Battle of the Sexes

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My wife and I and four other couples were sitting in the lobby of the Huntley Lodge at Big Sky resort in Montana, attending the introductory meeting for our Couples Only Ski Clinic. Instructor Dan Egan, a smiling, puckish, red-haired former pro moguls competitor, extreme skiing pioneer, and star of 12 Warren Miller movies, was explaining what we'd be doing for the next three days. Next to him sat his wife Miki Fera-Egan, a wide-cheekboned Romanian beauty who had raced in three Olympics and won the 1998 Women's Pro Tour GS World Championships. "In nine years of clinics, we've had a 75 percent return rate," Dan said. To which one of the women in the group responded, "Yeah, and what's the divorce rate?"

Everybody laughed. But we were here precisely because this is a serious question: Even more than money, children, or the proper squeezing of a toothpaste tube, skiing together is often the thing that strains a marriage most. My wife Michaela and I have a fun and peaceful life together—until we strap on the boards. Then we become the poster children for that mysterious disease that infects ski couples.

Most men will tell you, for instance, that women are too cautious. Michaela is strong and fast, but she was constantly insisting that she didn't feel comfortable and in control on anything but blue groomers. How could she expect to move forward, I argued, if she wasn't willing to go for it a little? Virtually every expert skier got that way by at one time or other letting go, pointing 'em down and planting face.

Women counter that men are testosterone-poisoned, macho and reckless, plunging down trails they can't handle and don't enjoy, just so they can brag about it later. And why must they be so patronizing? "In a husband-wife or boyfriend-girlfriend relationship," Michaela says, "it just doesn't work for one person to be the teacher and one person to be the student. Sometimes I just want to ski for fun."

Sad, but true. Just after Christmas, for instance, I'd watched a loudmouthed banker at Stratton, Vt., give a ski-technique lecture to his wife that was so misguided it would have made a PSIA instructor cry like a little baby. Then he forced her to follow exactly in his intermediate tracks, yelling loudly, "left, right, left! Come on! This is how you ski!" When she quite understandably burst into tears, I wanted to hire her a divorce lawyer.

What is it with the Y chromosome and frozen water vapor? Men also know how to drive, but we don't get on the bus and tell the driver, "You really ought to be leaving a larger safety cushion between you and the next vehicle." Just because we can balance our checkbook doesn't mean we strut down to the nearest university and take over the Econ department. But most males think that we know everything there is to know about how to teach skiing. I didn't want to be like that. But sometimes I couldn't help myself.

Michaela and I were getting so frustrated with each other we were contemplating a ski separation. What to do? If she took private lessons or went to a women's clinic we still wouldn't learn to have fun together. Then a new-fangled cure presented itself: these Egan classes designed exclusively for couples. The Egan approach to couples dynamics is simple and effective: "We recommend that you not give your partner advice. Let us do the teaching."

After the initial meeting, outdoor stretching exercises and breakfast, Michaela said to me, "Can't we just play inside today?" She was scared. So was I. I hadn't skied in Western powder in a decade; was Dan "Extreme Team" Egan going to push me off some cliffs? She said, "I think I'm going to need a lot of extra chocolate this week."

We were looking over the three-day schedule.

"Wow," I said. The first day would feature "Balance and Stance," the second "Challenging Terrain" (powder and steeps), and on the third day—the terrain Michaela hates the most—"Bumps." She half-joked, "I've already planned to come do with the flu that day."

"When this is over, you're going to love bumps," I argued. "The Egans are going to push you out of the little cocoon you've built for yourself."

"I like my little cocoon. I hate bumps. I hate steeps. I hate ice. I hate powder. And I hate it when you tell me how to ski."

"When have I ever told you how to ski?"

"Yesterday."

Out on the slopes, Dan and Miki started with balance and stance. On the new carving skis, they told us, we need to be forward on our feet, turning with the tip more than the tail. They worked on getting us to swing our legs like a pendulum while keeping our upper bodies quiet. It reminded me of my mid-Seventies dance-floor days.

Then they split us into two groups based on ability. My group went off with Dan (they alternated), who put us through torturous drills that made me feel like a moron, such as skiing without poles. But Dan is a good coach. He knows not to talk too much, how to break things down into simple tasks, and the importance of positive reinforcement. When at one point he complimented my turns I said, "Really? They felt awful."

"But they looked good." When you're making changes, he explained, it doesn't feel good at first, and it shouldn't.

