“You’re ready for Chair Two,” He says, eyes behind the impenetrable black of his sunglasses.
I look around the parking lot, a rare sunny day at Alpental. The girls are eating grilled-cheese sandwiches cooked up on the camp stove, chattering away with their ski friends between lessons. Sixty miles from rainy Seattle, it’s a blue-bird day up in the mountains. I think about the people down at sea level waiting out the drizzle we’d left early in the morning. Did they have an inkling of what they were missing?
“You’ve said all season this is your year to do it. Snow’s great up there. Sun’s shining. You’re ready.”
I stall, rooting around for another potato chip, taking a swig of beer. “I don’t know…how’s the entrance?” I’ve heard tales of the entrance to International, a double-black diamond ski run.
This is the traditional question experienced Chair Two skiers ask one another on the lift: “How’s the entrance?” On a late winter day, after several months of snow, the answer is most often a mellow, “Good.” The rest of the time the answer varies: “icy,” “terrible,” “hardcore,” “zero visibility,” “I’m sure it will get better if it warms up some.”
Michael hasn’t been down International yet today, but he’s had a fun ski on a single-black diamond run on the upper mountain. He’s sure that with the great conditions, International is the place to go. He’s convinced I’m ready for it. After all, I’ve skied all the black diamonds on the lower mountain. Eight-year-old Megan is convinced, too, “Do it, Mommy! I’ve been on it with my class two times this year!” She’s feeling the pride.
Comfort Zone n. …2. the level at which one functions with ease and familiarity.
Line of demarcation n: a boundary marking something off from something else
I feel like a fraud when I see the sign at the base of Chair Two: “EXPERT SKIERS ONLY! There is no easy way down.” Looking back, stomach churning, I glance over the heads of the “dudes” laughing and joking comfortably behind me as they wait in a rag tag line. These are the expert skiers.
Michael urges me ahead, “Remember. These guys don’t like to wait and they’ll be pissed if there’s an empty chair. It seems slow, but you’ve got to be ready when the chair comes up.”A rickety double chair appears suddenly from behind the bearded lift operator. He grabs it to slow it just long enough for us to wedge ourselves in the tiny seats.
“And you’re off!” he says and gives us a slight push, already turning towards the next chair.
We are away immediately, traveling up a cable that sags ominously between each lift tower. My heart pounds more rapidly with every bob of the chair on the line. The angle of now bowing line would be steeper if the cable were taut. This lift was built in 1967, the year I was born. A thought flashes across my mind. What is the life span of a chair lift? We cross over the heads of hotshots zipping down the deep moguls under us; we are low enough to whack their helmets with the tips of our skis if they catch air.
Up and up. Michael points out the beauty of the cliff faces, the cornices across the other side of the bowl, the skiers whipping down the narrow chutes, jumping over rocks. Between bobs of the cable, trying not to move my head too much so I don’t fall off the little chair, I pretend to look at what he points out. I am becoming more nervous with each lift tower that passes, with each foot of altitude gained, with each dip towards the earth as we move along the cable. I am on the easiest ride on the upper mountain. I am nauseous.
Life span n. 1: the average length of life of a kind of organism or of a material object esp. in a particular environment or under specified circumstances. 2: the duration of existence of an individual.
Michael falls silent, relaxing as I take deep breaths, trying to get myself out of this increasing anxiety. My fingers tingle as the chair delivers us closer to the lift shack at the top, 1,000 feet from where we started the ride. Spread beneath it is a large sign listing the names of the expert runs: Upper International, Widow Maker, Adrenalin, Snake Dance, Shot Six…. I see black diamonds, exclamation points all over it. The easiest way down, the sign declares, is Edelweiss Bowl, a single black diamond run. Michael points to the opposite side of the shack. Upper International is that way. There are two black diamonds next to its name.
With a final lift, the chair swings into line with the shack. In front of me is the steepest and shortest off-ramp I’ve ever seen. It ends abruptly in a wall of snow, but there are skiers congregated in front of it, making it even shorter. I imagine careening into them, knocking them over like bowling pins in a cartoon, poles strewn everywhere, skis akimbo, everyone yelling at me. “What the hell are you doing up here, you fucking idiot? Experts only!”
Imposter Syndrome: Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more…competent than they believe themselves to be. (Wikipedia)
Michael pushes off down the ramp, takes a sharp right at the bottom, and stops to look over the boundary rope about 10 feet away from the crowd. I notice that the thin orange ribbon “rope” is the only thing between me and a terrifying cliff edge. We have reached 5,450 feet, and Michael only notices the horizon. His voice full of awe, he names the mountains we can see on this glorious day: Chair Peak, Snoqualmie Mountain, Guye Peak, The Tooth. We can even see Mt. Baker nearly 100 miles away, its great white head rising from the hazy foothills surrounding it.
