Twelve Life Lessons From Skiing

The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi have wrapped up, and those of us who relish the hours watching downhill ski racing must wait another four years for that level of competition.

However, that doesn’t mean we should wait to adopt life lessons from the sport.

I feel fortunate to come from a “ski family” and to be raising one of my own. None of us race, none of us have dreams of World Cup glory and none of us look particularly skilled on double-black-diamond runs. Nevertheless, we all learned important life tools from our time on the slopes. Following are a dozen of my favorite ski tips:

  1. Listen. Skiing is by nature a quiet sport; the din is only interrupted by the whistle of wind through the evergreens, the hum of ski lifts and occasional rattle of chairs crossing posts. After every run down a slope, skiers and boarders are afforded several minutes of quiet and calm, when they can regroup, think deeply and learn about the conditions below. Subtle changes in sounds indicate where a run contains ice, where it has been over-groomed, where bare patches expose rocks (nothing irks a skier more than the dreaded sound of scratch decimating a smooth ski bottom) and where the best powder lies. This tip works anywhere: talk less and listen more.
  2. Keep your eyes open. Skiers know to always remain alert to their surroundings. They must be ever cognizant of who is ahead/downhill on a slope (that person has the right of way), and conscious of that person’s next move: will he or she turn into your path? Are they likely to fall? Is a snowboarder advancing too quickly near you? Could rocks or a steep cliff lie ahead? This extra sense of alertness comes in handy in other realms, as well. While single in New York City, I knew to always take note of my environment: Was that person following me on a dark street? Could that cab turn into the cross walk after I enter it? Is my purse safe at my side?
  3. Be prepared. Seasoned skiers know that the weather can turn on a dime. What starts as a frigid, overcast day can end in a wash of sun and melting snow, and vice-versa. Removable layers, ski masks and spare goggle lenses are all part of a skiers repertoire. And, of course, in any  activity we must prepared for changes in weather, latitudes and attitudes (with a nod to Jimmy Buffett).
  4. Absorb the bumps.  Moguls – large “bumps” of snow — make ski runs more interesting as well as challenging. Many of us enjoy the exhilaration of attacking and mastering a mogul-filled run, and the resulting thigh-burn that reminds us we have worked our bodies.  The best Olympic skiers seem to absorb moguls without a flinch or second thought, and I find inspiration in their ability to “go with the flow.” Without bumps on the slopes – or in any aspect of life – we wouldn’t appreciate the easier times.
  5. photoRemember your manners. Skiers are, by and large, a polite bunch. When passing closely, they usually shout “On your left” to warn others not to turn quickly or feel anxious. Most skiers and boarders wait patiently and orderly in long lift lines. (Of course, I am referring to North America here. The definition of “lift lines” in Europe is entirely different. Don’t even ask about the time I called someone a “sale de cochon” for cutting me off from my husband when we honeymooning in the Portes du Soleil.) Good manners make any activity more enjoyable.
  6. Share the road. No matter where you ski, you’ll probably encounter a bottle-neck at the end of the day, as skiers of all abilities follow the same last runs in. You will find young kids racing, almost sitting back on their skis, poles tucked under their arms; tiny kids traversing beginner slopes; and twenty-something snowboarders rushing in for après-ski activities. You all need to share the same slope. Of course, this is true of bike/walk/jogging paths, highways and hiking trails. We are all in this together.
  7. Respect others. When skiing, never judge others according to their age, appearance or equipment. Some of the kindest or most-proficient skiers use 20-year-old skis and thrift-shop jackets. Respect in skiing, as elsewhere, is a two-way street. When you fall and create a yard-sale of skis and poles on a steep slope, you are at the mercy of the skier behind you. As you lie in the snow, wondering how you will retrieve the ski you left 20 yards up-slope, you will be grateful for the skier who carries it down to you. Most skiers have their own Instant Karma stories: if they sped past a skier in need, they fell and needed help shortly thereafter. I have found this true in parking lots, as well: if you let someone take the parking place you were eyeing, another will soon open up. But if you sneak into a spot someone has waited for, the next time you’re at Costco, you will endure a long wait in the lot.
  8. Great equipment doesn’t make for better athletes. New and glitzy equipment is just that. With eight skiers to outfit, my parents certainly couldn’t spring for new equipment every season. We utilized hand-me-downs and ski swaps for our skis, poles and boots. And while, as I said, none of us attained pro-racer skill levels, we all were competent enough to enjoy our time on the mountain. Without a doubt, I do enjoy the technological advances that make boots and coats warmer and skis easier to turn, my own advances have come through hard work and patience. I remind my kids of this when they beg for better (read: new and expensive) equipment in any sport. Practice and dedication trump hefty price tags every time.
  9. Protect your brain – you only get one. Thank goodness skiers and snowboarders have seen the light, and now protect their heads with hard helmets. In fact, a recent New York Times article states that 70 percent of U.S. skiers and snowboarders now wear helmets – three times the amount from 10 years ago. However, while the use of helmets might have spared the lives of Natasha Richardson and Michael Kennedy, Formula One driver Michael Schumacher was actually wearing one when he recently fell in France. As in any sport, it’s important to use your brain in addition to protecting it.
  10. Bright colors can cheer up any gray day. Today’s ski attire is colorful and even whimsical, and the look of a lift-line crowd could make any skier smile. Last week, I spotted a middle-aged Japanese couple with comic-book characters adorning their ski jackets, young men wearing bright yellow and orange pants and kids with stuffed animals on their helmets. Years ago, when I found myself skiing alone in zero-visibility fog at an unfamiliar resort, I was grateful to join a group of young men who were wearing neon-colored coats. If I hadn’t found them, I would probably still be stuck somewhere on that mountain.
  11. Don’t take yourself too seriously. According to Murphy’s Law, if you are shushing down a slope, feeling over proud of your abilities, you will hit a rock and incur an embarrassing face plant. Lesson learned: don’t take yourself too seriously. Even the Olympic skiers hit bumps in the road and know that ski runs aren’t entirely in their control. Those of us who aren’t competing for Gold Medals need to laugh when we fall and cheer on others who are struggling.
  12. Let go and have fun. Skiing consumes considerable time, patience and money. Skiers must balance the sub-zero, low-visibility days with sunny mornings that allow fresh tracks through deep powder. When you happen upon a slope that exceeds your ability level, take a deep breath and stay loose. We all know that when we are tense, the worst outcome often arrives, and when we smile, the world seems a better place.

 –       Linda Williams Rorem, Permission Slips, 24 Feb. 2014
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