The Hapless Camper - Ski Mag

The Hapless Camper

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hapless

At the intersection of passion and confidence stands one very busy emergency room. I'm contemplating this geography of pain over a beer in Whistler Village late last June. It's only my first hour in town, but the promenade of injuries gimping past under B.C.'s smiling skies includes two arms in slings, a wrist cast, a broken leg. Common sense suggests that this parade is the likely result of Whistler's busy mountain-bike park. But common sense's murmur right now is being shouted down by a hysterical voice screaming in my brainpan:

"You know exactly where that carnage happened, big boy - right where you're headed: up on the mountaintop, at those freestyle ski camps where teenage, not your-age-skiers and snowboarders twist and flip and contort above the halfpipe, and slide rails and learn their new-school chops, and even they snap their rubbery bones!"

The voice drops an octave. It's now calm, pitying even. "Oh, son," it says. "Are you gonna pay."

I'm here-tentatively, recklessly-because I'm a desperate lover. Skiing is my passion. But over the past few years we've drifted apart, as the sport has changed faster than at any time in her 5,000-year history. Nothing less than a revolution has blown through skiing's soul in the past decade. The sport isn't all soporific groomers and powder shots anymore-it's halfpipes, terrain parks, twin-tips, backward ("switch") skiing. It's more youthful, more caffeinated, less willing to kowtow to gravity - hell, just sexier - than ever.

And where has that left me? Though only halfway through my Biblical allotment of threescore and 10 years, and a pretty damned good skier, I feel like DiMaggio next to Marilyn - a rube, out of touch, blinking and lost in her wattage. I can't throw 540s. I can't take my twin-tips switch. The halfpipe holds all the mystery of the Kabbalah.

But skiing means too much to me to end our love affair so easily. If she's changing, I'll try to change, too. This old dog will learn new tricks. Even if it injures him-very, very badly. And so when the four-page liability waiver arrives from the Camp of Champions summer freestyle ski camp, I quickly return it before any second-guessing creeps in. There's something else in that quickness, too-an eagerness, maybe, to reclaim a piece of youth, through the great institution of summer camp.

The penultimate day of June arrives. I load up my new helmet, a 500-count bottle of ibuprofen and those virgintwin-tips, double-check my wallet for the insurance card, and point my Honda north, to the 49th parallel, to join Whistler's bandaged and shuffling populace.

It's the first evening of Camp of Champions, and founder Ken Achenbach has gathered all 175 of us beneath a shade tree outside our hotel. I have trouble focusing on his opening comments because, looking around, all I can think is this: I have jock itch older than some of these kids. Most of my fellow campers-boys, predominantly-are 14, maybe 15 years old. The youngest camper is 10.

I feel old. Though I've got nearly 20 tree rings on this session's next-youngest participant, that's hardly a record. "Last week I had a 42-year-old skier who came without his kids' knowledge because he was sick of getting his ass kicked by them in the park," says Ken, a Snowboarding Hall of Fame member who is himself of a certain age. "So he came here on the sly while they were off at camp or something."

After the talk, everyone's split into groups for the week. It's easy to recognize me among the six never-evers. I'm the one without braces.

Tutoring the newbies falls to Matt Sterbenz, a pro freestyle skier, founder of 4Front Skis and head of the camp's alpine program. Matt is a Cool Guy. He wears large white Elvis sunglasses, from the King's sequined-jumpsuit-and-fried-peanut-butter-and-banana-sandwich era. The left side of his face is scabbed from a crash the previous week. Matt's backpack has built-in speakers, and the ne morning it serenades the grazing bears with hip-hop on our long chairlift rides to the tip-top of Horstman Glacier.

Come summer, a wide variety of race camps, mogul camps and freestyle camps divvy up Blackcomb Mountain's highest snowfield. Camp of Champions' real estate is a meringue of jumps and berms and metal that has been bent into entertainment apparatus of opaque name and use. There is a double-down kink rail. An inverted press box that thrusts from the snow like a flood-tossed coffin. A double-barreled shotgun rail. Step-uphip jumps. Two tabletop jumps, to send riders 50 and 60 feet through the air. A 32-foot-long, 14-foot-wide mushroom box for sliding that's big enough to accommodate a troupe of square-dancers and for this reason the snowboarders call the dance floor. Off to the left is, of course, the requisite halfpipe, its barrel aimed squarely at the park's final feature: a quarterpipe that curls skyward, like a giant standing wave. Five "diggers" maintain the takeoffs and landings, but mostly seem to ski around with 50-pound bags of salt, tossing the stuff like wedding rice to keep the slopes firm under the unrelenting sun-which by 9 a.m. is a thumb on the backs of our necks.

