A beginner takes on the talcum-white slopes of Lake Tahoe and learns to take things in her stride.
It takes plenty of falls and plodding around to just go down the beginner’s slope at Lake Tahoe’s Diamond Peak, but the effort is worth it. Photo Courtesy: Zac Smith/Diamond Peak
On the slopes, just do what I told you. And when you get off the chair, remember you’re Supergirl,” says Jan, my ski instructor with whom I’ve just finished beginner lessons. Her shift for the day is over, but I’m staying put. It’s been half a grueling day at Diamond Peak in Incline Village, Lake Tahoe, and I’m just about starting to get used to the painful contraptions called ski gear strapped onto my feet. I get back on the chairlift of the practice stretch, finish the loop, and fly like Supergirl when it’s time to get off.
All the skiing footage I’ve ever seen, up until I actually try it, is one, dazzling magic show with the skier on a gigantic slide, gliding effortlessly as plumes of fresh snow fly off the sides, made all the more glamorous with slo-mo effects. So when I get an opportunity to go skiing in Nevada’s Tahoe region, I’m eager to recreate in reality the grandeur of the sport in my head.
As an outdoor person with decent hiking and climbing experience, I assume skiing is going to be a piece of cake. I don’t realise at first that, like any other outdoor sport, what looks effortless is the result of years of practice, dedication, numerous falls and multiple bruises, and sometimes even serious injuries.
The first shocker comes before I even hit the snow—with outfitting. After putting on my down jacket and puffy pants, strapping on a helmet, and feeding my height and weight into a gear payment receipt machine, I am directed to a counter where a adolescent hands me my boots. These turn out to be nearly as heavy as snow boots used in mountaineering; each weighs up to two kilos. The pair of skis that comes next leaves me staggering too. Depending on your body and the brand you use, they can weigh anywhere from four to six kilos.
And then, there’s pinning those boots to the skis. Followed by waddling around like a duck with close to six kilos strapped to your feet, trying to stay steady while also juggling ski poles and goggles. It is remarkable how, with training, this very gear that feels like blocks of cement set around your feet, transforms into the vehicle that makes you fly across snow.
I lug my skis outside to where the action is—in a novice’s case, the beginner’s stretch. “Not so quick”, says Jan, who makes us stop even before the beginner’s patch, which is where all my maiden lessons take place. Before you learn to ski, you have to actually learn to stand in skis. And walk baby steps without falling. And climb up (sideways for better grip) a very minor slope with a gradient only slightly higher than zero.
Worse than falling is getting back on your feet confidently (not possible without help if you’re wearing skis, and not possible on your own until many lessons later) without feeling belittled by the three-year olds zooming past you. I’m in good company though; Michelle, the other learner with me, is from Mexico where it rarely snows. And yet, by the end of the day, we will be skiing down Lodge Pole together, a run that even we didn’t believe we would do.
“Pizza!” shouts Jan as I glide down the beginner’s stretch, having been promoted to it from the practice patch. An actual cheese-laden pizza would have been nice at -10°C, but unfortunately, “pizza” is simply a word for the triangular wedge you form with your feet to come to a stop when careering down a slope. The wider it is, the more effective the stop.
In theory that works very well, except for people like me who have what Jan repeatedly calls a “lazy left leg”. I have to unlearn much of my hiking and climbing habits; unlike using your entire body, skiing is by-and-large a sport of the feet, and keeping the rest of the body still is actually conducive to better form. “Edgy wedgies”—clips that keep the tips of your skis together facilitate this, also helping to keep the tails apart, which makes learning to turn smoother.
Over repeated runs and countless falls off the ski chair I learn to snap off the “alligator mouth” or brake pedal to unlock the ski, stand up and lock it back on. I begin again. And again—stopping at “Red!” and kicking off at “Green!”, and gliding when Jan yells “Yellow”. My prime learnings are that going steady is more important than going fast, that centering your weight is key, and that looking down instead of ahead is a recipe for disaster. And in a moment of epiphany, just like learning to ride a bike, it suddenly clicks and your body knows exactly what to do. Finally, I am skiing. And getting off that chairlift and swinging back on the slope without malfunction.
At lunch, I sit down for a hearty meal at Snowflake Lodge, which sits at an altitude of over 6,560 feet at the top of the Lakeview Chairlift. I surprise myself with my appetite, but skiing is actually a full body workout. Jan leaves soon after lunch, but we are back on the hill skiing with Paul, another instructor at Diamond Peak. He is eager to push our boundaries, and thanks to Paul the last run of the day is down my first proper beginner’s run, a feat I wish Jan was around to witness. When it’s time to literally hang my boots at the end of the day, I stagger around for a bit. I feel lighter than air, like a tortoise that has been carrying around a shell for 200 years that is finally ripped off. All the shuffling down flights of stairs, balancing on the pot during a pee break, and trying to make carrying skis look effortlessly cool while actually struggling, is forgiven when the Gear Independence bells toll.
The next morning on Heavenly peak with instructor Greg, things look up; it’s sunnier, my confidence is higher, and the falls and public humiliation minimal. I am determined to be at least a “beginner level” skier by the time I leave, so after a half day of practice, I am hitting the green slopes, or beginner runs. I go down Maggie’s Run thrice, and Chris, a veteran skier, is impressed as she spots me zooming up there among others.
When I leave, I’m eager to return to skiing to climb up to the blue slopes (the colour indicates a moderate level). And I don’t even have to imagine flying like Supergirl anymore; all I need to do is to ski like a girl—sassy, and in control.
There are one-stop flights between Delhi/Mumbai and Reno-Tahoe International airport, it is economical to fly to San Francisco, which is 3.5 hr away from North Lake Tahoe.
The best time to ski at Tahoe is from mid-Dec to mid-Apr. Tickets can be purchased on the spot, but it’s convenient to book ahead online. A typical hourly private lesson costs around Rs9,000 and one for 2-5 people costs about Rs12,000 per hour. It’s better to rent equipment than buy it, especially if you’re a beginner. Drink lots of water despite the cold—skiing is an active sport that dehydrates your body like any other.
There are plenty of places to stay around Lake Tahoe, but the Hyatt Regency in North Tahoe tops them all with chic rooms and outdoor hot tubs; you’ll be tempted to jump in even when it’s snowing (www.hyatt.com).