I watch the elderly gentleman fall twice trying to summit the bunny hill. Both times he had a firm grip on the rope tow, but panic or a slight shift in weight reduced the effort to snowy disaster. With my dad and our fellow patroller Kurt busy coaching other beginners, I set my boots to walk mode and hike to the man's side. Helping someone find their balance seems like the least I can do with my holiday visit to Huff Hills in North Dakota.
We introduce ourselves and the man explains through his gray beard that it's his first time on skis. I walk him through the basics, telling him to make a pizza — the time-tested way of describing a snowplow — and push his knees together to keep weight on his inside edges. He catches on quickly. On his first descent, he begins to make wide, slow turns from one side of the hill to the other. I tap my dad on the shoulder.
"He's doing it," I say.
"You must be a good teacher or something," Dad replies.
If I'm a good teacher, it's only because I've had good teachers, a lineage that originates with my dad. Throughout my childhood he guided me down cat tracks and wide greens, drawing curves in the snow with his ski pole to demonstrate linking my turns. I slowly graduated from snowplows to stem christies to full-on parallel turns, always mindful of keeping my upper body squared to the fall line.
Eventually, though, Dad had to call in the big guns. He shipped me off at age 13 to a weeklong summer ski camp on the slopes of Oregon's Mount Hood. The instructor ran my group through numerous drills, each focused on a small slice of the bigger skiing pie. I balked when we were told to remove a ski and descend the glacier one-legged. Everyone fell. But I felt my weight truly for the first time, and began to find a balance point between my ski's edges.
Years later, my shins throbbed as one of Big Sky Resort's top instructors, Ursula, shifted my concept of skiing in another direction. The morning lesson was the cherry on top of a ski patrol event at Moonlight Basin otherwise devoted to toboggan training. Up until that day, my brain had focused primarily on lateral movement, the seamless side-to-side transition from one set of edges to the other. Ursula pushed my thinking forward, forcing me into the fronts of my boots. Something clicked, and it clicked again in 2019 when Ben, an instructor at another ski patrol event, told me to shorten my uphill leg. My stance widened slightly, and the transition between turns took on a fluid new dimension.
Despite this collective of knowledge, I've rarely given more than a cursory lesson in skiing basics. The only person I'd count as a true pupil was an ex-girlfriend I once coached down the slopes at Lost Trail Powder Mountain. She was making stem christies on a steep headwall by lunch, and while we haven't skied together since, she's told me she continues to shred from time to time.
And that's really all any teacher wants: to pay the passion forward. I stumble constantly in my life off the slopes, literally and figuratively. But on skis I always find balance, a centeredness only snow and incline and the smell of pine can foster. When it comes to honoring everything my past teachers gave me, I could help a hundred people perfect their pizzas and it would never be enough. ♦