Travails of a Non-Skier

Any list of the selling points of the Bozeman area will invariably sing the praises of Bozeman's fabulous skiing. For the plebeians there is Bridger Bowl, which features just about the cheapest decent skiing found anywhere. For the snootier, there is Big Sky or Moonlight Basin, both surrounded by an increasingly bizarre community of usually-empty vacation dream homes. Given Bozeman’s enviable proximity to these skiing meccas, it is not surprising for skiing to be at the forefront of the local consciousness.

Not everyone in Bozeman skis of course, and local non-skiers can be divided into two categories. The first is Those Who Simply Don't Ski. Into this category fall many locals who were actually here before Bozeman was cool. Their way of life has nothing to do with plugging into the ski-bum circuit. They are too busy herding sheep, watching television, baking cookies, drinking vodka, or any number of activities that people do everywhere when not skiing. There are others in this category who are not able to ski: invalids, burn victims, people in jail, the morbidly obese, and so on.

The second category, while much smaller, is far more ominous. They are The Unfortunate Few, who, like me, are terrible skiers. The ski areas are full of fresh-faced neophytes clumsily finding their way along the skiing learning curve, but these are not The Unfortunate Few. These are new skiers, who ultimately have hope. The Unfortunate Few, on the other hand, cling desperately to the hope that improvement is inevitable even though the ever-present chill of wet snowpants after an afternoon of ignominy on the slopes is should be enough to dispel such frivolous hopefulness.

Every couple of years, I get suckered into going back up to Bridger Bowl to try skiing again. After all, everybody else does it, and they "LOVE" it, so what's the problem? I typically fall into the chairlift with my cheapo rental package telling myself that the key to successful skiing is not skill but fearlessness. Wipeouts happen to the unskilled, but with enough straight-ahead aggressiveness, I tell myself, those skills eventually fall into place.

My fearlessness rarely makes it past the ski-lift dumpoff. Rattled by a touch of vertigo from the lift itself, I nervously try to stop myself after getting off, inevitably coming to a rest in the most inconvenient spot, while more dignified skiers are forced to ski around me. There is little improvement once the actual skiing begins. My runs are punctuated by awkward turns, even more awkward falls, and terrifying stretches of actually going straight downhill.

It was not always like this. At one time I was a decent enough skier. I was even a member of the ski club at Sweet Grass County High in Big Timber. Although I never pretended to be a “good” skier, I could at least keep up. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment when my skiing ability went south, it would have been my junior year in high school, when my dad took me to the annual ski swap. I had been skiing for a few years, and it was time to graduate from rented equipment.

First, I chose the skis. Back then (circa 1991), “shaped” skis had not appeared on the scene, and a skier’s height was the major criterion for deciding on the appropriate length for skis. Because I am six-foot-three, I was saddled with skis 210 cm long, well over my head. (Nowadays, the average skis usually fall somewhere between 150 and 180 cm.) I never understood why shorter people, with a lower center of gravity, were allowed to ski on short, maneuverable skis whereas I had to wear death sticks.

Furthermore, the bindings on my “new” skis were so ancient they lacked ski brakes—the little prongs that pop up when the skis come off the ski boot. Ski brakes were universal by 1975 (according to Skiing Heritage magazine), but the only thing preventing my skis from careening down the mountain after a wipeout was a “safety” strap attached to the ski boot. The unfortunate result of these choices was that I would thereafter be skiing on the cheapest, most crap-ass skis that Gallatin County has ever known.

I joined The Unfortunate Few when I took this "new" equipment out for a spin. I knew that ski bindings were intended to release the skier upon a fall of any severity and that a clumsy skier like me would spend a significant amount of time putting the damn things back on while trying to stay out of the way of other skiers zipping past. But my pre-1975 bindings further complicated this process because it was necessary to unhook the safety straps whenever I wanted to get back into the skis. More than once I cavalierly undid the strap without remembering to hold on to my brakeless ski. This resulted in my shamefully having to shout “Runaway ski!” (The “Fore!” of the ski slope.)

The final insult came when one of my skis decided to come off while I was still riding the chairlift. The safety strap kept the ski from falling to the ground, of course, but bindings from the same decade might have actually kept the ski on my boot. Needless to say, a proper exit from the lift was next to impossible with a seven-foot board dangling wildly from my leg.

Since that time, a chill goes down my spine whenever I hear the Phd Skis guitar ditty, or whenever the word “shredding” falls into an otherwise casual conversation. Don’t people realize that skiing equals face-planting? Nevertheless, I am still dreading the day that I will have to come out of the closet as a full-blown nonskier. Maybe I’ll give it another try this year.