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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

Ski Hill Learning Curve

Years ago I thought little more of the mountains than their pictorial representation on the Alaska calendar my aunt sent us each year. The photographs were beautiful and the calendar was always the one to find favor in our household-posted next to the phone and filled with appointments, birthdays, and the like. Mt. McKinley and her court of beautiful mountain ranges shown bright, in pink- or purple- or blue-lit splendor, year after year.

It wasn't until a road trip in the mid-1980s through Montana's Glacier National Park that I got my first real introduction to the mountains. I was absolutely awestruck as we winded our way through deep, shadowy canyons and over bright, tundra-like passes. The magnificent rock verticals, lush meadows and turquoise waters left me literally breathless.

Some folks are drawn to the sea. I suppose one could say that I am drawn to the mountains. I now live at about 9,100 feet and have countless skiing, hiking and biking trails within minutes of my front door. It is under the guise of such recreation that I prefer to explore this spectacular natural environment. While I've always loved the outdoors, these Rocky Mountain surroundings make outings even more enticing. Well, that-and having a fast-runnin', obstacle-jumpin', squirrel-chasin' dog who, like all mountain folk, has her limits when it comes to being cooped up in the house.

Hiking and biking were easy. But my learning curve for skiing was steep. My first time "on boards" was at the spry age of about 19, after which I skied about 7 times during the next 7 years and always found my skills to be right where I had left them the time before-lousy!

Then I met a mountain-raised boy.and potential boyfriend. If only I had insisted on an alternative activity that day, like a nice, friendly horseback ride, or even having horses drag me naked by my feet through a patch of dry thistles. Instead I committed to skiing with him and his clan of professional-class skier friends and family.

The humiliation began the night before as the clan of hoodlums gathered for dinner and drinks at one of the finer establishments in Leadville, Colorado. They chattered excitedly about the next day's festivities: skiing at Vail and watching the World Cup downhill. I was already having fits of anxiety over the next day's activities, so was determined to lie low. Eventually, the topic came around and I was asked, "What kind of skier are you?"

"Well, I.um, don't really ski."

Dead silence.

As I escaped to the restroom, this guy (whom I was trying desperately to impress) was, without a doubt, interrogated rigorously by the rest as to "Where the heck did you find her?"

The next day I got up bright and early to rent my beginner gear and made the trip with the rest of the group. Arriving at the base area parking lot, I watched and mimicked the others, to the best of my ability: they traded shoes for boots (don't buckle them 'till you get to the top), the ski pants go outside the boots (if only my ski pants were long enough to even reach my boots), don coordinating jackets, gloves, and hats (I'm the only girl in a family of four brothers-how much fashion sense can I possibly have? My trusty farm jacket would have to do), and then gracefully hoist skis over your shoulder, snag the poles in the other hand and we were off (me clattering and clunking behind, gracelessly juggling scissored skis and jumbled poles).

Next stop, ticket window where I held up the group only slightly more (everyone else had season passes), re-juggle my gear, then on to the staging area, where I was instructed to simply "step" into the skis, "glide" to the lift, "just sit down" when the chair meets the backs of your knees, then "just stand up" when you get to the top. That was the fun part of the day.

I've mostly blocked the rest from my memory. But I do recall negotiating my way down the run appropriately named Giant Steps. Unfortunately, the racecourse accounted for most of the run's width, leaving a treacherously narrow path for me to "snowplow" down. I believe my final technique was to slide down on my rear end.

Since that day, many things have changed. That guy I tried so hard to impress must have taken pity on me because he spent day after day in the years since patiently teaching me how to ski. It must have taken, because we're now married and, together, have put many ski miles under our belts.

My slope-side learning curve has also been one of the land and communities that make up the region's resorts. My home community, Frisco (not San Fran.) is not at the base of one ski area, but rather is within 40 miles of eight. While the locals seem to love living here for its beauty and quality of life, the region often shudders under the negative effects of tourism, conflicts over land use, growth, sprawl, loss of open space, lack of affordable and adequate housing, environmental degradation, and traffic. In all the confusion, I do my best to remain grounded in the fact that each of these individual problems is part of a larger system. You can't "just" mend one without affecting others.

To what extent, for example, can one insist on no-growth for communities, without limiting affordable housing? And if there is not sufficient affordable housing in a community, where will the service industry find its employees? Perhaps a neighboring town will become a bedroom community-the place where the working class lives-and employees will commute, adding to the traffic problems. If the traffic becomes heavy, how do people cope? Is it convenient to use public transportation? Or will folks drive and if so, do they add volume to the jammed up, standard route or are shortcuts invented might equivalently cause wear, noise, pollution, and safety concerns in a more remote, maybe even more ecologically valuable area? The questions seem to go on forever. If only the answers were so abundant.

A couple years ago my husband and I tried a new sport-snowboarding. We were both dreadfully bad at it but were relieved to be bad in the same clumsy way. The day was filled with crashes and tumbles in the (thankfully!) deep powder. We had a spectacular time and found great amusement in our lack of proficiency. It brought about a new sense of humility, especially for my husband whose now-famous words "just stand up" for getting off the lift brought new meaning.

It's hard to "just" do anything when you don't really understand what you're doing in the first place.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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