The last pair of skis I wore were short, white and had Rainbow Brite stickers at the tips. That was more than 20 years ago; on Thursday I found myself with skis once more, on the gondola at Keystone Resort, trying not to look down.
It all started when our sports editor suggested I take a ski lesson for January's "Learn to Ski and Ride Month" and write about it from a beginner's perspective.
The first step was gathering gear, because apparently you can't go skiing in jeans and a sweatshirt, despite the stories my dad told me about his college years in Wyoming. We started making a list of what I had already and a list of what I needed. Hat? Yes. Gloves? Got 'em. This is going well. A gaiter?
"What is that?" I asked, not entirely certain it wasn't a slang reference to a swamp reptile.
Janice sighed and wrote 'gaiter' down on the 'needs' list. It took several days but I eventually gathered an eclectic mismatched outfit to ensure I wouldn't freeze to death. The rest of the surviving, however, was up to me.
At the Ski and Ride School tent, I was provided with skis, poles, a helmet and strapped into boots in a process that felt more like suiting up as an astronaut rather than a leisurely day of ski lessons. Clumping toward the group meeting point, I wondered how anyone in such bulky gear could manage to get around anywhere, much less be graceful about it.
Instructor Cathy Spierling took charge of our group of wide-eyed beginners with ease and confidence, shepherding us like a gaggle of baby geese through the crowd, onto the gondola and off at the midway station without incident.
First, we reviewed the basics of putting skis on and off and getting the feel of moving on them. That part was easier than I'd expected. Even with my terrible balance I was able to move with a minimal amount of arm wind-milling. We learned the exhausting art of sidestepping up the hill, which I did mostly successfully, until I found myself slowly sliding backward, unable to stop. Before I could panic, Cathy laughed, told me it was too early to start trick skiing and to turn my skis perpendicular to the hill. My heartbeat returned to normal and I was able to unclench my jaw and even laugh a little myself.
We moved on to a nearby slope, where children were skiing.
"OK," I thought, watching a little one navigate down the slope. "If the kids can do it, so can I."
What followed was a series of short descents with jerky stops and flailing arms. But it was fun, and mixed in there were also a few well-executed turns and intentional movements. I was intrigued by how smoothly the skis slid over the packed snow and started to get a sense of how someone skilled could move very swiftly and accurately on top of it. My last little run went well as I turned where I meant to turn, completing a little "S" movement at the bottom.
"Woo!" I shouted, raising up my arms and managing to stop before hitting anything.
The hardest part of the lesson was leaving it. I wanted to stay, to ski farther, faster, to discover what more those two sticks strapped to my feet could do. My lesson with Cathy left me excited, ready to go out and try it again as soon as possible.
"Is this a cult?" a passing skier jokingly called out during a drill in which we circled around our upright poles.
Yes, it is. It is the religion of the mountain, the worship of snow, the cult of Ullr. And now, I am a part of it.