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As I recall, I’d leap out of bed before dawn and into my snow gear, energized by the crisp morning air and the anticipation of a day skiing with Dad. I’d relish our two-hour drives up I-70, our 1989 Volkswagen Westfalia chugging along to the rhythms of Carlos Santana. I’d scout the hills as Dad pointed out old mines and bighorn sheep. Then we’d arrive at Winter Park or Copper Mountain and make gleeful turns together, first chair to last. Yep, that’s the way I remember it.
In Dad’s memory, it’s slightly different. I’d burrow under the covers and plead for a few more minutes of sleep, whine about bitter temperatures, protest his “old-people” music in the van and wonder what was so spectacular about the long-abandoned silver mines, anyway. After we hit the hill, it didn’t get any easier for him: I’d complain that my boots were too tight, my hands too cold, my goggles too fogged, the run too steep, the moguls too big.
But Dad suffered it all gladly, understanding that discomfort and diggers are yardsticks by which true skiers measure their craft. Enduring them makes the skier more committed and the skiing more rewarding.
“If you never fall, you’re not pushing yourself,” he assured me. “If your boots don’t hurt, they don’t fit.” I responded with the requisite adolescent cynicism—a melodramatic eye roll—yet deep down, I knew that my father knew best. In my 10-year-old, tomboy eyes, he was a superhero who took me off-piste to earn my turns. Despite my outward resistance, I cherished his commitment to skiing with me, and tried hard to be worthy of it.
When I had mastered the lift-accessed steeps, he insisted I was ready for more. That’s how I found myself quaking atop a pitch of rock and ice on Breckenridge’s Peak 9 Chutes. Dad let me stand at the summit long enough to catch my breath from the long hike up and utter a few words of protest. “I can’t ski like you,” I insisted. “I can’t get down this.” Dad’s eyes softened a bit without betraying his tough love. “You don’t need to ski like me,” he said. “You just need to ski.” Then he gave me a gentle nudge. I tipped immediately and slid down the first 30 feet on my face. Stunned and frustrated, I got to my feet, cleared my bindings and my braces of snow and looked up to see Dad grinning slyly. Pouting wasn’t an option, and it wouldn’t accomplish anything anyway. I understood this was Dad’s way of saying, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Even when my friends’ fathers had long since retired to weekends on the couch, playing armchair quarterback, mine was still tearing up the back bowls and piloting airplanes, pedaling his bike on 800-mile road races and heliskiing in Alaska. But at 16, spending weekends with Dad was simply uncool. His doting lost its charm. The tomboy in me gave way to boy craze, and I rejected Dad’s weekend invitations in favor of more important social status-affirming engagements. The bond we had shared through years of skiing weakened. What’s worse, when I stopped skiing, he did too.
Four years of college in the flatlands of Missouri provided perspective. I missed the mountains and being in them with Dad, so I rushed home after graduation set on reviving our daddy-daughter weekends. But while I was away, his super powers had atrophied. Disheartened, I wanted to reprimand him for settling in front of the TV for Sunday ball games, and I was hurt that he didn’t leap off the sofa when I invited him to go skiing. I might have grown up, but I still needed my Dad to take me skiing. Then I had a sinking realization. Maybe my teenage rejection had clipped Dad’s wings. Maybe I was to blame for getting him off the hill and onto the couch. Maybe he needed me to take him skiing.
So I began to do the early morning nudging, and he was the one burrowing under the covers and pleading for a few more minutes of sleep. I kept on him, pushing a little more every few weeks until I finally got him on the hill. Every season he struggles a bit to get his ski legs back under him, and I can tell he’s frustrated by his labored breathing and uneven turn transitions on terrain he once conquered effortlessly. “Man, I just can’t ski like I used to,” he says, sounding defeated. “Dad, you don’t need to ski like you used to,” I remind him. “You just need to ski.”