The first two times I ever skied, I felt lost, out of place, exposed. Despite years of running, I didn’t feel like an athlete at all. I felt like a sports-phobic intellectual, the type of person who trips and falls out of fear of an approaching soccer ball, who blanches at the mere sight of a rollercoaster, who is always underdressed in cold weather, who easily bruises. Those actually all describe me. Running has been my one weapon against fear, my jet pack.
I may as well have been wearing a corduroy suit, à la Wes Anderson, skulking around the ski area jotting down thoughts about this strange phenomenon known as skiing in a tiny notebook, trying to avoid getting muddy snow on my loafers. But I was, somehow, dressed in ski clothes and a pair of borrowed ski boots. I had just scraped, scudded and rolled my way from the top of a two-mile-long green run known as Long John to the bottom. And I was not glad to have done so. I was angry: that skiing was nothing like running or swimming, two sports I considered myself good at. Angry to be waiting for someone leagues better than I was, as he casually squeezed three runs in in the time I took for me to finish one. Angry at the mob of people bouncing happily yet impatiently to the radio song blasting out of speakers at the lift line, because they were all — all! — far better at skiing than I was, or so I insisted. My initial response to failure is self-removal, if not physical then at least mental. I recede. I begin to critique. I tell myself the given challenge is not something I even want to be good at, thanks. But the truth is, I do want to be good at skiing, because it is a sport, and sports make me happier than most things.
A couple of weeks earlier, during my first attempt at skiing at a smaller ski area in upstate New York, I tried to explain to my sister this new sensation of hanging out in a humid French fry-scented ski lodge with 400 other New Englanders. My sister was also learning to ski for the first time that day. We’d both had limited, and mostly negative, experiences snowboarding. It had been about a decade since either of us had set foot on a ski hill.
“Where am I?” I said to her.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “You’re weird.”
Growing up in London, already an expensive place to live, skiing was a pastime of the rich and very rich. There was Courchevel and, well, some other places. I couldn’t point to any of them on a map. There was nothing appealing about snowy mountains if you could not ski. And there was nothing appealing about skiing if you were a member of my family. Yet the notion of “Where am I?” makes no sense to my sister, and perfect sense to me. Culturally, this was alien territory for us, and this made it fascinating. To me.
The ski area was called Thunder Ridge, where one day of peak-season weekend skiing will set you back $100 including rentals. My sister had generously paid for me. A middle-aged man sat in a camping chair smack in the middle of the lodge, reading the Sunday New York Times. “I like his style,” my sister said. Children everywhere around us sat slumped at picnic tables, helmets still on, lazily chewing some type of fried food, or else they twirled tiredly around the lodge in their ski boots like spinning tops slowing to a stop. The impact of so many ski boots thumping across musty-smelling black carpet shook the floor. The place was a churning sea of brightly colored jackets and half-eaten hot dogs and watery hot chocolate. It was like some indoor version of Coney Island.
At my high school, we were given a week off each February to go skiing. This was ludicrous, and a good indication of the types of people willing to throw down to have this school printed on their kid’s diploma. During “ski break,” I would mostly lie around the house watching shows like Hollyoaks and University Challenge because we couldn’t afford ski trips, let alone the school tuition, which was partly covered by my dad’s employer. Also, my dad suffers from vertigo, and I’m pretty sure my mom does too. Thankfully, I was too lost in my own head in those days to resent my skiing classmates their wealth. I just resented them their flawless skin and nice clothes, and didn’t make a connection between those traits and money. If we went to the same school, surely the playing field was relatively even — even enough for me to get on with my life and more or less ignore what they were doing with theirs. I recall that these girls bought entire pages in the yearbook in which to commemorate their boozy, parent-funded, parent-free ski trips labeled with curlicued handwritten names like “Courchevel ’01.” Some of these girls had country houses fit for a king. Or the Queen.
In this country, ski areas are more plentiful. Skiing is still an expensive sport — the most expensive sport. But it’s a little more accessible than it was in England, especially if you grow up close to a ski area, in which case skiing is an athletic choice you are able to make out of several other athletic choices. For ski area locals, skiing is made that much more accessible by season passes, friend and family connections, employee perks, and team affiliations.
Sharing Thunder Ridge with people like the guy reading the paper in the camping chair is completely different than spending a week at Courchevel. But these are both still worlds in which considerable money is required to do something and, more important, to become good at that something. The cheapest way to become a great skier is to live near a ski area and compete on a team, or else work at the ski area. The next cheapest way is to buy a season pass. Much of the time, if someone is good at skiing, it’s because they could afford to get good at it. The cheapskate runner in me has trouble computing this.
A Google search about skiing’s privilege stigma turns up a 2011 documentary called The Ordinary Skier, about the free skier Seth Morrison. The film is about how Morrison grew up from a regular kid “living in the middle-class suburbs of Chicago” into a pioneer of free skiing. “Middle-class suburbs of Chicago”? Sure, it’s not a rented chalet in Switzerland, but Morrison is sadly only “ordinary” relative to most skiers, not most people.
Another Google result is for a company called Privilège, which hand-delivers ski and snowboard equipment to skiers staying at Courchevel.
A third Google result is an article advising families on the economics of bringing their au pair along on a ski vacation.
I’ve skied nine times now, using my boyfriend’s dad’s old boots, which are neon green and blue make me look like a sort of cross between a Transformer and Buzz Lightyear. My skis are his mom’s old skis, bright pink and technically too long for a beginner. Lift tickets also come at deeply discounted rates from his parents, who both taught at their local ski area for three decades. My jacket is a Columbia jacket I bought in 2002 at a mall in Nova Scotia. My clashing, ripped, scuffed gear is a failed fuck-you to privilege … and Privilège. Failed because I am still here, participating in this new pastime of mine, trying to see it as a sport — a peerless sport, mind you, an electrifying sport — and trying not to see it as some elite club to which I don’t fully belong.
Comparatively, running now feels like a bad dream, like those dreams in which I’m trying to run through molasses or mud and keep receding from my target, which is either a bad guy or a telephone. Why would you trudge in skin-tight clothing through snow for free, when you could slide down snow at 40 miles per hour wearing several layers of equally expensive clothing for $49? Skiing is my grownup reward, it seems, for decades of not-skiing. But its homogeneity and its relative inaccessibility still dampens my experience of the sport. In striving to improve at skiing, I am also striving to get good enough to ski away from the resorts, to the places where the ex-ski racers and other daredevils test their mettle, all the while knowing that to get to any of those places, it’ll cost me.