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David Griner

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Back to (ski) school

The Fool on the Hill by David Griner

This was it. I was going to bite it. Having picked up way too much speed on way too steep terrain, I was wobbling on one ski as my balance all but disintegrated.

Any second, I would feel that sudden sensation of doom, that jerking snap of the skis breaking away, and maybe even the whiplash thud of my head smacking the packed-down snow.

And I’m doing this for fun, right?

Suddenly, it’s like that scene in “Star Wars.” You know, where Luke is stressed about tagging the Death Star, and he hears the reassuring voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to use the force, blah, blah, blah.

Except the voice in my head isn’t the soothing Britishness of Sir Alec Guinness. It’s the nasal, excitably critical sound of Jim C., our morning ski instructor.

“Daaaviiiid, lean forward, and use the weight on your toooooeeees,” the ghostly, somewhat obnoxious voice says in my mind. “Make a wiiiider plow, and stop putting your weight on your heeeeeels.”

This is a sort of revelation moment for me on a lengthy green run at the Northstar-at-Tahoe resort, where I have chosen to begin my public odyssey of learning to ski. After hours of lessons, what I had really learned on Day 1 was that, for now at least, I couldn’t trust my body and my internal gyroscopes to make the decisions for me.

Until these maneuvers began to feel more natural, I would need to stay haunted by the unnerving but meticulously accurate voice of Jim C.

I defy instinct, lean forward and turn my knees into the awkward position that lets me control my descent with the inside edges of the skis. It works. For the first time in my short skiing life, I have recovered from a wipeout that had seemed inevitable.

I smile and relax to enjoy the rest of the run. But Jim C. returns to my brain.

“Now stop hoooolding your poles so far baaaack … you look like a geeeeeeeeeeek.”

OK, so I don’t own the slopes yet. But it was incredible to see just how much I could advance from complete incompetence to just mild incompetence after a single day on the mountain – not to mention the two hours of lessons.

Pick a slope and get started

Over the course of the winter and spring, I hope to share the experiences of learning to ski while also motivating folks to get out and enjoy a pastime that can be intimidating for a lot of reasons – cost, difficulty, potential injury, that sick feeling of watching a 5-year-old deftly soar by, saying, “You OK, mister?”

In the coming months, I’ll try to tackle each of these issues. One thing I can tell you right now, just throw a pole at the 5-year-old and yell, “Yeah, well let’s see you order a Jack and Coke down at the lodge!”

I did a lot of research in preparing for Day 1. Well, OK, I called one guy.

Jim Scripps, veteran snowboarder and editor of our sister paper, the Sierra Sun in Truckee, told me that the Tahoe-Donner area is generally welcoming to beginners but that Northstar might be my best bet.

“It has a reputation for having a good ski school,” Scripps said. “They all have pretty good ski schools, I’d say, because of the crowd they cater to. It’s a lot of beginners from the Bay Area.

“Northstar has a rep for being a family-friendly resort, family-oriented. It has a lot of intermediate terrain.”

Sure enough, the ski school was a worthwhile effort. It’s not always a blast, but it begins to teach your muscles some of the key techniques that will keep you on your feet and off the gurney.

Technique 1: The duck walk

You might be able to pull off a day on the slopes without any lessons – I managed it in Tahoe one day last May, but the results were not quite invigorating.

But the one move you won’t likely master on your own is the “duck walk.” You use this to climb moderate inclines, and the pros make it look like they’re ice skating up a hill faster than you can say “lift ticket.”

To climb, point your toes away from each other, so that the heels of your skis are almost touching. With each step forward, you dig the inside edge of the ski into the snow and push forward, stepping in with the other ski’s inside edge.

It feels awkward and requires a lot of practice, but it can really pay off.

Trust me, if you don’t take lessons, you won’t practice this. You’ll just enjoy going downhill and think “uphill’s for chumps.”

Then it won’t be there for you when you need it. See those poles and skis you lost 20 yards back when you bailed? Have fun going to get them, ace.

Technique 2: The snow plow

There’s nothing you’ll use more than the plow when you’re starting out. As a matter of fact, it’s probably all you’ll do on the way down even the greenest of green runs.

It’s sort of the opposite of the duck walk. Point your toes in, making a V pointed downhill. The farther apart the backs of your skis are, the slower you’ll go.

Once again, you have to focus on using the inside edge of the skis, not just pointing your toes at each other and sliding on the flat bottoms. Without the edges, you’ll go too fast and look stupid. Huzzah!

You turn while plowing by putting weight on the big toe of the opposing foot. Want to go left? Put weight on the right foot. Once again, your body will not innately want to do this.

I could prattle off more stuff that neophytes like myself should know, but the moral is you need to take lessons yourself, or it’ll take forever to build up your confidence.

Here are a few last-minute tips, though.

1. Just get out and do it. It’s a short drive into the high Sierra, and the weather’s mostly been cooperating. If you want to learn, do it now while the beginner terrain is open and the schools are active.

2. Take some friends and family. Like I said, it’s intimidating to learn by yourself. Bring some other beginners and maybe even an advanced friend or two. I was joined Sunday by my wife and two coworkers, and I really think it helped to have other folks learning alongside me. And when they fall, you can laugh and point.

3. Don’t wear jeans. I’ll soon do a whole column for beginner ski gear, but I can already tell you that your top layer should be waterproof. For now, just borrow stuff from friends. Trust me, around here you know plenty of people with extra gear.

4. Take it easy. Don’t push your limits early on. A friend of mine says you should do one less run than you think you can do. That’s pretty good advice.

David Griner is city editor for The Union and a 100 percent novice skier. Got questions, advice or ideas for future columns? E-mail or call 477-4230.