Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ski Trip

It's so sunny and warm in Sunnyvale right now that it's hard to wrest myself back into ski-snow mode. But we were up in the Sierras skiing and snowing less than a week ago. It seems like an old memory now, but one of my favorites.

We left Thursday afternoon/evening in an attempt to avoid most Bay Area traffic, knowing we'd have to find our rental place in the dark. The idea was that we could then spend Friday getting our bearings, figuring out where the ski resort its ski school were, and, of course, do some snow playing.

Dinner on the way was at the boys' new favorite.

Our place was adorable and comfortable, and the kind landlords left the gas fireplace on and a bottle of wine ready for us when we arrived. We felt right at home. In the morning, we found a fabulous view of the lake from the main window.

The steps to the basement where the kids' bunk beds were had a serious overhang though. Even Gabriel had to duck.

And so, Katrina got to see snow for the first time Friday morning. She loved it.

All 3 played in the snow in the morning, while I organized their ski stuff. It was a good shake-out of their gear, the first time we'd put everything together. For instance, the sportpants I'd gotten the boys as a "base layer" had buttons at the ankles, I discovered -- no good in ski boots. Instead, Gabriel's pajamas (cotton thermals) had to do as their base layers.

After some morning snowplay and a late-breakfast supplement of pancakes and apples, we piled into the car and went to find Sugarbowl. I'm glad we did, because we had some false starts and confusions, but eventually found the children's center. It was closed, so our plan of getting the kids' rental gear today was shot.

We went on to the main lodge, and then I made a snap decision: how about me and the boys try to ski today? Maybe the boys can get a head-start on ski school tomorrow. There was a package that included rental, lift ticket, and a 2-hour general-admission no-reservation lesson, all ages, all levels. Sold.

The kids' lessons, however, was only for 4-and-up. Katrina was outraged and Dave had to hoist her on his shoulder, kicking and SCREAMING, and I mean SCREAMING, back to the car. I wasn't at all sorry to see her go, but I was sorry to hear later about what a miserable afternoon she put Dave through.

We were like the Three Stooges trying to get our rentals, ski gear, and things together. We were almost ready when I realized I'd put the boys' mittens in the ski check. It took an hour and a half, but somehow we trudged our way to the 1pm lesson, clumsy in our boots and the boys struggling to carry their skis. I later learned that the walk from the rentals to the lesson area was by far the longest we'd ever have to make, and I grew to despise it. I was starting to feel grumpy about the huge hassle, and was really bummed when I found that my camera battery needed replacing. If I get anything out of this, it's got to be pictures!

Just as I got the boys settled into their lessons (by age and ability), a panicked thought suddenly struck me: "Oh sh*t: LUNCH!!" They never had lunch.

My first skiing in roughly 20 years was a few meters down to catch my Level 1 lesson on the bunny hill. The instructor took one look at me and said, "You're not Level 1." Turns out some of what little previous skiing I've done stuck with me, but I got a lot out of the lesson and was glad I'd started there. The instructor told me to join a Level 3 lesson the next day.

Meantime, it had gotten dark and had started to snow. Then it started to really snow. I ditched my lesson briefly to go get a balaclava (and the camera battery), and came back to find my skis nearly buried by fresh, light, fluffy snow. I hear this is a good thing, but it sure made moving around difficult.

Visibility had plummeted -- from the lift, I could barely make out the boys' lessons below. (I think this is Gabriel.)

I was a little worried about Julian: his goggles were too big and it seemed his mittens kept falling off. Gabriel being Gabriel, I never worry about him.

When our lesson groups intersected on the lift line (which was often; it's a short hill and the lift takes less than 3 minutes), the boys both seemed like they were having a great time, despite the wind driving snow down their necks, and piles of snow collecting in their hoods.

(the boys are in red, next to each other, on the left)

After their lesson, I figured they'd be way past done, but to my surprise, even Julian insisted on skiing some more. So I took them up the lift, heeding their new expertise: "chase the chair!" They learned a lot in that first lesson, enough to both basically go down the slope, though pushing through the fresh snow was really a challenge.

By now it had snowed long enough that we were in, apparently, the skiier's dream. Deep, fresh snow -- "free refills," as described by my ski instructor. That means by the time you get back to the same place, your tracks have been filled in. That's exactly what was happening. Only it's a lot harder to ski when it's such a slight slope and you have no poles to push you through. Julian practically had to walk down the hill.