In the terrain park, the advanced campers have already become spinning, twisting whirligigs. We, on the other hand, start small. Matt skis over a tiny jump. I land back on my tails a little. Pathetic, but still upright. It's a start.

Tip No. 1 is delivered by Shidasha Holmstead, an aspiring pro skier who's our assistant instructor: The basis of all good tricks is "pop"-getting a nice crisp spring off a jump. Pursuing good pop will rule our week.

I'm still digesting this tip, but we're already moving on to the halfpipe. The halfpipe is even more fearsome in person than on TV. The vertical part of its walls seem to go on forever. "The whole thing about a halfpipe," Matt says, "is skiing across it, not down it." Then he drops in. He crosses crisply, pops at the apex of each zig and seems to float for an extra magical second, as if gravity were an option he was contemplating, before zagging across the pipe again.

My pop is more of a pfffft. At the end of the pipe I crumple. Matt skis over. To shield his scrape from the sun he's wearing a bandito bandanna over his face (à la Olympic snowboarder Shaun White) and another over his head. He's a post-apocalyptic Lawrence of Arabia.

[pagebreak]

"You're popping up before the top," he tells me. That'll happen when you suddenly find your boot buckles at eye level, I consider replying. Instead I choose "I guess I'm just scared.""If it wasn't scary it wouldn't be fun."

The next time down, I "knuckle" my skis-catch the edge of the pipe underfoot-and throw a shoe, tumbling downward, ski trailing. Cheers. I note that no one else seems to be falling this much.It's as if, after dealing with me for 36 years, gravity has had ample time to find a more secure grip.

Matt heads for the rails. Up close, the rail doesn't look like a man-killer. It's a baby rail, nearly flat, just 18 inches off the ground, wide as a two-by-eight. But then I picture the consequences of flopping backward off the rail onto my neck (lifetime of painting watercolors with brush clenched in teeth), or scissoring the rail (sucking chest wound), or straddling the rail (groin), or having two years of braces and several spendy and painful root canals meet the rail. Something fluttery emerges from the leaden cocoon in my chest and begins to bang anxiously against the bars of my rib cage.

Matt's advice is simple: Come in slow, jump onto the rail sideways, throw your legs wide, put a little extra weight on the downhill ski and-this is pretty important-never, ever edge.

I edge. After 20 years of skiing, I edge. The rail might as well be ice. Faster than thought it's over, contusions singing on my hip. But the next time I land flat, eight feet downhill, a successful rail-rider. Matt and I punch knuckles in celebration.

That afternoon I eat three ibuprofen and head for the lobby. "Are you with the paintball crew?" I ask a little towheaded kid. "Yeah," he replies. "Are you our driver?" There will be lots of that this week.

In the van a boy from Manhattan who looks like the fat boy, Vern, fromthe movie Stand by Me tosses himself atop another kid. "Give him a Purple Nurple!" somebody hollers. PurpleNurples are duly administered to Fatty's chest. Fatty squeals.

At the paintball place we are handed powerful guns and loosed on the forest primeval. Our team members pair up. No one wants to be an adult's partner. "You stay here and guard the flag," one kid tells me.

I am left alone. I think: This isn't summer camp. Summer camp was all fun and friends and good memories, wasn't it? And then I realize: This is exactly like summer camp, with its knot of pretty girls who hang out together and don't talk to you; its chunky kid everyone picks on; and with its kid left out of the circle. Only this time, I am that kid left out. And 20 years on, it still hurts a little.

But not as much as the paintballs. Our team gets clobbered, every time. Welts from kill shots are fierce boils that rise on back, arms and thigh to join the day's other swelling hematomas. As the daylight fails, I find myself in a foxhole with a teammate named Dylan. He pokes up his head and squeezes off an impossible shot, nailing Fatty 60 yards away. "I'm hit!" Fatty yells, throwing up his arms in surrender, coming into the open and walking toward the safety zone.

Dylan waits. Closer, closer...then opens up on him. Fatty dances and howls, ow ow ow-ing down the forest road, body jiggling under each burst of arsenic yellow.

"Uh, I think he's already dead," I say. "I know," says the boy, firing again. On the van ride home the boys dare each other to eat the remaining paintballs. Which they do.

Day Two, and Matt has found some-thing new to disappoint him. "You need some jibber poles, dude. Those things are javelins." My ski poles are a foot longer than his. Traditional poles only get in the way during tricks, he explains.

