Going out of town for the weekend was a last minute decision, but besides the fact that there would be a Christmas party on Saturday night, I was anxious to try out skiing for the first time.
I speed packed on Friday night and walked to Dunkin’ Donuts to meet my friends. Pat had rented a van, and he fully supported the other eight of us partying during the four hour drive. Bottles of soju and beer for the party van are encouraged, he texted.
I walked into Dunkin’ Donuts with my grocery bag of alcohol clanking. I set it carefully on the floor and then dug through my purse. “I have a present for you,” I told Claire.
“I have one for you too,” she said. She was wearing two shot glass necklaces, and she pulled one off and handed it to me.
“Yes!” I slipped on the necklace. Then I handed her a reindeer headband. “I have a matching one,” I said. We both put the antlers on our heads, and laughed.
Kevin, my scrooge of a boyfriend was outside smoking. I knocked on the glass to get his attention, and then demonstrated my reindeer prance. He rolled his eyes. It only encouraged me to prance more, and Claire trotted beside me.
The last of our crew showed up, and so we walked to the van and piled in. We drove north, and suddenly we were surrounded by snow. Most of us were drinking soju which caused the need for sudden pee breaks. We relieved ourselves along the snowy side of the freeway.
Pat followed the red line on the GPS as it led us off the freeway, along a twisting road and right to the base of an ice-covered hill in Gangwon. He attempted driving up it, but the tires squealed and spun uselessly. We all climbed out to lighten his load, and still the van couldn’t conquer the hill.
“Let’s just park here and walk,” someone suggested. So we unloaded our bags and started a walking journey to find our friends at their hotel. We were in a mountain town, and so the streets were either uphill, or steeply uphill. But we were buzzed and jolly, walking and singing Christmas carols in the middle of the night.
About an hour later, we reached the hotel. Though there was only one bed in our room, we all found sufficient floor space and settled in by 5 a.m. “I wanna ski early,” Pat said. “I’ll go get the van tomorrow and drive back here, and anyone who wants to ski at 8 a.m. can join me.”
I thought he was bluffing.
The next morning, Pat woke everyone up at 7:30. “I have alcohol and breakfast,” he said. “The van is parked outside.”
We all got up, realizing that even those of us who’d prefer to have more sleep before skiing would have to just combine caffeine with the 2 hours of sleep we’d had.
So we bundled up in layers, packed our bags, and drove to a convenience store where we ate ramen for breakfast.
Claire was angry about her lack of sleep. I was waiting for my coffee and she came up to stand beside me and order a drink of her own. She mumbled, “I’m so tired. Like, that lady is making coffee really slow and I kind of want to throw something at her.” I was automatically happier to have cranky company to match my mood.
By the time we were trying on rental ski gear, we’d slipped into the wonderful blurred haze between caffeinated and overtired. We were giddy.
Geared up, we finally reached the ski lodge. All our friends had skied before, but Claire, Matt and I were virgins. Brittney gave Matt some tips. “You want french fries, not pizza,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
She put her index fingers in two lines beside each other and said, “french fries.” Then she crossed her fingers and said, “pizza.”
“Can we just call it perpendicular and parallel?” Matt asked.
She headed for the ski lift with the others, but Kevin stayed with us to teach us a few things. He led us to an open snow clearing near the base of the ski lift and showed us some ski basics. There were two small mounds of snow for beginners to practice on, but they were covered with children learning to snowboard. We found a dip in the ground instead, and we took turns trying to go slowly down it, and then walking back up with our skies on.
After sliding around for a few minutes, we felt ready and excited. How foolish. We had no idea what was to come.
We stood in a line, and then we were lifted into the air, feet and skies dangling heavily beneath us. Having never skied before, I had no idea how long a ski hill was. We passed over shorter ski tracks that were closed off for some reason or another, and the run below us was crowded and seemed to stretch on forever. I would later learn that this run was the longest in Korea, about a mile in length. Up, and up, and up we went, watching the snowboarders below us.
At the top, we slid down the slant of ground that guides skiers away from the ski lift. “Wheee!” I said. The itty bitty speed I’d had gave my stomach a small rush. Then I inched my way with my friends to the top of the ski track. The first drop was about a 45 degree angle. “Are you kidding me?” I said to Kevin.