At lunch, Michaela beamed. Whereas she'd feared she'd be the worst skier in her group, everyone was pretty evenly matched, with great esprit de corps, cheering each other with the refrain, "Eat raw meat!"

We would all ski together at least twice a day, often doing couple-oriented exercises, such as figure eights. This created a nice balance of freedom from and interaction with our partners. That afternoon everyone donned ski blades, so small and light they feel as if your skis fell off. Because you have to keep both blades on edge or they chatter and wander, it forced us to do what they'd been preaching: hip-swinging, weight-forward carves. Michaela loved those little suckers. "They made me feel for the first time what it means to really be on edge." I think one of the men spoke for all of us when he said, "Wow. What an amazing day." Everyone, beginner to expert, thirty-something to sixty-something, had experienced the pleasure of learning in a relaxed, supportive environment. Michaela had enjoyed the technical instruction, the personal attention, the togetherness and the fun. Dan and Miki might ski like gods, but they're not hardcore or pushy. "The measure of your success," they like to say, "is the size of your smile." Well then, we were succeeding. Mike "the Pipe" Nelson, a gray-bearded, pipe-smoking lawyer from Seattle, had been to 15 previous Egan clinics. I now understood why he keeps coming back, and what he meant when he said, "At the end of the week, the muscles that hurt the most are the ones you use to laugh."

The second day Miki and Dan showed us what makes Big Sky a jaw-dropper. We'd arrived there at night, so the first morning when Michaela raised the shades at our slopeside condo we'd both stood transfixed. Lone Mountain is a big beauty, the equivalent of two Eastern mountains, one on top of the other, 4,180 feet of vertical, the top third an inverted white cone of treeless snow and craggy rock. It looks like a miniature Matterhorn. And it averages 400 inches of powder a year. After a few warm-up runs on the upper, treeless pastures, my group, this time headed by Miki, took the aerial tram to the tippity top: 11,166 feet; not a ride for the vertigo-challenged. Below us snaked rock-sided chutes that dropped like elevator shafts—the same kind of nasty stuff that Dan has made a film career out of descending. It was so high, so steep and so exposed I counted my blessings that I had a coach with me. At the top, once I got done being petrified, I was able to marvel at the view: The Gallatin and Madison river systems and sharp-topped mountain ranges are almost completely unsettled and unspoiled. It reminded me of a lift-served Tuckerman Ravine. The snow was good, and we jump-turned down the double-black steeps of the South Face, whooping and cheering each other on. At the base of the Shedhorn chair a liftie was yelling, "Are you having fun? You'd better be, or I'll send you home. Or worse, I'll send you to Vail."

At lunch Michaela was in tears, which is not normal. She's usually strong, calm and happy. But heights can scare her, and her group had also gone to the top and descended the ultra-steep, double-black South Face. Poor thing; I wanted to cry with her. In two days she'd been pushed farther out of her cocoon than she would have pushed herself in two years. I tried to comfort her with the advice Dan had given me about my own difficulties the day before. It's good to feel uncomfortable sometimes because that means you're on the way to change.

That night Dan projected video he'd shot of us, freezing the frame to point out position of hips or where the snow spray came off a turn, then demonstrating the correction. Michaela found it very helpful to actually see what she'd been doing wrong. "Your lower leg is not having a good time," Dan said at one point. "Your upper body is having a blast. You need to spread the wealth." To all of us he said, "Tip of the day: Ski more."

Friday morning, day three. We were standing on a cornice, staring down at this Eastern skier's worst nightmare: a mogul field covered with a foot of new snow. "Mike?" Dan said. "What's the best way to ski powder?"

"I forget."

"First!" Dan launched off the cornice, turned in mid-air and came down ripping. Me? I struggled. I whined. I called for the groomers. Dan said, "When I first learned to ski moguls they told me, 'Ski as fast as you can until you crash.' First it was 10 turns, then it was 20, then I could do the whole run. Burn to learn." So, like Dan had, I crashed and burned and slowly found the sweet spot. I began to whoop. I even auditioned for a Dan Egan ski film, trying without success to spray his camera lens with powder.

At lunch, Michaela was physically and emotionally exhausted from a morning of working away at pole plants and body position. Then Miki had sent her through powder and moguls while Dan videotaped. She felt like a complete failure. When I told this to Dan he said, "Wait till she sees the video. She was doing great."

"I think she'll get to like it more if she just stops fighting the hill and lets 'em go," I said. "She's good with speed." Dan agreed.