There's so much to unlearn. And he hasn't even started in on my clothing choices-yet.

"So," Matt turns to the group, "360s." Then, he throws one. I suck in hard. Being able to nonchalantly toss a 360-the "3," the helicopter-has been a dream since I was 13.

Here's the difference between being 13 and 36: A 13-year-old doesn't need much advice, or urging, before he'll try a trick-and nail it soon enough. To be young is to be gifted with all the benefits of a fully formed inner ear, yet still unburdened by causality and consequence, and by the horrible knowledge of the brittleness of the mortal coil. And so monkey see, monkey do. When Matt addresses me, however, I can see the tumblers in his head turning. He knows he must explain. He must assure. Or barring that, he must cajole me to "sack up," as the kids say.

The mix works. After some wobbly attempts, I throw one. Then another. I am stoked.

Other pearls of wisdom from the instructors begin to pile up. Some are more useful than others. Such as: "Commitment is the essence of progression. If you come in at 95 percent of commitment you're gonna get 95 percent of the trick done. That's gonna get you hurt."

[pagebreak]

And: "If you have a big impact, land with your feet apart"-here Matt taps his teeth-"it'll help you keep the grille." And: "One-eighties impress the little kids. Three-sixties impress your friends. But 540s get the ladies."

Memorable advice isn't the only thing piling up. By the second afternoon I've fallen more than I have in my previous five years on snow. Even my contusions have abrasions. While the rest of the campers head off to wakeboard or mountain bike, I limp to the store and drop $75 on a pair of "impact shorts"-ll, a successful rail-rider. Matt and I punch knuckles in celebration.

That afternoon I eat three ibuprofen and head for the lobby. "Are you with the paintball crew?" I ask a little towheaded kid. "Yeah," he replies. "Are you our driver?" There will be lots of that this week.

In the van a boy from Manhattan who looks like the fat boy, Vern, fromthe movie Stand by Me tosses himself atop another kid. "Give him a Purple Nurple!" somebody hollers. PurpleNurples are duly administered to Fatty's chest. Fatty squeals.

At the paintball place we are handed powerful guns and loosed on the forest primeval. Our team members pair up. No one wants to be an adult's partner. "You stay here and guard the flag," one kid tells me.

I am left alone. I think: This isn't summer camp. Summer camp was all fun and friends and good memories, wasn't it? And then I realize: This is exactly like summer camp, with its knot of pretty girls who hang out together and don't talk to you; its chunky kid everyone picks on; and with its kid left out of the circle. Only this time, I am that kid left out. And 20 years on, it still hurts a little.

But not as much as the paintballs. Our team gets clobbered, every time. Welts from kill shots are fierce boils that rise on back, arms and thigh to join the day's other swelling hematomas. As the daylight fails, I find myself in a foxhole with a teammate named Dylan. He pokes up his head and squeezes off an impossible shot, nailing Fatty 60 yards away. "I'm hit!" Fatty yells, throwing up his arms in surrender, coming into the open and walking toward the safety zone.

Dylan waits. Closer, closer...then opens up on him. Fatty dances and howls, ow ow ow-ing down the forest road, body jiggling under each burst of arsenic yellow.

"Uh, I think he's already dead," I say. "I know," says the boy, firing again. On the van ride home the boys dare each other to eat the remaining paintballs. Which they do.

Day Two, and Matt has found some-thing new to disappoint him. "You need some jibber poles, dude. Those things are javelins." My ski poles are a foot longer than his. Traditional poles only get in the way during tricks, he explains.

There's so much to unlearn. And he hasn't even started in on my clothing choices-yet.

"So," Matt turns to the group, "360s." Then, he throws one. I suck in hard. Being able to nonchalantly toss a 360-the "3," the helicopter-has been a dream since I was 13.

Here's the difference between being 13 and 36: A 13-year-old doesn't need much advice, or urging, before he'll try a trick-and nail it soon enough. To be young is to be gifted with all the benefits of a fully formed inner ear, yet still unburdened by causality and consequence, and by the horrible knowledge of the brittleness of the mortal coil. And so monkey see, monkey do. When Matt addresses me, however, I can see the tumblers in his head turning. He knows he must explain. He must assure. Or barring that, he must cajole me to "sack up," as the kids say.

The mix works. After some wobbly attempts, I throw one. Then another. I am stoked.

Other pearls of wisdom from the instructors begin to pile up. Some are more useful than others. Such as: "Commitment is the essence of progression. If you come in at 95 percent of commitment you're gonna get 95 percent of the trick done. That's gonna get you hurt."