Meantime, Gabriel was -- hmm, where was he? Oh, up there! As I was helping Julian, I'd look up and see Gabriel, back up the lift by himself.

When we'd pushed well past sanity, the boys really were done. Both their hands were so cold, Julian couldn't carry his skis and Gabriel had a moment of near-tears. I had to carry my skis and poles and Julian's skis allllll the way back to the rentals, the boots tearing into my shins. Julian then tumbled down the steps, unused to the boots. Their clothes and jackets were soaked through, they were cold, tired, and very very hungry.

I gave Julian my jacket while I called Dave to come get us, not sure my cell phone would get through to him. He'd lost the car keys for a while, and was in a state of panic that he'd dropped them and they were buried in snow, but fortunately they'd gotten buried under my regular jacket -- which I was very glad to see -- on the front seat of the car.

It was snowing hard. I'm not new to snow; I did live in Rochester NY for 6 years, so I know: it was really snowing. Dave was in a rare state of driving agitation about cars all over the road, chain controls on the highway, very very poor visibility and roads that, even if they'd been plowed, were getting "free refills" at an alarming rate. It was beautiful, but sort of scary too. People die getting lost in conditions like this.

That very morning, I'd been congratulating myself on moving our accommodations from a condo right in the resort, to a separate dwelling with some yard space. How hard is it to drive home 5 miles?


We made it safely, as I expected with Dave driving. Right away the hungry boys got -- what else when you're wet and cold and hungry: peas! Peas?! Actually, they loved it and ate almost a whole bag, poor things. Almost every stitch of clothing they'd been wearing went into the dryer.

I made hot chocolate too. Katrina is always happy about that (video taken next day).

So much for our lake view!

But it was fascinating to see the snow from the safety of our cozy place.

The next morning was sunny and clear and stunningly beautiful. This is not a vista point, this is just out the living room window.

It took a lot more shoveling to clear the steps, and a lot of time to de-ice the car so the doors could open. Somehow, still, we managed to get the kids' rentals and to ski school in time, about 8:30. Dave was able to join a 10am Level 1 lesson in progress, but the Level 3 lesson had already left for the intermediate slope. (That's Dave in the snowboarder-dude white-and-black rented jacket.)

I hung out on the bunny hill and got a few photos of the boys' lessons. In Gabriel's lesson, one kid needed to hold a pole the instructor used to hold him back...hmm. Gabriel's no expert, but he doesn't need a pole.

Meantime, Julian's class plowed by. (That's Gabriel's instructor in the yellow jacket behind Julian, holding an orange pole with a kid clinging to it, with Gabriel waiting above in the red-and-black jacket.)

Gabriel had to adjust to the smooth snow; his only skiing had been in yesterday's snowy soup that really slowed us all down.

But what an improvement he makes in two days of ski school.

I also snuck a peek at the Sugar Bears, the 3-4 group. Those kids start off in a small enclosure on a very very gentle slope. Katrina was not happy, and I saw her crying and even start to cry for Mommy -- which made me think she'd seen me. So I employed my highly developed protective maternal instincts and left.

Truth is, every sitter and daycare provider and teacher will tell you that parents hanging around is a big hindrance, so I figured I'd make it easier on Katrina's teacher and make myself scarce.

Besides, I had some skiing to do. Fed up with long lift lines on the bunny hill, I braved the next-easiest lift (Jerome), and was richly rewarded with lovely views at the top.

Notice the snowboarder sitting on his butt. Snowboarders spend an inordinate amount of time sitting on their rear ends. Much of the rest of it is spent with their faces planted in the snow. What little remains there is spent buzzing slow, predictable, beginner skiiers on an easy slope.

I took a Level 3 lesson in the afternoon, while Dave took another lesson, Level 2 this time, having graduated from learning to side-step and put his skis on. So many people showed up for my lesson that after they took us up the same lift I'd braved in the morning, they did a quick eval on us at the top. They had us ski down one at a time a short way (about 50 meters) to see how we turned, then split us up into two groups. Naturally, I was in the group that didn't know how to turn.

