Monday, January 10, 2011

Jack & Jill went up the hill

Memoirs of skiing on the Ragged Mountains in the pristine town of Camden, Maine.


I had mugged up the term 'self-motivated', amongst others, during the CV making and interview days in college. Not that I ever was. I always believed that just like most of the things in life, with almost anything to do, there are people behind who push you into it. And once you are done, they morph into the "I-told-you-so" mode, the tone of the phrase adjusted based on the outcome of what you did.

The drive up to the hills in Camden was smooth; it had snowed less than an inch last night and the plowers had done a good job on US-1 to ensure I didn't have to bother much about not having an AWD car in this part of the country. Amidst some bollywood music in the background, during the entire drive, my thoughts candidly imagined myself - wearing my duck-feather jacket on a t-shirt on a thermal inner on a vest, and a jeans on a track-pant on a thermal inner on a Jockey brief - swooshing in a perfect wave on those white mountains and fields on both sides of the road, occasionally giving a slight push on this side with the two poles in my hand, turning on that side with a slight pressure on the left toe, wavering on the hills for miles at a stretch. I didn't think about any cheerleaders waiting for me with red and yellow flags at the bottom of the hill, god promise; after all, I thought, this was a private moment, when I wasn't going to do something like those city half-marathons where your entire purpose is to get your photograph clicked and published in the weekly office newsletter - this was where I was going to do something to 'unwind' myself, for the sole purpose of enjoying it - I was kind of self-motivated, yes.

This was the only part where I actually skied.

I pulled over in the parking lot of Camden Snow Bowl. Looking at the number of cars, I congratulated myself - today must be a really good-weather day to ski; and the flashy imaginations from the drive quickly replayed in my mind.

In this country, I have learnt to be comfortable with all sorts of people unloading all sorts of sophisticated-looking equipment at all possible places. Earlier I used to get nervous at the sight of guys unloading huge kite-board sails from those giant SUVs at a lake, or surf boarders near the beaches, or mountain bikers at various trails - I've now come to terms with myself on this part - don't think too much, they are 'professionals' - helps. People around here looked the same - the elegance with which the snow-boards and skis and boots and poles were being unloaded from 'trucks', I had to pass them off as 'professionals' - helped.


The white mountain in front of me was dotted with all colours - multitude of people in red and blue and green jackets could be seen swooshing down the hill just the way I had skied in my mind during the drive. Ah, the moment of glory, I am minutes away from that!

The cold wind slapped me on the face as soon as I stepped out of the car - it was still snowing mildly, and the head-band wasn't much help in braving the cold. I walked up closer to the hills and could see the human forms more clearly. Tiny kids, of size exactly equal to the length of my right leg, were gliding happily round and round on the snow in their duck-toe looking skis. I particularly noticed the kid in a pink jacket, she was cute, and she immediately reminded me of my first few days at swimming back in Bangalore. A kid her size had dived just before me in the 15-feet-depth side of the pool, smiled gay-ly at me, swam to the other side; and a few minutes later, I was throwing my arms and legs splashing the water and desperately gasping for breath at the same spot, till I was thrown a car tube by the instructor. Well, nevermind.

I signed up for the $50 'Beginners Special' - something which included lessons in the morning, after which you could ski on your own the whole day. I was handed over all the equipment, and excited enough, I started with putting on the boots. The ski boot is quite a remarkable invention - once you wear them, you can't bend your ankles anymore, it's like a plaster cast below your knees - probably made to ensure that in accidents, your toes, heels and everything down there don't move at all to get broken or cramped. It also means that you almost can't walk wearing them, you can't sit on the ground without your legs stretched (no squatting), and you can't stand up from the ground. Try the last part, stand up from the ground without bending your ankles. If you think it's easy, go take a walk. Literally, in those boots.

The first fall was uneventful. I came out wearing those boots and carrying my skis and poles, went slowly down the three steps that opened up at the base of the hill where snow had hardened to make a layer of ice, stepped on that ice, and slipped. It was tough to stand back up in those boots, and I managed by holding the railing and struggling my way up. I consoled myself, its fine, I just need to get a little further, cross the ice part, and then walk my way on the snow to the assembly point for group lessons. It wasn't as easy as I imagined, every time I tried to walk on the ice, it was like a Michael Jackson moon walk step, I was walking at the same spot, much slowly. The guy in the renting area looked at me, and said - don't worry, you'll make it. Duck-walk, crawl, sit and walk, do anything - people have done it!

