What I have Learned from Skiing
March 2012
Lois T. Flaherty, M.D.

Skiing is the closest you can get to flying and still be on the ground. But I didn't start out experiencing it this way. I skied for the first time as a college freshman at Wellesley (actually, tried to ski would be a more accurate description). My first skis came from Gimbels department store. My parents, neither of whom ever had the slightest interest in winter sports, had them sent to me, perhaps because it fit with their idea of what students did at a New England college. (It never occurred to them or to me that New England might be a better venue than New York City to shop for skis.) I had signed up for skiing which was offered as a physical education choice in the winter. I figured since I was really bad at team sports this would be OK. There was no snow throughout that winter to speak of, at least not at Wellesley. The classes were on a small incline covered with straw. We did, however, have the option of going on weekend trip with our teacher to New Hampshire, where we attempted to ski on ice. I learned to slide down sitting down. However, it was a beautiful clear sunny day, and I did get to ride on a ski lift up high enough that I could look out over the mountains and thought to myself even if I never learned to ski it would be magnificent to be able to look down from a mountain in the winter.

In those days, we spent a lot of time trying to walk in our skis, climbing up slopes either by something called sidestepping or another technique called herringboning, practicing getting up after falling down, and trying to turn by lifting up one ski to a vertical position, then pivoting it around so that it faced the opposite direction, then lifting and turning the other ski. As I write this, I don't see how it was possible. The rest of the time was devoted to trying to slow down and avoid hitting obstacles such as trees and other skiers while moving downhill.

Ski lifts were another story. I managed to fall off of every conceivable kind of lift, usually either getting on or getting off, but also, in the case of rope tows, T-bars and J-bars, while riding them. Then there was the MIT ski cabin. The Wellesley and MIT outing clubs had joint ski trips to New Hampshire. Everyone stayed in the cabin, where we slept on shelves in sleeping bags. There was no indoor plumbing. There was an outhouse at the end of a long icy hill. You would usually slide most of the way down the hill, slamming into the closed door of the outhouse. I don't remember much about getting back up. I hadn't met John (an MIT student) yet. When I did meet him, not only he had never heard of the MIT ski cabin, but he insisted he would never have stayed in such a primitive place. This eventually factored into my decision to marry him.

After college John and I went to medical school at Duke. There was no skiing in North Carolina then. However, even if there had been, there was no way John and I, who often ate sardines on toast for dinner because they would go on sale at Winn-Dixie for 11¢ a tin, could have ever afforded it. We left Durham for Baltimore, then spent three years in the Washington DC area, then went back to Baltimore. By now we were earning money, but work and raising three kids precluded time-consuming leisure activities (indeed almost all leisure activities). John had a group of skiing buddies who would get up and leave about 3 am to drive to Pennsylvania to ski. Once they went to Vermont to take a week of lessons. I stayed home, not altogether reluctantly. When the kids got old enough for ski lessons, we started to take family ski vacations. By this time ski technology had improved so skis were no longer about 7 feet long for a 5' 2" person. I got marginally better. We went to places in the West and to Switzerland. This enabled me to fall getting on and off chairlifts in places like Aspen and Park City, and T-bars in Davos. But I found to my astonishment that there were places that had wonderfully easy to ski in snow, sun, and (relatively) warm weather. Not to mention the mountains you could see from the tops of the ski lifts after you picked yourself up from falling getting off them. And there weren't as many trees to worry about running into (unless you were a celebrity). In Switzerland I learned that Europeans don't start skiing until after they've had coffee in the restaurant at the top of the mountain around 10 am. Then they stop for a leisurely lunch. And in the afternoon they stop at little bars alongside the trails for schnapps. This flew in the face of my understanding of skiing as a feat of endurance.

The kids all got to be much better than I was, even though I had helped them learn to ski. Finally they left to go to school. I had a friend who had a condo in Vail. I felt that John owed me a lot for all those ski trip weekends and the week in Vermont. I started going to Vail to ski and I got much much better. Not only did I no longer fall from lifts, I very rarely fell skiing. Eventually we bought a larger condo near Vail with our friend. Now I am skiing with my granddaughters and so far can keep up with them, except for in the terrain park ( a place for snowboarders and freestyle skiers, with half pipes, rails, and jumps). I forgot to mention that I broke my leg skiing in 2000, when I got carried away with skiing in powder. From this I learned how to depend on other people. I contemplated a future without skiing, but decided I couldn't give it up. The leg healed and I went back, albeit a bit more cautiously. I still love skiing and am hoping to be able to join the over 80 group who ski together at Vail in another 10 years.

Several years ago there was an article in the New York Times about a woman (a Wellesley graduate) who had taken up skiing at the age of 90. This made me feel as though I had a edge, since I had really only started skiing in earnest in my 50s. But I also realized that if I had waited even longer, the equipment would have progressed to the point that it would have been a lot easier. But I wouldn't be able to point to a pair of skis in the Colorado Ski Museum in Vail, which are just like my first skis, and say, "I used to ski on those."

So this is what have I learned.

  • Suffering can be worthwhile, but is generally overrated.
  • If you fall down you can always get up (unless something is broken, in which case you should wait for the Ski Patrol).
  • Ski resorts have excellent orthopedic services.
  • If you keep at something you enjoy long enough there's a good chance you will eventually get to be good at it. Then you will feel really good.
  • You can pick up on something you left off a long time ago (see Dick Gross's article on piano in a recent LM Newsletter, for example).
  • Chances are your kids will be better than you at a lot of things.