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I was 12 when I tried my first form of winter sport: snowshoeing with my eighth grade class in Yosemite. I remember calling it “cold, difficult walking” and wondering if ankles should hurt this badly. When safely back in the cabin, I impersonated Roseanne Conner and yelled “My dogs are barking!” to make my bunkmates laugh but also because I needed to complain loudly without anyone knowing I was exhausted and in a great amount of discomfort. I couldn’t feel my toes, my ears were numb. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to walk the 50 meters to the mess hall for dinner. I stayed away from winter sports for the next 27 years — being a Black girl growing up in sunny California didn’t make it difficult.
Some years later, I was pursuing a Master’s Degree in France when it happened — skiing snuck up on me like an ice patch underneath a thin layer of fresh powder.
Word got to me about a university-sponsored ski trip for my program. Intriguing. It was to be two days split between the French and Swiss Alps. Scenically intriguing. Travel, accommodation, food, gear, lifts, and instruction were all covered by my student fees. Peak intrigue! I would have been foolish not to go. Skiing for the first time at 29 taught me more than a few lessons; I’ll share the most salient with you.
1. The Power of Peer Pressure
Never underestimate the presence of other people — complete strangers! — in making you do things you never thought you’d do. Snow bunnies, skin-leathered regulars, and gaggles of multilingual children surrounding you can be the unwanted motivation you never knew you needed. If you’re wondering if they’re all watching you, the answer is yes. They’re waiting for you to go down that slope so that they can, too. The more advanced skiers (aka everybody) are also watching to make sure they don’t run into you. You will want to give them what they need, which is you moving downward. So let the man with the thick accent and sunscreen slathered nose push you down that hill! YOLO! (Yeaux leaux, if you’re skiing in France.)
2. Panic, Jealousy, Fear, Elation…Repeat
If you’re anything like me, you’ll be horrible the first time. But, being horrible isn’t that bad. I found that I experienced cyclical emotions. Panic at attempting something so blatantly treacherous, jealousy at everyone who was effortlessly gliding across nature’s bountiful beauty, fear at an impending fall, elation at the realization I was SKIING (!) even when I was falling. Then I would get up and panic again — but a little further down the hill and a little less certain of my demise than moments before. This cycle is present in numerous other areas of my life, but the slopes reminded me that sticking with it is the only way to transform that impending doom into pure joy.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Fall
It might hurt, but not as bad as you fear. Just try not to fall into another person or off a ledge. When you’re an extreme beginner, falling is realistically the fastest way to get down that hill. Not only did I cover three times the terrain five times as fast, but I also became a pro at learning how to fall and get up in my skis, how not to panic when the skis detached from my boot, and how to signal others to stop a runaway ski. The more I fell, the less I feared it, and then, in time, the less I fell.
4. Try Not to Think
You’re going to be your own worst enemy. Think less about how incredibly terrified you are and think more about just being a person on a mountain. Let physics and the glory of human ingenuity do the heavy lifting. I ended up getting on a blue trail that first day after about three hours of instruction. I was absolutely terrified then proud of being there. Just like playing sports when I was young, my body knew more and could perform better if I just left my pesky mind out of it. You might not know how to ski, but your body knows it wants to preserve itself best it knows how.
5. Don’t Worry About the Kids
Small children, toddlers even, will be skiing circles around you. They will be very good. You will not like them and then you will not like yourself for not liking them. Their squeals of glee will infuriate you while they echo through the mountains. You’ll see the ease with which they maneuver and you’ll remember they don’t even pay taxes. I have no additional advice here, I just want to warn you. They’re out there in droves, they can carve, and they’re not concerned with your fragile ego.
6. Nature Will Remind You What’s What
If I’m completely honest, the main thought that ran through my head those two days was this is a really fast and elaborate way to die. No one in their right mind should do this. Travel down rocky, tree-filled mountains at speeds unknown to man without a machine with nothing but two sticks to guide you? It’s absurd. Absolutely insane, even. But, somehow, as I felt my mortality perch precariously in the balance, I looked around and realized a few things. My lungs were full of remarkably fresh air. I was in nature that could be called ‘magnificent’ and ‘awesome’ without hyperbole. I was participating in an activity that every single soul gliding down that slope with me felt lucky and energized to do. I realized I felt lucky, too. It’s that sense of luck, purity, and magnificence that made me want to do something so absolutely insane again and again.
Nereya Otieno is a writer and co-founder of The Rising Artist Foundation. She focuses on intercultural spaces and the ways music, food, and the arts are forms of storytelling. Currently based in Los Angeles, she has lived and worked in six countries across four continents. Find out more about her at nereyaotieno.com and @felonious_punk on Instagram.