Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Once Every 15 Years Does Not A Good Skier Make!

In ten months, I will turn 30 years old. This is not something I dread, but the reality of reaching that milestone has been sinking in more and more lately. This past weekend, my wife Tara and I were in Vermont to celebrate the 30th birthday of my oldest friend (pun intended), Jeff Blakeman. Jeff and I grew up in the same town of Glenside, PA and go all the way back to elementary school together. Mrs. Dionne's class to be exact. To commemorate Jeff's 30th, he and his wife Jeanie organized a ski trip to Smugglers' Notch Resort in upstate Vermont. If you've ever been to Vermont, then you know how cold it gets up there in the winter, but the snow-covered mountains were picturesque enough to make up for the frigidness.

The condo we stayed at was gorgeous and is owned by the family of Jeff and Jeanie's friend Kathy, who was also there with us. Tara and I arrived a day later than everyone else and spent our first night there pretty much eating the whole time, while listening to everyone's skiing stories from earlier that day. Despite hearing about the occasional falls and crashes, it sounded as though everyone had a great time skiing and just hearing about it pumped me up for the next day.

Little did I know, I was in for a bit of a rude awakening.

The last time I had skied, the year was 1994, I was 14 years old, my body was quite malleable, and I had just mastered some of Pennsylvania's "finest" slopes. Fast forward to the year 2009, I figured that even though it had been a while, how hard could it be to pick up right where I left off all those years ago? And how different could slopes in Vermont be from those in Pennsylvania?

On Saturday morning, I rented my gear and we headed out to the slopes. Tara decided to stay back at the condo and not take any chances with her balky knee. As my friends and I stood in the ski lift line, I have to admit, I started getting butterflies in my stomach. I had this vision of falling down right before getting on the lift and needing the lift to stop so that I could be picked up off the ground and placed carefully into the next moving chair. No one wants to be that guy!

Thankfully, I didn't turn out to be that guy...not yet anyway. As I made my way up the mountain, taking in the incredible scenery around me, I figured the hard part was over. As we approached the drop off point at the top of the mountain, I pretty much took it for granted that the lift itself would gracefully nudge me out onto the slope. After hesitating for about a second too long, I realized that there was now about a foot of space between my feet and the ground beneath me, and that if I didn't act fast, I was going to then be that guy who ends up going back down the lift in humiliation and disgrace.

So I jumped...and the landing was pretty much what you'd expect. I tumbled over and quickly realized in horror that I was laying right where the next lift riders were going to be shooting out in about ten seconds. In a desperate attempt to not get ski-slayed, I army crawled my way to the side, just in time to see several experienced 10 year olds breeze by. Jeff came over and helped me up and I joined the rest of my group that had been waiting for me in amusement.

As I looked down the mountain, the reality sunk in that my previous skiing experience had done little to prepare me for what I was about to attempt. Before heading down, Jeff gave me a quick tutorial on stopping and turning; something I thought I had previously mastered, but now realized I hadn' all. As we began our descent, I immediately started "snowplowing," an elementary stopping technique that young kids are taught on relatively flat grounds, but one that will be your undoing on more challenging slopes such as this one. Before long, I noticed that in many places, there were large drop-offs on the sides of various trails, with no fences or guardrails to prevent one from taking a dive right off the side. I think it was also around this time that intense vertigo set in.

Somehow, I fared a little better than I thought I would by trying to implement Jeff's instructions, yet still took my share of spills and wipe outs. Jeff and my other buddy Eric graciously stuck with me as I tumbled and twisted my way down this unforgiving mountain. Before long, I had made it to the bottom and was back in the lift line with Jeff. On the second trip up, I managed to properly get off the ski lift and got about half way down the mountain before taking the fall that would end my day. Whether I simply picked up too much speed or somehow got my skis crossed, I'll probably never know. All I know is that I hit the ground hard and tumbled so aggressively that when I had come to a stop, one of my skis had flown off and my left knee was in excruciating pain. As I laid there groaning, wondering if my knee was functional, the thought of the ski patrol carrying me down the mountain on a snowmobile briefly flashed through my mind. There was no way I could let that happen; I would never have heard the end of it. When Jeff rushed over to me, I simply looked at him and said "Happy birthday...thanks for being willing to swim in the baby pool with me." A few minutes later, I was relieved to just be able to stand and I headed down the rest of the mountain under my own power, hoping not to take any more falls that could further injure my knee. And with that, I headed into the lodge to buy some ridiculously overpriced lunch, grateful to have walked away from the slopes with nothing more than some minor aches and pains. All in all, I was very happy with what I had accomplished, despite a fifteen year skiing hiatus.

That evening, we were all hurting and decided to head over to the indoor hot tub that was at a different area within the resort. Somehow, Jeff thought it would be a good idea to run from our condo to the pool facilities with nothing but his swim trunks on in single digit weather. He asked Eric and I to join him in this activity but we respectfully declined. Watching Jeff take off like a road runner on speed was quite a sight! The rest of the evening was relaxing and the next morning we closed out our trip with pancakes and authentic Vermont maple syrup.

After final goodbyes and one last "happy birthday," Tara and I set out on our 430 mile journey back to Philly. Two days before, it had taken us about ten hours to get to Vermont but we figured the drive home would be much quicker than that.

We were wrong.

About an hour into our drive home, it began snowing heavily, forcing us to slow down to less than 30 MPH. Along the way, we tragically saw several accidents and cars that had skidded off the road. As we continued to head south, the snow eventually switched over to rain, but not before creating a lovely wintry mix on the road. When we finally entered Connecticut, the sun had set and the rain and fog were so intense that we had almost no visibility in front of us or of the lines on the ground. With traffic moving heavily on the left and right, I seriously wondered if this was how it was to end for us. It was, hands down, the most nervous I'd ever been in a car. At that moment, I noticed a sign for lodging at the next exit, which was a quarter of a mile up the road. We took the exit and pulled into a motel parking lot, only then realizing that we'd been driving for eight hours and had only gone halfway from Vermont to Philly. Exhausted and thankful to be alive, we checked into the motel and pretty much passed out. Early the next morning, we got back on the road to completely clear skies and finished the last four hours of our trip home.

Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable weekend and I'm thankful to my friends for having us up to Vermont to commemorate Jeff's milestone. It definitely came at a time when I needed a break from the daily routine. However, the next time I visit Vermont -- an absolutely beautiful state -- it will be with the aid of an aircraft.

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