“Just go slow,” he said.
The three of us started inching our way forward. Matt slid down a ways, but Claire and I were immediately on our backs. Kevin instructed me to get up, and I used my ski poles as I pushed up, alarmed at the pressure it put on my ankle. Claire couldn’t get from her knees to her feet, so she grabbed on to Kevin’s legs and pulled her body up.
I was still facing sideways, surprised by the effort it took to stand up. “Damn that was hard,” I said to myself. Then I twisted around to try again. I pigeon-toed my feet and began inching forward again. I gained immediate speed that I wasn’t comfortable with. The ski slope was crowded primarily with dare-devil snowboarders. I couldn’t figure out how to steer around all the people, so I screamed. I screamed and slid right into a snowboarder. My body was thrown, but hers stayed up. I shouted an ‘I’m sorry,’ as I began to try to stand up. As I wedged my skis sideways into the snow and dug the poles in behind me, my eyes met Claire’s. She was near the floppy fence that bordered the track, facing me but reaching backwards over her head, awkwardly grasping at fence holes and trying to stand as well.
I could tell this was the start of a pattern for us.
We both started laughing at each other and ourselves. Claire dropped back down on her butt. “This is ridiculous,” she said.
“I know. I think I’m going to count how many times I fall before I reach the bottom.”
On my feet, I took a deep breath and started slowly turning to face the downward angle yet again. This time I ran into Kevin. I was wedged between his legs and sitting on my skies. As he laughed, I looked back and saw my last body print in the snow about ten feet behind me. Kevin gave me instructions on how to change my position so that he could free his skies from my body. One of my skis had fallen off which made standing up much easier. I clipped my ski back on my foot.
Kevin, freed from the tangle of his girlfriend, was still laughing. “I’ll see you girls at the bottom of this first slope.” He took off, steering left and right like an expert.
Show off, I thought.
I was still only a few feet from the top, but I knew I’d have to keep trying if I wanted to make it down. I picked up speed and started screaming again. I felt fear rather than a thrill, and so I sat. My body spiraled in a half circle, so that I was facing the top of the mountain, and then the momentum continued carrying my body down. I flipped, feet over head, and spun again in a half circle after I landed. I’m all assholes and elbows, I thought.
I heard people around me gasping from the sight of my flailing body. And I heard Kevin’s distant voice say, “Anna, are you alright?” I pretended not to hear anyone. I inched my way up until I found one abandoned ski pole, and then I inched back down to my lone ski. I stood slowly and put it back on my foot. I turned, again and tried to ski.
This time, I was driven. I’d realized early on that getting up sucked. Now I realized that falling sucked too. No matter how much I tried to slow my body down, I flew. The longer I tolerate this speed the less I’ll have to fall and stand again, I thought. It was only motivating for a short while. And then, engulfed in fear, I sat again, sliding straight forward this time, snow driving its way inside my jacket and up my back.
I continued my system of stand, ski, scream, fall a few more times. I still had not reached the bottom of the first slope. I was hoping this drop would be the steepest, but I also remembered how long the track had seemed as we looked down from the ski lift. It was here that I began to debate turning back. I unclipped my skies and looked back to the top, and down to the first turn, thinking.
Matt skied at an angle across the track until he reached me.
“You’re still way up here too? I thought you took off down this mountain,” I said.
“Nah. I just sat in the snow for about twenty minutes.”
“I’m thinking of going back up.”
“Really? I’m gonna make it to the bottom.”
I sighed and lifted my left boot up, sliding it back into my ski. “I guess I will too,” I said.
He turned and started to ski away.
“Do you hate this?”
“I don’t like it,” he called over his shoulder.
I put my other ski on, thinking that perhaps I should rest for a bit as well. Maybe I’d feel better.
Just then, Claire came tumbling down. She slid to a stop near me. It had been a few falls for both of us since we’d seen each other, and now our laughter was gone.
“I was just debating going back up,” I said. “I hate this.”
“Me too,” she said, pushing herself to her feet with the ease of someone who is well-practiced. “I absolutely hate it.”
As she righted herself behind me, I began going down as slowly as I could. When I fell again a few seconds later, I took down a beginning snowboarder with me. I looked back, but could no longer see Claire behind me.
