Ski School Is No Playground

By Warren Miller

Warren MillerLast weekend I went to Crystal Mountain for a book signing. Seeing the hordes of families struggling up the road in the pre-dawn darkness brought back a lot of memories for me. I did the same thing with a rucksack, my three kids, our skis, and a camera for a lot of years, but I just don’t have the energy anymore.

I watched in disbelief. There were a lot of fathers moving along, carrying heavy rucksacks with their skis over one shoulder and their kids’ miniature, but heavy, skis over the other shoulder. Some kids were hanging onto ski poles and dragging them up the hill in the muddy snow piled beside the road. Mothers staggered along behind the dads, holding onto kids’ hands, carrying two pairs of skis along with a large rucksack full of a dozen peanut butter sandwiches and the kids’ ski boots. These women were hunched over like peasant women in Bosnia gathering firewood. Dad was taking shuffling steps in his stiff racing boots with the elegant grace of Frankenstein stuck in a deep freeze.

The hypnotizing lure of untracked powder snow was sweeping all of these people along toward the top of the mountain as if it was some magnetic Tsunami that was pulling instead of pushing. Most of these families had been on the road this freezing January morning since 5:00 a.m. It would be hard to describe the pre-ski confusion that goes on in these households. Mom takes care of the gloves, socks, goggles, and hats. Dad takes care of the boots, skis, poles, snowboards and after-ski boots and tries to make room in the car for the wife and kids.

In route, they probably stopped at McDonald’s or Burger King for Egg McMuffins and chocolate milkshakes. Then they spent an hour and a half in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to ski school, which starts precisely at 9:30, whether they are there or not. They had a lot of company on this annual first-day-of-ski-school migration because 29 different ski schools kick into high gear on the same Saturday morning. Each ski school has at least 30 or more kids and the parents of every one of those kids just know that Travis or Melanie will be the next Bode Miller or Picabo Street.

The parking lots closest to the lifts had already filled up and some people were standing numbly in the dark waiting for the shuttle bus to take them the last half mile to the chairlift. I use the term “shuttle bus” loosely, as a ski resort shuttle bus is simply a flatbed trailer with benches bolted on top. There is no windshield, no doors, no blankets, and no protection when it snows or rains, which it has occasionally been known to do at ski resorts.

Once the staggering families arrive at the lifts, dad will stand in line and buy the lift tickets while mom and the kids hurry inside and try to get a table so they have a place they can call their own while they get organized. Once they settle in at a table, they organize the day’s final battle plan and select the runs they will take while the kids climb into their ski boots and charge off somewhere else. Each family member has a two-way radio and they settle on a frequency so they can page each other, as if to lose touch with one another will be the closest thing they can imagine to being buried in an avalanche.

Once they start skiing, they discover that 13 other families are using the same radio frequency. Without a code name, they won’t know whose mom, dad, or kids they get when they holler for them on the radio. You really have to be careful with those radios because they can cause all sorts of confusion.

There are two now-famous Northwestern families that wound up getting divorces and marrying the other spouse because they initially liked the way they sounded on the radio. Number one wife and number two husband struck up a radio conversation and made arrangements to meet somewhere and discovered that they skied exactly alike. Later, it turned out that wife number two and husband number one were also a match on the ski hill without any griping to hurry up or slow down. By the end of the winter, both couples got divorced and married the other significant other.

On this first day of ski school, I watched the now-blended families join each other for lunch at the same table on the same weekend at the same resort because all of their kids are in the same ski racing program.

It’s time for another winter of fun and games in the snow. Regardless of how early you have to set your alarm to get to the slopes and how much shuffling you have to do to get those kids in ski school, it’s worth the effort.