[pagebreak]

And: "If you have a big impact, land with your feet apart"-here Matt taps his teeth-"it'll help you keep the grille." And: "One-eighties impress the little kids. Three-sixties impress your friends. But 540s get the ladies."

Memorable advice isn't the only thing piling up. By the second afternoon I've fallen more than I have in my previous five years on snow. Even my contusions have abrasions. While the rest of the campers head off to wakeboard or mountain bike, I limp to the store and drop $75 on a pair of "impact shorts"-picture an old woman's girdle armored with nine pads on hipbones, thighs, coccyx. Back at the hotel my cartoonishly large, white bottle of ibuprofen waits for my return like a lover. I dive for it.

Tuesday night at Sushi Village. After the tuna poke and teriyaki comes a weekly tradition: the wasabi-eating contest. Beside me sits the previous session's champ, Rob, who so dominated last week that the coaches have decreed that he must eat double whatever the challenger ingests. Five boys line up, and the coaches place before them angry little balls of green of increasing size. One by one the challengers drop out, sweating.

By the fifth round the mound of wasabi is as plump as a ping-pong ball. A boy named Spencer gulps, gags and barfs into a pitcher. Campers and coaches cheer. To best the prevailing challenger, Rob has to eat more than a baseball-size gob of wasabi. He quickly knuckles. Camp has a new wasabi king-Ryan, a 17-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., who is also one of the best skiers and who, for his considerable impending GI distress, wins...a pair of ski poles.

I return to the hotel that evening after a beer and step out of the stairwell to find a young boy waiting for the elevator. He is covered in shaving cream, grinning widely through his braces.

The days proceed under a sort of Newton's Third Law of Ski School-every modest success is followed by an equal and nearly opposite ignominy. On the fourth day I learn to slide off that baby rail and land switch, only to move to the steeper, longer rail and scissor across it. The coaches rush forward, expecting to have to radio for an evac. Amazingly, only my ego is hammered.I follow a crisp run down the pipe with a crash and what feels like a minor concussion. My shirt rides up and the snow grates a raspberry across my lumbar.

When we move to the bigger kicker, my 360 abandons me entirely. I jump. Crash. Hike back up. Jump. Crash. The instructors stand over me like doctors examining a patient exhibiting some disease they've only seen in textbooks. "Your commitment is there; your axis has gone to hell," says Matt. Try to cock the hammer more, says another. Crash. Try cocking the hammer less, advises another. Crash. Take off at more of an angle, says Matt. Crash.

Finally, he stops the carnage, and offers some advice I'm pretty sure the other campers don't get. "You need," he says, "to go and have a few whiskeys and forget about this afternoon." It occurs to me later that Coach might be talking to himself.

As the week marches on, the spirit is willing but the flesh is purple. I'm getting better; I'm also getting battered. Each morning I lie in bed and take inventory of what doesn't ache. It's a short list. The welts on my hips have bloomed into asullen, meat-pie color. I've sprained my wrist. I buy Lilliputian poles that reach to my pockets, only to land on one in the halfpipe the next day, breaking it. Late in the week, again trying the 360, I crash hard; something tears in my hip that won't heal even a month later.

This isn't so rare. One day I watch asa guy dislocates his shoulder in the pipe; his arm dangles like a monkey's. A girl in the hotel walks by with a takeout box of baked ziti and a bottle of codeine for her compressed vertebra. The wasabi king's cute girlfriend tries to do something called a Tame Dog off the dance floor and mashes her pelvis so badly that she's carted off to the hospital. Fewer kids appear on time each day for breakfast. I'm there, though, gulping coffee in my protective girdle.

Maybe it's this sheer stick-to-itiveness, or respect for the deep well of masochism from which they've seen this Methuselean creature drink all week, that finally breaks down the other campers. They begin to talk to me, treat me almost like an equal. We talk tricks. We talk about what to do after skiing. It feels good.

I'm no rock star by camp's end, but comfortable enough in the pipe to doa clunky Alley Ooop (a reverse spin) anda passable mute grab off a hip jump, and I've learned how to glide off a modest jump and land switch. I've learned to use the word "session" as a verb. True, my 360 still looks like a tornado touching down-but I actually want to pull on the girdle and practice it.

And more than anything, that's the only change that mattered: Skiing and I are truly, madly, deeply in love again. As I sit here in midsummer, sweating, winter is still five months away, and my heart aches to be with her.