I stood and fell. I stood and fell again.
Then Kevin showed up. It was his second time going down the hill.
“How’s it going,” he said, smiling.
“This is horrible. I hate everything about this.”
“Well let me help you. We’ll get down together. Stand up.”
I sighed, and stood. Before I could anchor my body, I’d already fallen again. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes and I willed them to stay where they were. “Just go,” I told Kevin. “Go have fun skiing.” I spat the word out.
“Do you want to just slide down the rest of the way? You can take off your skis and sled down on your butt.”
Normally not a quitter, but giving no fucks on this particular day, I nodded. “Help me unclip my skis,” I said.
Then I was walking down, both skis in one hand, both poles in the other. I walked carefully along the edge of the track, tensing up whenever a Korean snowboarded daringly close to me.
I passed a dad on skies who guided his young child at an angle in front of me. The father skied slightly ahead and let go of his son, who gently dropped to his knees and exploded in tears. I walked past the weeping boy, and thought, I know exactly how you feel, kid.
I walked slope after slope downward, sitting and scooting like an itchy-butted dog whenever the slopes got too steep.
To entertain myself on the journey down, I thought about other physically and mentally challenging activities that I’d tried in my life. I remembered my first time kayaking, scuba diving, mountain hiking, horseback riding, glacier hiking and bungee jumping. No matter how nervous or exhausted I’d ever been, I’d always found some sort of delight in the nature that surrounded me, or a sense of achievement in trying something new, if not complete joy from the experience itself.
Skiing was different.
The problem with skiing was that I hated the feeling of flying uncontrollably downward just as much as I hated falling or having to stand back up. It was a no-win sport as far as I was concerned.
I also hated snow. And I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about that.
I scooted down the last steep slope and saw Claire and Matt waiting at the bottom. I walked up to them, smiled and said, “How FUN! Want to go AGAIN!?”
They laughed and we all walked towards the ski lodge. Then we walked to our lockers where I realized that Kevin had our locker key. We stacked our skis, wet jackets and gloves in a pile, and then sat on the bench, suddenly cold. Claire had her own locker key and I looked at her with envy as she took off her ski boots and slipped into ugs.
She and I curled up on the bench and attempted to sleep. My sweater was sitting in a melted snow puddle, and the back of my t-shirt was slowly drying against my body. It left me feeling frozen with nothing to wear. I draped my coat over my body and drifted off for about thirty minutes.
Claire and I shivered ourselves awake around the same time. She checked the clock. “It’s 2:00,” she said. “That means we have about two more hours until our friends come.”
“Let’s play a game,” I said. “It’s called, ‘Things I’d Rather Do Than Ski Down That Mountain.”
“I’d rather do math,” I said “And I’d rather eat meat.”
“Oh yeah. If someone said to me that I had to eat a burger or ski down that mountain again, I’d say ‘pass the mayonnaise, ketchup, ranch and a puke bucket for when I’m done.”
“There are some times that skiing wins, of course,” I continued. “Like, if it were between me skiing or someone I love dying or getting hurt, I’d ski. And then I’d spend the rest of my life telling them how much they owe me for my sacrifice. Also if it were between me living without pets for the rest of my life or skiing. It’s unnatural to live without animals around. I’d take the mountain over that too.”
“The more I think about how unprepared we were for that, the more I realize how dangerous it was,” Claire said. “I mean, I sat watching people ski for a long time, trying to understand how they controlled themselves, but I also noticed that NOBODY was falling like we were.”
“Yeah, that was no place for beginners.”
I finally took off my boots and walked in my socks to the bathroom. It was warm. There was a heater. I huddled facing it, then away from it, then back again, rotating my body and basking in the warmth. It was the best part of my day.
Kevin finally showed up, limping toward our quiet group. “I found the bunny hill,” he said. “It’s on top of that slope.”
Good to know.
The four of us continued sitting and clock watching. Our friends were late, probably off having fun in some demented sort of way.
Kevin and I decided to return to the van where we could use my phone to call the happy skiers who we’d driven in with. Unfortunately, our shuttle bus passed the large parking lot where we’d started and continued on to the city. Stop after stop we sat, silently, both of us tired and crabby.
