When I was a teen I liked to ski. I wanted to be a real skier and race down the big hills. But in order to race down the big hills one had to learn on the little hills. I remember in the northern city where we lived there were two hills for winter sports. One was a regular ski hill for real skiers; I’ll refer to that as the big hill. The other, which I’ll call the little hill, was at the other end of the park. It was just a sliding hill for sledders, toboganners and beginning skiers like me. It was not as steep and long as the big hill.
As a note of introduction I’ll say that skiing is, of course, the sport of sliding down hills and mountains skillfully and artistically and I will write about that one of these days. But this story is about the skillful and artistic ways of getting up the hills.
At the little hill in the park there was no special apparatus to assist one to the top. One had to climb the hill under one’s own steam. Near the bottom the hill was fairly shallow and we could head straight up assisting ourselves by thrusting with our ski poles. As the hill became a little steeper we resorted to the V-form climb. We could turn our feet toes-out about 30 degrees so that the skis formed a V—the point of the V in the back. And we would walk in this fashion, a little bit awkward admittedly, nevertheless we could advance up the hill. Now when the hill steepened a little more to its steepest part or if we were out of breath from the V-form climb, we would turn sideways to the slope of the hill and inch up sideways. This way takes longer but uses less cardio-vascular energy per foot and there was no chance of slip-sliding backwards down the hill inadvertently.
Now imagine seeing these impressions on the snow. First it would be two straight lines going straight up, then it would be the disjointed V’s, then they would resolve to parallel lines close together at right angles to the slope of the hill. Once, while I was inching up sideways a group of girls who weren’t very good at steering their toboggan came careening down the hill straight at me. I seem to remember them running into me and knocking me down, but that’s the movie version of the memory. Really they just missed me and ran over the ends of my skis.
The other factor was whether dad had parked the car at the top of the hill or the bottom. If at the bottom then we would “pay” first by climbing up and get rewarded second by skiing down. If he parked at the top of the hill then we would get the fun first and pay afterwards, the final cost would be the last climb up to the car—not much fun at the end.
So much for the little hill. I was ready for the big hill with the rope tow.
The big hill was in the city park just above the ice skating rink. It was all free. I had watched as the skiers zipped up the hill holding effortlessly to the rope—their poles looped around their wrist. Then they could come skillfully and aristically down the hill dipping and curving, sailing gracefully through the air off the big bumps. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a ski jumper. But first I had to get up the big hill.
Dad and I got in line for the rope tow. The rope was about an inch thick, maybe a half-mile long, a continuous loop. It reportedly had an old Model-A engine powering it in a building at the top. There were pulleys up high on poles to hold it up as it came down the hill and as it went up it would drag the ground, unless, of course, there were skiers hanging onto it, whizzing up the hill. A rope tow is one awesome piece of machinery.
The line wasn’t long. I was in front of dad. My turn next. I slid forward to where the rope was coming off the big pulley. The rope was on my right and it was whizzing by pretty fast. I looped my poles on my left wrist. I put my left hand behind my back and my right hand in front of me and to the right. So far so good. Dad said, “let it slide through your hands.” So I picked it up and let it slide through my hands. I had my ski mittens on—the kind with reinforced palms, so the rope slid nicely through my hands. But I wasn’t going anywhere. There were people scooting up the hill in front of me. The gap was widening and skiers were waiting behind me. I was just standing there with the rope sliding in my hands. I was holding up the line.
I must have glanced at dad for instruction on what to do next, because he instructed me, “grab it real slow.” So I waited a few more seconds real slowly, then grabbed it. Next thing I knew I was being jerked off my feet and dragged up the trail in a prone position. I thought this is not how it’s supposed to be and tried in vain to regain an upright position while still hanging on to the rope. Let me tell you right now you can’t get back upright on your skis when you are being dragged about 15 miles per hour—your skis dangling behind you.
Then dad hollered my third instruction. Apparently I never would have thought of it myself. “Let go!” “Let go!!!” So I let go, crawled off the tow-track and regained my feet. How embarrassing—but how exhilarating. I wanted to try again right away.
Dad changed the instructions this time. “Hold the rope loose at first then tighten your grip gradually.” That did the trick and the challenge of the big hill (going up and coming down) was mine. Over the course of the next couple winters I would find myself at the zenith of my skiing career when one of my fellow skiers, a classmate, would praise me with the words “You fell like an expert Joe.”