Then again, after the 96 ibuprofen I ingested last week, that ache could just be my organs shutting down.

ture an old woman's girdle armored with nine pads on hipbones, thighs, coccyx. Back at the hotel my cartoonishly large, white bottle of ibuprofen waits for my return like a lover. I dive for it.

Tuesday night at Sushi Village. After the tuna poke and teriyaki comes a weekly tradition: the wasabi-eating contest. Beside me sits the previous session's champ, Rob, who so dominated last week that the coaches have decreed that he must eat double whatever the challenger ingests. Five boys line up, and the coaches place before them angry little balls of green of increasing size. One by one the challengers drop out, sweating.

By the fifth round the mound of wasabi is as plump as a ping-pong ball. A boy named Spencer gulps, gags and barfs into a pitcher. Campers and coaches cheer. To best the prevailing challenger, Rob has to eat more than a baseball-size gob of wasabi. He quickly knuckles. Camp has a new wasabi king-Ryan, a 17-year-old from Kelowna, B.C., who is also one of the best skiers and who, for his considerable impending GI distress, wins...a pair of ski poles.

I return to the hotel that evening after a beer and step out of the stairwell to find a young boy waiting for the elevator. He is covered in shaving cream, grinning widely through his braces.

The days proceed under a sort of Newton's Third Law of Ski School-every modest success is followed by an equal and nearly opposite ignominy. On the fourth day I learn to slide off that baby rail and land switch, only to move to the steeper, longer rail and scissor across it. The coaches rush forward, expecting to have to radio for an evac. Amazingly, only my ego is hammered.I follow a crisp run down the pipe with a crash and what feels like a minor concussion. My shirt rides up and the snow grates a raspberry across my lumbar.

When we move to the bigger kicker, my 360 abandons me entirely. I jump. Crash. Hike back up. Jump. Crash. The instructors stand over me like doctors examining a patient exhibiting some disease they've only seen in textbooks. "Your commitment is there; your axis has gone to hell," says Matt. Try to cock the hammer more, says another. Crash. Try cocking the hammer less, advises another. Crash. Take off at more of an angle, says Matt. Crash.

Finally, he stops the carnage, and offers some advice I'm pretty sure the other campers don't get. "You need," he says, "to go and have a few whiskeys and forget about this afternoon." It occurs to me later that Coach might be talking to himself.

As the week marches on, the spirit is willing but the flesh is purple. I'm getting better; I'm also getting battered. Each morning I lie in bed and take inventory of what doesn't ache. It's a short list. The welts on my hips have bloomed into asullen, meat-pie color. I've sprained my wrist. I buy Lilliputian poles that reach to my pockets, only to land on one in the halfpipe the next day, breaking it. Late in the week, again trying the 360, I crash hard; something tears in my hip that won't heal even a month later.

This isn't so rare. One day I watch asa guy dislocates his shoulder in the pipe; his arm dangles like a monkey's. A girl in the hotel walks by with a takeout box of baked ziti and a bottle of codeine for her compressed vertebra. The wasabi king's cute girlfriend tries to do something called a Tame Dog off the dance floor and mashes her pelvis so badly that she's carted off to the hospital. Fewer kids appear on time each day for breakfast. I'm there, though, gulping coffee in my protective girdle.

Maybe it's this sheer stick-to-itiveness, or respect for the deep well of masochism from which they've seen this Methuselean creature drink all week, that finally breaks down the other campers. They begin to talk to me, treat me almost like an equal. We talk tricks. We talk about what to do after skiing. It feels good.

I'm no rock star by camp's end, but comfortable enough in the pipe to doa clunky Alley Oop (a reverse spin) anda passable mute grab off a hip jump, and I've learned how to glide off a modest jump and land switch. I've learned to use the word "session" as a verb. True, my 360 still looks like a tornado touching down-but I actually want to pull on the girdle and practice it.

And more than anything, that's the only change that mattered: Skiing and I are truly, madly, deeply in love again. As I sit here in midsummer, sweating, winter is still five months away, and my heart aches to be with her.

Then again, after the 96 ibuprofen I ingested last week, that ache could just be my organs shutting down.

unky Alley Oop (a reverse spin) anda passable mute grab off a hip jump, and I've learned how to glide off a modest jump and land switch. I've learned to use the word "session" as a verb. True, my 360 still looks like a tornado touching down-but I actually want to pull on the girdle and practice it.

And more than anything, that's the only change that mattered: Skiing and I are truly, madly, deeply in love again. As I sit here in midsummer, sweating, winter is still five months away, and my heart aches to be with her.

Then again, after the 96 ibuprofen I ingested last week, that ache could just be my organs shutting down.

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