know. When asked if his father skied, a seven year old from Dallas replied politely, “No, sir, he can’t because he’s a fat bastard.” One eight year old in a pink suit told me her daddy was a brain surgeon and his new wife was a cardiologist. And your mom? “Oh, she’s just an endocrinologist.” Another kid said, “My dad had to go all the way to Russia to find a new wife.”
But even the old-timers still surprise us, taking on the attitude of kids pretty easily. I suggested to an “elderly” member of a big family clan that he take the “alternative” route and avoid the steep bumps we were headed for. Instead, he stayed right with me. He didn’t want his 85-year-old younger brother to show him up! My favorite was a lovely and fierce 90-year-old woman who showed up, saying, “I always wanted to learn.”
One last story — a friend told me his father took them skiing whenever he could. It got them all through some very tough times, and as preacher’s kids, they had a few of those. After many years, he stopped one day one day at the bottom of the mountain, looking up. One by one, from the sons down to the tiniest grandchild, they came down, hockey stopping and spraying him with snow. Maybe that was his baptism. The father seemed to have tears in his eyes. But you couldn’t know for certain as he wiped away the snow.
Dr. Michele Potter has been a ski instructor and college teacher for more than 25 years, most of it in Taos. She also taught skiing in Germany, Colorado, and Oregon.