I just “uh, huh” politely. Even with my life at stake, the old lessons in manners are still automatic. I don’t care at all about the mountains’ majesty. I’m resentful that Michael is mellow enough to enjoy the view, that he doesn’t seem to notice I am so scared. I’m resentful that somehow I’m going to have to go down a run that’s at the bottom of this cliff, and he’s responsible for making me do it.
“Okay, let’s go. Just follow me.” He smiles encouragingly. “We’ll take the lower entrance, it’s easier.”
“I’m really nervous, Michael.” I finally just say it. “I’m not sure I can do this.”
“You have to. How else are you going to get down?” Logical. Calm.
Logical adj …2: capable of reasoning or of using reason in an orderly cogent fashion.
The lower entrance is easier? Moguls bar the way between the view point and the lower entrance. The dudes whip past, easily dipping and dancing their way around me. I feel conspicuous lumbering my way carefully in and out, feeling light-headed as I look for Michael and the drop-in. It occurs to me that my flamboyantly designed ski pants, raspberry jacket, and bronze ski helmet with pink goggles are not optimal wardrobe choices for blending into a crowd.
Glancing up, I see what I don’t expect. A line of people. The dudes have come to a halt. Michael, having stopped to wait for me, waves me over.
“Okay, it’s a little challenging. There’s some ice through here and the path is narrow. Just watch me and follow what I do.”
I look over the edge of the drop-in at a path snaking its way along the rock face under the cliff we had just left behind. A ski patroller is mid-path, skis off, muscling broken chunks of rock back into the rock face. Skiers who had blasted past me seconds before are now gingerly sidestepping down a path more narrow than their skis, exposed rock and patches of ice causing them to hesitate. They move almost daintily as they negotiate the entrance, then disappear with a “whoop!” when they hit the bowl and drop out of sight over the edge.
I don’t want to think about that edge.
Michael makes his way down; it doesn’t take him as long as I think it should. He waves at me, points down a fall line that I can’t see, yells something I can’t hear.
The pressure of the line building up behind me forces me to move. I am shaking, concentrating on each step. I feel the scrape of ice and rock under my skis. I hear the punch of my pole tip as I push it into the snow on my left, practically horizontal to my hip. My right pole slides through the powder into air. There is no purchase. I am freaking out, my nerves feel like they are shattering, but there is one thing I know. I refuse to make an ass of myself here.
Ass n. sometimes vulgar : a stupid…person <made an ~ of himself> — often compounded with a preceding adjective <don’t be a [dumb-]ass>
Somehow I make it into the run. Unable to drum up the courage to make a sharp turn straight downhill, I keep edging my way across the face of the slope. The dudes are rushing past me, taking the steep moguls smoothly, gracefully negotiating the paths cut deep around the bumps. Their routes are a series of beautifully linked moves: bend at the knees, slide through the curve, bounce up, bend and curve, slide, bend and curve, slide, the sound of their skis a smooth “shussing.” I just know that if I turn down this slope I’m going to simply fall off of the mountain all together.
Michael has been tracking me from below, keeping parallel. I stop to catch my breath as he yells up, “Turn now! You don’t want to go further towards the rocks over there!”
Nothing looks safe for a turn. It doesn’t seem possible. “Turn now!” Michael calls again. “Just turn.”
“Hi, MC!” Twelve-year-old Eric, whom I’ve known since his birth, has come to an elaborate stop just below me. He’s smiling with joy. His face red with cold, eyes gleaming. “Are you a little stuck?”
“Yes, Eric, I am,” I pant. I hope my smile looks natural, but it’s completely fake. “Just a little.”
“Turn now!” Eric says helpfully. “You can do it! Just turn now.” And he’s off, dancing his own path down International. He and Michael wave to each other, and then Eric’s gone, taking a jump and disappearing over the other side.
Encourage vt… 1a: to inspire with courage, spirit, or hope : HEARTEN… b: to attempt to persuade : URGE… 2: to spur on…
Michael’s looking at the horizon again. Patiently waiting as other skiers go by. I turn downhill.
And fall. Get up, find the pole. Turn. Fall. Get up. Breathe. And turn and fall, losing a ski. Sit, breathe, brace myself, get the ski on. Turn. Fall. Turn. Fall. Turn. Fall. Gradually, though I never stop sweating, panting, laboring, my falls are less frequent. I can make two or three linked turns in a row, then four, until I finally reach the relative ease of Lower International.
It takes me almost an hour to get down Upper International. At every frustrating moment, once I recover my breath and look for the next turn, I can look below and see Michael, steadfast. Always just a bump or two below, leading me with invisible bread crumbs, tossing back the occasional, “Look how far you’ve come!” or “You’re doing great.” But mostly he’s silent, letting me battle my way down. He knows I can do it; he’s not worried.
We go through it together, yet alone. The quiet force of gravity—and of something else–holding me to the fall line as I work my way down.
Faith n. …complete trust 3: something that is believed esp. with strong conviction…without question.
(*This essay first appeared in the January 2012 issue of the online magazine This Great Society. Thanks to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed and Wikipedia for life-informing definitions.)