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Dads May Teach Us How to Ski, But It’s Moms Who Teach Us Why

Much has been written about the dads who introduce us to skiing, but it's often the moms who make sure we're hooked for life.

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Most coming-of-age narratives in the world of skiing center on the men who physically push and pull us down the slopes.

My own does, or rather, did, until I examined my relationship with skiing more closely. Sure, my dad taught me how to ski. He’s the one who spent hours building a snow mound big enough to slide down in our backyard before I was big enough to practice sliding down the bunny hill. He carefully steered me down the mountain when I was still attached to him via a harness and leash. He held me between his knees on my first T-Bar rides. He’s the one who taught me how to pizza, french fry, ski parallel, and spray my brothers with a hockey stop.

My mom, though—she’s the one who gave skiing meaning and purpose. (She’s also the one who captured everything on film).

Mom didn’t grow up skiing. In fact, she didn’t click into a pair of skis until she was a teenager at New York’s Greek Peak. Despite the gray skies, below-zero temps, heinous windchill, and icy slopes, she took to skiing immediately. Or rather, she immediately took to the hot Italian sausage and pepper sandwiches served in the lodge.

Related: I learned to ski at 29. Here’s what it taught me

From that day forward, skiing for her was inextricably linked with escaping the doldrums of an Upstate winter, having fun with friends, and finding adventure (and good food) in the mountains.

Two decades later, when my mom and dad started a family in Germany and it came time to teach my brothers and me how to ski, my dad took the literal reins; but it was mom who showed us why it’s worth bundling up in too many itchy layers, clomping around in uncomfortable ski boots, and freezing our unmentionables off.

The Point of Skiing (According to Mom)

Skiing is leisure, not sport (and definitely not competition)

There are a couple of factors that predispose me to taking skiing way too seriously. For one, my dad was a professional ski instructor. Skiing was his job—nay, calling—and getting better at skiing was critical to his professional development. Secondly, I’m 75 percent German (by heritage), and I don’t think I have to explain that Germans take most things too seriously. Lastly, I’m the middle child and only girl sandwiched between two boys. Skiing was the one activity all of us had in common, and as such, it became grounds for competition.

So thank goodness for my mom, who wholeheartedly embraced the European idea of skiing and passed that on to me by osmosis.

Mom relaxing on ski slopes
The author’s mom enjoys a moment in the sun on the Zugspitze glacier in Germany, circa 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of Phyllis Keely)

Through skiing in Europe, she learned that skiing is not a sport one does to burn calories, get fit, or compete with others. It’s a leisure activity in which you’re supposed to enjoy making long, sweeping turns down cruisy groomers. You ski fast enough to feel the freedom of gravity but slow enough to hear the swish of snow off your ski’s tails. There is no rush to beat others to the lift, no powder panic because skiing groomed corduroy is effortless and fun in and of itself, and no pressure to one-up others with vertical feet skied or fastest speeds clocked. When you get thirsty or hungry or tired, you stop and enjoy a Bloody Mary (which takes care of all three), even if it’s 10 a.m. and you’ve only skied three runs.

Now, when I’m sitting in soul-crushing traffic on Colorado’s I-70 on the way to the resort, or I feel my anxiety levels rising on a powder day because everyone around me is frothing at the mouth for first tracks and rope drops, or my ski partners want to squeeze in two more laps in hike-to terrain before we can stop for water, I think of mom. Skiing is supposed to be fun, not forced.

Skiing is adventure

Raising a ski family is not easy. It’s expensive, and between getting the kids dressed in all their layers, schlepping them and all their gear to the resort, and dealing with the tears and temper tantrums along the way, it’s more than a hassle—it’s exhausting.

My dad tried to maximize the fun-to-hard-work ratio of family ski days by staying local and skiing at our home hills. My mom had other ideas. What was the point of living in Europe, after all, if the kids didn’t get to experience skiing in Austria, Italy, France, and Switzerland?

Skier on the slopes in Europe
Skiing is about taking your time and enjoying adventure. And about stopping to take some pictures.  (Photo: Courtesy of Phyllis Keely)

We were not rich, and my brothers and I often got car sick, but that did not deter my mom. Against all of our grumbling (Dad’s included), she would stay up all night to pack our minivan to the gills, then drive us hours to ski Tignes in France, the Sella Ronda in the Dolomites, and St. Anton in Austria.

What I remember from those trips—aside from the meltdowns, fights, and the times I puked in the car—is a sense of adventure and exploration. I didn’t know what was around the bend of those unfamiliar slopes, or where that new chairlift would take me. When you’re a kid, your world is small. I knew the streets around my house and the slopes of my home hill like the back of my hand. Those ski trips my mom went to such great lengths to orchestrate gave us the chance to explore the unknown and discover new horizons on our own two skis.

Skiing is family bonding (in all its glory)

As I said, mom doesn’t believe that skiing should be forced—unless it’s a Forced Family Fun day, which was basically every Sunday of my childhood. Then we were all going skiing, whether we liked it or not. And there was a period when I didn’t want to go skiing, when I would have rather skipped FFF to hang out with friends or simply sleep in.

But my mom was adamant about getting the whole family out on the slopes, even when all signs pointed to “you should stay in bed today.” Like the time we planned to ski right after Easter Sunday service and showed up to church in our ski clothes, only to walk up the steps as people began streaming out. Service was over—we had forgotten about daylight saving. Or the time we got to the ski hill and we couldn’t find my hat, my younger brother’s mittens, or my older brother’s ski pants. Tyler skied with socks on his hands, Chip made do with his sweatpants, and I wore a neck gaiter as a headband that day.

Skiing family eating lunch on the slopes
The author’s family enjoys some family bonding on a Forced Family Fun day on the slopes, circa 1995. (Photo: Courtesy of Phyllis Keely)

In the end, it was (mostly) always worth it. I have such fond memories of those family ski days, most of which have little to do with skiing itself. I remember our sunny picnics off the side of the runs, when mom would whip out a charcute-ski (that’s a charcuterie spread served on a ski) before it was even cutesy; I remember playing cards and Yahtzee in the lodges during ski breaks; and I remember long, chilly chairlift rides, when mom would entertain us with games of ‘Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?’ and stories of her childhood.

Skiing was only part of the fun. Spending time as a family was the best part.

My mom and I now both live in Colorado and we try to ski together as much as possible. She skis slower than me, doesn’t seek out powder, and likes to keep to groomed terrain. So when we ski together nowadays, she’s always afraid she’s holding me back.

She doesn’t realize that I like taking my time. She doesn’t realize that skiing with her reminds me what skiing is all about.

I credit my dad for making me a good skier and instilling a passion for the sport, but I credit my mom for opening my eyes to the whole point of skiing.


More Essays on Skiing

Why dads the world over hate Warren Miller
I thought I knew how to ski; then I raised three ski racers
Mediocrity is my goal as a skier, and it should be yours too