One guy I'd chatted with on the lift had immediately intimidated me with easy talk of lengths of skis in millimeters. I figured he must know what he's doing, so I was surprised when he took off his skis and started walking down the slope for his eval. Turns out, he was so rusty at skiing, he couldn't even make it down that short way. The instructor told him never ever to walk on a slope, put your skis back on, and we'll help you get down. Nope, he couldn't even do that. He had to wait for another instructor, but all the new instructor could do was call ski patrol. (My lesson was going slowly, with a lot of talking, so we got to watch this whole drama unfold.) After quite some time, we saw ski patrol arrive and try to coach him down. Finally, we saw our "Level 3" classmate going down in a toboggan towed by an irritated ski patrol.

Actually, I was told later, and agree, that the whole incident was the fault of the first instructor. He should have eval'd the whole group on the bunny hill first, as did my instructor the next day, to catch people who vastly overestimate their ability. Heck, I was rusty too -- that's why I started in a Level 1 lesson.

Dave was really tired after his afternoon Level 2 lesson, which also took his group off the bunny hill without any evaluation first. The boys had stayed on the bunny hill the whole day, but both had had a great time, and had been promoted to Level 2. Katrina...well, she resists new things on principle.

I could see why the advice to take ski school 2 days in a row was so valuable. We were now in the groove -- even Julian's mittens stayed on today -- and were ready to sink it in the next day.

This is the view on the drive home (Donner Lake). I was moved to tears. I've been on this road before and in this area before many times, on my motorcycle, but never in winter. I can't believe this paradise has been here all along and I've never seen it.

The next morning went much more smoothly (if you don't count our one toilet overflowing during the night and a nail-biter hoping the kids only had liquids to release) (it was fixed quickly while we were gone), and we all got to our morning lessons. Dave took another Level 2 lesson that stayed on the bunny hill, and my Level 3 lesson went to the same intermediate (though among the easiest) hills, and my confidence was growing. I wondered if Gabriel would make it off the bunny hill today.

So I was pretty surprised when I ran into Julian's class on the lift line! His teacher said this was their 2nd time up, and he was doing great. She'd ski backward in an 'S' and coach him as he snowplowed in her track. I was impressed, and a little surprised, at how hard he tried and how ... well, determined he was. I don't use that word often with Julian, but he really was.

That's him on the left, with the yellow helmet. He was having a lot of fun too, giggling and joking around.

Dave and I had lunch -- I hated the lines and crowds in the lodge for the overpriced junk food -- and then tried to ski together for our last afternoon. But with the afternoon lessons in progress, the lift line on the bunny hill was about 20 minutes, when the lift itself was under 3 minutes and the ski down about 30 seconds. I tried to convince Dave to try the intermediate slope with me, but he'd had a good lesson that morning and wanted to practice.

So did I. I had to sink in my new skills before it evaporated from my head. Back up Jerome it was, from where I could explore other routes. Actually, skiing alone had its benefits -- I really enjoyed chatting with people on the lifts, and found that many couples have to ski apart because of split ability.

I ran into Julian's class again, this time on the intermediate part of the slope. He was doing great.

I was pretty annoyed when a snowboarder shooshed right behind him, startling him so that he fell, and then the snowboard stopped inches from Julian's helmet. "What the hell was that?!" I said to Julian's instructor. She said they get a lot of complaints about the snowboarders on this huge, wide beginning slope. What, the dude's so cool he has to buzz a 6-year-old with an instructor in front of him? I also got buzzed a few times during my lesson. I can't stand those guys.

Though it was warming up and the snow was getting heavier and harder to handle, I had to go to the top. Just the lift itself was pretty stunning to me, though I know they can get a lot longer and higher. I was treated to some fabulous views at the top of Mount Lincoln.

(Steph, I'm wearing a pair of size 10 Bogner ski pants that you got at a ski-swap place in Colorado in 1990! They're ancient!)

I'd made sure that there was a "blue square" way down, but had been warned it was steep at the very top. To me, this looks like a vertical precipice.

This part turned out to be too short to be a real problem, but a later slope, that I'd been told was easy, I'd have avoided if I'd had the choice. It looked pretty darn steep to me.

My plan had been to snowplow down anything I didn't think I could actually ski, but quickly learned the fallacy in that idea. Snowplow turning is slooow; you spend so much time pointed down the "fall line" (straight down) that you quickly pick up speed. I was going to have to ski it. I tracked across the slope as perpendicular as I could, then turned as fast as I could at the last minute to traverse to the other side, and switchbacked my way down in one piece.

