I love skiing and look forward to a ski trip every winter. But, that wasn’t always the case. For many years, I had an intense dislike of skiing.
It started in the winter of 1968 – Cow Year at West Point. One lackluster gloom period Saturday, looking for something fun to do, several company classmates said, “Let’s go skiing”! I hedged on that, protesting that I didn’t know how (they had skied before). Growing up in Florida, skiing to me meant the waterborne type – I had done that. Finally, they persuaded me to go, with assurances such as, “It’s easy”; “We’ll show you how”. So, we headed off to the West Point ski slope.
Those not familiar with West Point might be surprised to learn it has its own ski slope. Called the Victor Constant Ski Area, it was named in 1946 in memory of Captain S. Victor Constant, who was the coach of the West Point Ski team from 1943-46 and an instructor in the Civil and Military Engineering Department. In 1945, he supervised the construction of the ski slope with the help of WWII prisoners of war.
During my time, Constant Ski Slope had a single chairlift and a beginner’s rope tow.
We first checked out our equipment. Skiers will remember that ski equipment was still fairly primitive at that time. Skis were all wood, not the blend of various high-tech materials in today’s skis. They were straight and not shaped. Boots were hardened leather, and bindings were metal cables that strapped the boots to the skis. I’m not even sure what appropriate ski wear consisted of then, I just know I didn’t have any.
After getting out on the slopes, my friends spent about 5 minutes showing me how to make a “pizza slice” shape with my skis and to place weight on one ski at a time to turn. Then, they headed to the chair lift, leaving me on the bunny hill at the rope tow and said something like “practice that and we’ll check back later”. First, I had to use the rope tow to get to the top of the bunny hill. They had mentioned that you just grab it, hang on and let it pull you to the top. However, it was not that easy. Riding a rope tow is a little like learning to drive a clutch transmission automobile – you have to apply pressure, just the right amount until it catches smoothly, but doesn’t slip or jerk. Also, you have to keep your skis positioned in the ruts in the snow that have already developed from previous skiers. The first try, I grabbed too quickly went a few feet and then tumbled to a face plant. Two or 3 tries later, I grabbed successfully and rode to the top. Of course, they had not mentioned anything about how to exit. Exiting the tow smoothly requires some good timing, balance and finesse. I timed, balanced and finessed it right into another face plant.
Now at the top of the bunny hill, I was ready to ski down. I tried to remember how to do the pizza slice thing my friends had told me about and headed down. Or perhaps I should clarify – that’s literally “down”, as in travel a few yards, fall down. Get up, repeat. Once I got to the bottom, I repeated the whole scenario, without much improvement.
My friends were back to check up on me every 10-15 minutes. I knew they meant well, and were trying to coach me, but they didn’t have the ski instructor skills necessary to get me properly trained. After about hour or so of this, I realized that my fashionable ski wear (thermal underwear, jeans, and Cadet Parka), was somewhat less than waterproof. I was soaking wet, freezing, and miserable. At the next rendezvous, I informed them that this was not fun, wasn’t working for me and I was done. They offered to take turns staying with me, but at that point I was no longer interested. I headed back to a hot shower and swore off skiing… for a while, anyway.
There were two more outings. I went, against my better judgement, with a small group over spring break to a resort in Vermont. I did a little better, but still fell a lot. I even attempted the chairlift once and entertained nearby skiers with an acrobatic exit routine. The end of the day still resulted in being wet, freezing and miserable. At least, there was a big lodge to hang out in. I, and another in the group with comparable skills, ended up leaving early after one day. Then, in 1971, while stationed at Ft Carson, Co., I was once again coaxed onto the slopes by roommate skiers, who said they would show me what to do. In the 3 years that had elapsed since my last ski adventure, I had lost most of what little skill I had previously acquired, but not the results.
After that, I really swore it off, and that lasted 15 years.
Now fast forward to 1986. My skiing adventures were a distant unpleasant memory. However, at that time, my wife and I had some friends in our social circle that were skiers. I always remained quiet or just professed to being a non-skier in any discussion at gatherings, where the subject turned to skiing. But, in the winter of 1986, after listening many times to friends describing how much fun it was, I made a decision: I’m going to learn to ski – the right way.
Shortly thereafter, that same winter, my wife and I headed off on a long weekend to a small North Carolina ski resort, Sapphire Valley.
I took 2 days of lessons with a personal instructor – someone that stayed with and “trained” me full time for those 2 days. The training kicked in and I “got it”. What a difference actual lessons and training made. This was indeed fun! I turned at that point from complete dislike to, “we need to start going out west to the big resorts”.
That triggered annual ski trips out west for the next 34 years, missing going only a few times. Of course, there were more lessons to further improve skills in those first few trips. This year’s trip (2020) was just completed in early February. We covered a lot of ground over those 34 years, skiing at a variety of resorts in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada and California. When the kids were younger, they went too – when we could fit the trip in as part of spring break.
And it all started with that decision in 1986. I guess it reinforces those 5 P’s we all learned (Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance). On those first few outings, I had not done any planning – I knew nothing about proper ski wear, didn’t plan for proper training, didn’t plan for ongoing proficiency assessment and development.