Finally we spoke to the driver, who didn’t understand English and kicked us off. A bilingual hotel worker ushered us on another bus that went to the wrong parking lot and shut off the engine. When we didn’t get off, or speak enough Korean for him to understand our problem, he drove us back to our last stop and dumped us there.
Kevin and I were angry and silent as we boarded yet another bus that made its way back through town and up towards the ski lodge. It had taken us thirty minutes to cross a short distance. It mirrored my skiing experience.
Once in the van, we started the engine and began tearing into the snacks we’d bought earlier. Crackers, string cheese, strawberries and nuts. We inhaled the food, briefly breathing air between our desperate swallows.
We drove up the hill and picked up our friends. We had extra gear and extra friends than what we’d begun with. Laps were useful.
I could hear Claire and Matt cheerfully talking and joking behind me. Traitors, I thought. They’ve already forgotten that we just had the worst experience of our lives. But I haven’t forgotten. I won’t forget.
There was a big party that night, but I was in no mood to party. I wanted to go home, actually, but as there were no buses to take me until the next day, I decided it was time to suck it up. I showered, counted the new bruises that were forming on my legs, donned my antlers and shot glass necklace, and finally felt ready to party.
We went to a Korean restaurant that had been taken over by foreigners. We’d all paid thirty dollars for unlimited drinks and food that night. Everyone in the restaurant wore ugly Christmas sweaters and cheersed glasses of cheap Korean beer and poured shots of soju for one another.
The Christmas joy in that room was infectious.
Soon I was cheersing too, and talking to all my friends who apparently loved their experience on the mountain from hell. “I hated skiing my first time too,” many people confided.
I still sneered when I heard the word.
“Did anyone tell you about pizza and french fries?”
Many people compared their skiing and snowboarding injuries, holding their shoulders or rubbing their knees. I could feel my body stiffening up too.
Like me, Claire was wearing her antlers. So were several of our friends. Soon I began insisting that everyone take a reindeer name and also make up a coordinating dance. I was Prancer, Claire was Vixen, Dan was Blitzen, and Jenny, who was initially bummed out that all three of the names she wanted were taken, wound up being Dasher.
There was a bonfire outside, and Kevin, along with several other smokers, spent a good part of the evening by the fire. Having spent so much of my day snow-covered and cold, I stayed inside, marinating in the body heat of my drunken friends.
Kevin came back in after a while, walked up to me, and insisted that I come outside. I topped off by beer, grabbed my jacket and followed him out. Once we reached the fire pit, he said, “You have to light your crotch on fire.” He faced the fire, bent his knees a bit, and jutted out his crotch to demonstrate. Kory was holding WD40, and he sprayed it into the fire until the end lit, and then onto Kevin’s jeans. And just like that, Kevin was flaming.
It seemed like a perfectly reasonable request. So I shrugged and copied Kevin’s wide-legged stance. Soon, there was fire licking across my jeans too. It burned out quickly, leaving only a trail of warmth on my pants.
Soon after, we were all walking back to our new motel. It was cheaper and shabbier than the motel we’d stayed in the night before. It also had no beds. We’d all walked out of the party carrying half-drunken bottles of beer and soju to go. After drinking the leftovers from the party, we all settled across the floor and fell asleep with un-brushed teeth.
Sunday morning came all too soon. Patrick, ever the drinking instigator, ordered beer when we sat down for a big group breakfast. Mike was driving the van back instead of him, and so Patrick insisted that we all experience the shampoo effect. “Lather, rinse, repeat,” he instructed, taking a swig of beer. “When you’re repeating drinking, you need less alcohol to get the same effect, just like shampoo when you wash your hair!”
“Back home we call that a Sunday fun-day,” I told him.
We piled back into the van with our snacks for the road and bottles of beer. The mountainous road seemed far more twisty with a brain full of last-night’s booze than it had on Friday night. But soon we were on the highway heading back to Pohang.
When I got home, I checked my email. I belatedly found a little gem of advice from my mother. Stick to the bunny hills. Get some instruction. I say this as one who has learned the hard way, she wrote.
I reread the short, brilliant advice that I hadn’t taken. And then I laughed a bit, but it hurt my ribcage so I moaned instead.
** A camera would never have survived my journey down. Thanks to Scott for his ski hill pictures**