I've since been told that the way to approach this is to prepare several meters before your turn, so that you can snap right into it. But I made it, I didn't fall and didn't freak myself out too badly. I wish I'd had had time to do it again.

This 3" diameter bruise on the back of my calf (turned black in a day) says it all about my "technique." You're not supposed to have any pressure on the back of your leg!

I was out of time to ski on my own; ski school pickup is at 3:30. And I had a date: I'd promised to take Gabriel down if he made it to the intermediate slope today. And he had, and then some. I'd run into his lesson after lunch, and his teacher had said he could easily handle the intermediate lift where my class had been, that he likes to go fast and likes bumps. She said, "he's a racer, but needs to be reminded to turn." So, we went up.

First priority: video! This is at the top, where it's not as steep as toward the bottom. (This is also exactly where my lame classmate the day before had walked down, on the left.)

I couldn't catch him after I put my camera away, so we went back up one more time, and skiied down together. Sort of. At the top (where I'd taken the video), I could easily keep up with him. But toward the bottom, where it gets steeper, he lost me handily. I concentrated hard on not losing control in the increasingly slushy snow, knowing I was tired and distracted by bursting pride at how courageous my son is -- and just a little annoyed that I hadn't a chance of catching him.

But I met my safety goal, and made it down with no emergencies, even if my 8-year-old -- who had only seen snow once before in his life -- creamed me. Years of motorcycling and the developed judgement that comes with that played a large role in my skiing. It takes a long time to learn to put ego behind safety, as the snowboarders clearly demonstrated.

I wanted so much to have a fun excited catch-up with the boys in the car on the way home, but another major Katrina tantrum put a quick stop to that. I was so frustrated that I couldn't happily gush with the boys about our great ski day, instead listening to a litany of things that Katrina claim loudly she hated ("I HATE green cars....I HATE snow...I HATE sneakers...!"). The boys, as usual, are much better-natured about this than I am.

She had more than her share of pill-y moments on this trip. I gritted my teeth and reminded myself that the toddler years are almost over, but they will not be my fondest memories of child-raising.

I resurrected a very fond childhood memory of mine however: popcorn and hot chocolate!

Katrina wasn't done with snow though, and the time change gave her some extra light. After the hot chocolate, she insisted on putting all her snow stuff back on, climbing up this bank, and "sliding" down.

She did much much better the 2nd day of ski school, but I wasn't about to waste any precious ski time hiking over to the children's center in ski boots, even to get a picture.

I'd sort of thought to do something snow-related Monday morning before we drove home, but didn't want to deal with a bunch of wet gear. Julian had said he wanted to see Lake Tahoe, and since we were in Truckee and had some time, that was a capital idea. So we drove down the west side of Lake Tahoe, catching some stunning views of Emerald Bay.

We had lunch at Camp Richardson, with views of the lake, then made our way down Hwy 50 to home. By Placerville, it was 70 degrees. Katrina had another tantrum when the snow disappeared, she wanted us to put the snow back.

How is it possible that I've never completely connected how much I love the mountains? I knew that as a motorcyclist; I went on many, many rides in the summer and absolutely loved being there. I love the view, the earthy smells, the tall trees, the reddish dirt, the starkness of it all. But now that I've discovered winter, it's a big "ah-hah" and "duh" moment all at once: I absolutely love mountains and especially love the Sierras. I couldn't get enough of the views of hills and sugar pines and snow, though it's not a particular diverse landscape. It's just stunningly beautiful. I really liked Truckee too, what little we saw of it. Makes me wonder: what are we doing in Silicon Valley?

Oh yeah -- I love oceans and warmth and have always been a water-sport person. Employment is a good thing too, and I like all the resources we have here.

But even aside from how much the boys -- and Katrina -- and perhaps even Dave -- enjoyed this trip, I really loved it. And that was with some pretty bad moments: trudging back after the boys' lesson the first day, the overflowing toilet, the terrifying drive back in the snow. Skiing is a big hassle and big expense, but it's more than made up for by the views, the mountains, the physical challenge -- and seeing how much my kids loved it. A night hasn't passed since when I haven't dreamed about snow, being in the mountains, or skiing itself.

Suddenly it seems like a long, long time until next winter. I can't wait to do this again.

March 11-16, 2010

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