"But I'm not going to tell her that," I said. "That's good," he said, "you're learning, too."

That afternoon, when we all skied together, I saw what Dan saw: Michaela's technique had taken a huge leap forward. Now she was planting, leaning forward, skidding less and carving more, her upper body tall and proud. She didn't realize how much she'd improved until she saw the video that night and heard the cheering. As Dan pointed out, "Some people walk through walls. Michaela ran through them."

But the changes weren't all physical. Yes, she'd learned new techniques that now allow us to both enjoy the challenge of skiing knee-deep powder and ice-covered moguls together. But mostly, she felt a great sense of accomplishment at the steep and scary demons she'd conquered. The following morning, as we packed to leave, Michaela disappeared to buy postcards. When she returned she looked at me and grinned, "This has been fun."

What? I was amazed. She'd been so miserable. How could she say that? "Hard," she admitted, "but fun."

And then came an even bigger surprise: She'd bought herself a little present. In the past I'd had to lie to get her to venture down even the easiest expert trails. Now she displayed an enamel pin emblazoned with a double-black-diamond trail-marker and the words, "Diamonds are a girl's best friend."

Wow, I thought. This is truly amazing. In three short days, as Dan Egan puts it, she'd gone from "Oh, no" to "Oh, yeah!"

But I didn't say anything.

At lunch Michaela was in tears, which is not normal. She's usually strong, calm and happy. But heights can scare her, and her group had also gone to the top and descended the ultra-steep, double-black South Face. Poor thing; I wanted to cry with her. In two days she'd been pushed farther out of her cocoon than she would have pushed herself in two years. I tried to comfort her with the advice Dan had given me about my own difficulties the day before. It's good to feel uncomfortable sometimes because that means you're on the way to change.

That night Dan projected video he'd shot of us, freezing the frame to point out position of hips or where the snow spray came off a turn, then demonstrating the correction. Michaela found it very helpful to actually see what she'd been doing wrong. "Your lower leg is not having a good time," Dan said at one point. "Your upper body is having a blast. You need to spread the wealth." To all of us he said, "Tip of the day: Ski more."

Friday morning, day three. We were standing on a cornice, staring down at this Eastern skier's worst nightmare: a mogul field covered with a foot of new snow. "Mike?" Dan said. "What's the best way to ski powder?"

"I forget."

"First!" Dan launched off the cornice, turned in mid-air and came down ripping. Me? I struggled. I whined. I called for the groomers. Dan said, "When I first learned to ski moguls they told me, 'Ski as fast as you can until you crash.' First it was 10 turns, then it was 20, then I could do the whole run. Burn to learn." So, like Dan had, I crashed and burned and slowly found the sweet spot. I began to whoop. I even auditioned for a Dan Egan ski film, trying without success to spray his camera lens with powder.

At lunch, Michaela was physically and emotionally exhausted from a morning of working away at pole plants and body position. Then Miki had sent her through powder and moguls while Dan videotaped. She felt like a complete failure. When I told this to Dan he said, "Wait till she sees the video. She was doing great."

"I think she'll get to like it more if she just stops fighting the hill and lets 'em go," I said. "She's good with speed." Dan agreed.

"But I'm not going to tell her that," I said. "That's good," he said, "you're learning, too."

That afternoon, when we all skied together, I saw what Dan saw: Michaela's technique had taken a huge leap forward. Now she was planting, leaning forward, skidding less and carving more, her upper body tall and proud. She didn't realize how much she'd improved until she saw the video that night and heard the cheering. As Dan pointed out, "Some people walk through walls. Michaela ran through them."

But the changes weren't all physical. Yes, she'd learned new techniques that now allow us to both enjoy the challenge of skiing knee-deep powder and ice-covered moguls together. But mostly, she felt a great sense of accomplishment at the steep and scary demons she'd conquered. The following morning, as we packed to leave, Michaela disappeared to buy postcards. When she returned she looked at me and grinned, "This has been fun."

What? I was amazed. She'd been so miserable. How could she say that? "Hard," she admitted, "but fun."

And then came an even bigger surprise: She'd bought herself a little present. In the past I'd had to lie to get her to venture down even the easiest expert trails. Now she displayed an enamel pin emblazoned with a double-black-diamond trail-marker and the words, "Diamonds are a girl's best friend."

Wow, I thought. This is truly amazing. In three short days, as Dan Egan puts it, she'd gone from "Oh, no" to "Oh, yeah!"

But I didn't say anything.

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