With an air of confidence, I managed, crossed the ice, and then walked up slowly to the assembly area. The second fall came unexpectedly. This was the smallest of the hills with the minimum slope, and you could go up the hill holding a conveyor rope, and then ski down. Looking at everyone going up, and thinking that the lessons might be going on up there, I clicked my boots in the skis, followed someone to see how to catch the conveyor rope, went up the hill on my skis, and just when I released the rope at the top, fell sideways. The fall wasn't that bad, the getting up part was. The two skis were stuck to the my feet like cockroach antennae, and anything I did resembled those cockroaches hunting for food - the skis criss crossed, kept slipping, but there was no way to get up. I had to remove the skis from the boots, and then someone offered me help so that I could get back on my feet.

The next fall was sensational. I clicked my boots back in the skis, and they started gliding slowly down the hill. It seemed fun for a few seconds, but before I could fully comprehend it as a moment of glory, the daunting realization came looming on me that I'm sliding down, and there is no way I can stop. I sat, tried to dig my fingers into the snow like the final scene of Matrix, the speed reduced slightly, and I ended up at the base of the hill with a full-body-roll in the final seconds. A girl in her teens asked me - "Are you ok? You need help?" Wish she was hot. I told her that I can't stand back up with those boots, she offered her hand, I tried to get up, couldn't, and finally managed to get up only by supporting myself using a wooden bench nearby.

The next few falls were under the able guidance of my instructor, Barb, a middle aged plump woman, who somehow knew from the very beginning that I am going to be her career-worst student. The first time I fell in her presence was when she taught me how to stop myself while gliding down by making an inverted V by moving my toes inwards and stretching the legs. While attempting that bravely, my legs were stretched almost to the extent of those stretching exercises in your kiddish martial-art classes, and I could feel that my body was about to be torn apart into two halves like Mahabharata's Jarasandh vadh. Before that could happen, destiny decided to have mercy on me, and I just toppled over in the snow, on my face. The cute kid in the pink swooshed around me on her skis, in a perfect round.

Next one was slightly dramatic. I didn't actually fall, but was gliding down the hill with the same speed as my very first attempt, fully out of control, and Barb shouted 'stop, stop' at the top of her voice. Another instructor who was taking lessons for another group down the hill grabbed my hand, and this time, I didn't fall! "Nice grab!" he said, and I smiled at my few seconds of skiing success.

She actually had to shout 'stop, stop' two more times, to the conveyor operator. The first time was when I was gliding up the hill clutching the rope, my skis decided not to be friends anymore and part ways. They switched from being parallel to each other to a 20 degree angle, and before I had a chance to set them straight, I found myself thrown to one side, and the cockroach antennae saying hello to Barb. The second time was when Barb was skiing exactly a feet away from me, just so that I am prevented from further misfortunes, and leading me to a purple post slightly down the hill. I was thinking on my feet, but somehow my feet decided to do more thinking than me, and as Barb explained later, my right foot had more pressure than the left even when I was going to the right side down the hill. This led to an almost 180 degree of turn towards the left, away from Barb, and I started gliding straight towards the conveyor rope, hit it on my face, tripped over, rolled on the grass on the other side of the rope, and landed up on my ass. The feeling wasn't as great as Tom Hanks getting shot in his buttocks in Forrest Gump - he at least had loads of ice-creams offered later.

After multiple such adventurous ups and downs on the hill they used to call 'Mitey Might', I was sweating and panting with every muscle of my body demanding justice. Barb realised, and exuded a sympathetic sigh, just like different people had exuded the words 'awww', 'are you ok', 'need help', 'oh crap' etc every time I met them down the hill, not on my feet. The pink kid was still swooshing up and down, the smile broadened a bit. I told Barb that I'm tired, and I'll rather return in the afternoon after lunch. She said I just needed some practice, till my feet 'get a feel of it and start thinking on their own', and I will definitely get better - and she sooo did not sound like office HRs. I packed up, managed to limp back to the rental shop, returned the rental equipment, and drove straight up to the harbour for a well-deserved lobster.

The snow-capped mountains on either side looked just as beautiful without any images of me swooshing up and down. This time I thought of taking pictures, rather than skiing on them.