I hope to continue to ski as long as possible. Most friends that ski started dropping out a few years ago: too old, too expensive, too cold, too much hassle, too tiring, too hard on the legs, too hard on the knees, and similar reasons. Aging does take its toll. On the most recent trip, a friend and I reminisced while riding the lifts about how the ski experience has changed for us. In our younger days, a ski trip was 6 days of skiing. Now, it’s 3. We would be at the lifts when they opened at 8:30 and catch a last ride up for one more run when they closed at 4:30. Now, we’re on the slopes at about 10:30 and done about 2:30-3:00. It’s still a lot of fun, just tempered a little for age and physical stamina.
In regard to aging, I read about an interview a few years ago with Clint Eastwood. He was asked about advice for successful aging. He referred to advice he himself was given by an older friend, which was: “Don’t let the old man in”. So, I was both surprised and inspired to see a very recent article in USA Today with a picture of Eastwood on a ski slope – he is now 89 – and skiing! I guess he took his friend’s advice.
That makes me wonder – will I still be able to ski at 89? Will I even want to, even if I’m able? Sounds crazy and that’s a good many years away yet, but maybe it could be possible if I can stay in shape and can stay healthy. Oh, and maybe I also need to ensure that I “Don’t let the old man in”!
Bill Bahr says
Thanks for sharing your fascinating story! Should the old man ever threaten to come in, I invite you to join me and other classmates in skiing in my home state: Kansas! If that’s not safe and flat enough for us, we could always ski a little closer to me now in Chicagoland, in the flattest place I’ve seen that would accumulate some snow: Central Illinois!
So look me up when we’re 89. In the meantime, stay safe and well as we ski into 2021.
Best regards & BOTL,
Pat Porter says
Thanks Bill. I’ve tried the “flat” cross country type skiing a couple times – that’s more work for an “old man” than cruising downhill, but definitely a lot safer! (But less fun.) See you at 89!
Bob Jannarone says
In 1949, Victor Constant had only rope tows. On Ash Wednesday, my mother started for the top in wintry mix conditions. By the time she got to the top, she was frozen onto the rope. With no safety device to stop the lift, she went around the pulley and broke her arm in four places. In traction for several months. she lost strength in two fingers. But that didn’t stop her. She skied until her 80’s and played tennis with that withered hand. She taught me to ski and play tennis. On the day I received word that my Congressman had made me his principal designee fo WP, my mother broke a leg riding a t-bar lift at the same slope.
Pat Porter says
Bob, WOW! And I thought I experienced some skiing issues! She had some extraordinary persistence and dedication.
DENIS E GULAKOWSKI says
Pat, really funny story! I never had the urge, even though I was stationed at Carson before I went to Vietnam. I understand people think it’s a lot of fun, but Sonny Bono of Sonny & Cher might disagree.
Pat Porter says
Denis, Re: Bono – EXACTLY! That’s why I never ski thru trees (Well……anymore! Haven’t since the early years – when I wasn’t an “old man”.)
Craig Schwender says
What memories you have unearthed. I came to WP from Minneapolis and had done a little skiing. Enough that I joined the Ski Instructors group and the Ski Patrol. We had great times. Truscott and I would ski the two-foot-wide loose snow that built up along the edge of the run, using very tight turns. Doug Fitzgerald convinced me to try a flip on skis (he had more confidence than I did). We worked on a trampoline in the gym for hours and it seemed possible. In Feb 1969 we built a jump at a good spot and gave it a go. On one effort I landed on my back and the Ski Patrol fanny-pack we wore had within it a wire, adjustable, splint which dug into my back pinching a nerve which put me into the hospital for three days. That back issue has dogged me all the years since.
But that hospital visit leads to another story. The hospital then was next to Grant Hall and the ER was on the 1st floor. They checked me out, admitted me, and said go to the 4th-floor nurse’s desk to get your bed assignment. I could only walk with slow, 3-inch steps (which hurt like hell) and when I get to the elevator I remember that cadets were not allowed to use the elevator. So, I start up the steps nearby. Each step required catching my breath, getting one foot up a step, resting, then get the other foot up to the step, then more resting. Each flight was a challenge, and I took a long break at each landing. It took 45 minutes to get up to the correct floor, then inch toward the nurse’s station.
There were no lights flashing, nor alarm sounding, but hospital staff were running all around looking for me. After I left the ER, they had called the nurse’s station to tell them I was on the way. When I did not arrive they put out an “APB” for me, but nobody checked the stairs. They were a bit angry with me, but I couldn’t have cared less. The drugs were finally kicking in (probably Darvon, which they gave us for most everything).
My wife and I still ski, but downhill only occasionally. We now more often go for long “walks” in the woods on skis. Much safer, much quieter, and we love it. The options here in Jackson Hole are many.
Pat, I’m happy you are still skiing. Come out here in 2035 (you’ll be 89) and I’ll show you around the mountain.
-Craig Schwender C-3
Pat Porter says
Craig, Thanks – great story! I’ve never even had the thought of attempting a flip. In earlier years I did go down some of the snowboard type runs (skis, not snowboard) and did some of the smaller jump ramps, but only smooth Blue Cruisin’ now. Skied Jackson Hole some years ago, so if still at it by 2035 will be definitely overdue for a return trip!
P.S. – I would’ve taken the elevator and risked the demerits😊