Five Lessons from the Ski Hill

Last week, I skied in the mountains for the first time in my life. My dad taught me to ski when I was five years old, and I went skiing a few times each year through my childhood and into adolescence.

The Prismic skiers at the top of the mountain.

I was thrilled to go on a ski trip in the alps for my company work retreat. We spent a Wednesday skiing down the side of a mountain opposite Mont Blanc. Maybe it was the views and the fresh air, or maybe it was the fear of death, but I thought about life all through the day.

Skiing in the mountains is intense — especially when you haven’t skied in five years. I learned five lessons about how to deal with high-pressure challenges.

Erik gathering speed.

1. Commit

I was convinced I was going to break a bone.

As an adult who used to know how to ski, it seemed inevitable. On my first run, I felt shaky. After one or two more runs, I remembered how to point my skis and tilt my weight correctly.

I shrugged, unsure, when the ski instructor asked me if I wanted more instruction. “I don’t think you need it,” he volunteered. “You’re a good skier.”

My confidence rose, which helped my technique. The ski instructor told me and my coworkers Levi and Erik to go off on our own. “Take the six-person chairlift,” he said.

Without knowing where we were going, we followed his advice. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain. The trail difficulties are green, blue, red, black. But our instructor had told us that on this hill the reds are more like blacks and the blacks are more like double blacks. We stared at signs pointing to red (black) and black (certain death).

With only one way down, we took the red trail that looked the friendliest. It was amazing. Winding down the mountain, we had panoramic views of the surrounding peaks. Towards the bottom, we got to a final slope that was wide, steep, and icy. We all looked over the edge with apprehension. Levi dropped down and skillfully skied down. A moment later, Erik went.

Skiing offers an amazing feeling: there is only one way forward. The path is dangerous, but it’s also exciting and beautiful. If you choose your runs wisely, you will have the skill to handle everything you encounter. So it was as I stood alone at the top of this drop. I dropped in.

I felt myself struggle to slow down, grating my skis along the icy slope, trying to generate friction. I wobbled as I carved back and forth. My legs shook. I slipped around as I tried to turn. I felt unsteady and unsure.

Commit, I thought.

There’s only one way forward, and I can do it.

I pointed my skis downhill and leaned into the speed. As I let go of my fears, the hill glided past. My skis sliced through the powdery snow, sending plumes of powder to my sides. This is how to ski, I thought.

Commit, I reminded myself throughout the day. When life gets scary, remember what you’re doing and keep going.

Simon and Côme at lunch on the hill.

2. When you lose control, let go

The rest of the day was smooth. I felt confident. We paused for a Savoyard lunch on the mountainside and then kept skiing through the afternoon.

Toward the end of the day, with an hour left on the hill, we asked the instructor what trail to take. He pointed us to another advanced run at the top of the mountain. We rode up the chairlift, and then skied cross-country style for a while along the mountainside to find another lift, which took us up higher.

We found ourselves at the top of a beautiful, isolated, meandering run that wove along the mountainside, out of sight of the rest of the hill. It was our favorite run of the day. About a third of the way down, we got to the first tricky part — another steep and icy slope.

I went first.

About halfway down, I hit ice. I tried to slow down by turning uphill, but I couldn’t. My skies scraped onwards down the hill, while my body pulled backwards. I fell over, landing safely on my side — my first wipeout of the day.

I signaled to the group that I was fine and waved them onwards. One by one, they skied past me. I regained my confidence as I watched them safely navigate the slope. Then, with great care, I stood up and inched myself backwards to a spot where I had space to maneuver.

Okay, I thought. This is ice. I can’t stop myself. Maybe I can’t control exactly where I’m going. But I can get down this hill.

I pointed my skis downhill and shot downwards. I can slow down when I get to the bottom. For now, I just have to let go.

When you have no control, it’s futile to try. You’ll only lose balance. As I shot down the ice, I knew I had enough control to get safely down the slope. I knew that when I got to the end of the section I could slow down. That’s the key: loosen the grip, then tighten it again.

Levi on top of the mountain.

3. Persevere

Towards the end of the same run, we reached the final boss battle. It was a long, steep, narrow stretch. We were all nervous. Levi went first and wiped out halfway down. He landed like a pro, catching a stray ski. He gathered himself, got his ski back on, and got to the bottom.

Leo (who had joined us after lunch) and Erik followed, and all three of them gathered at the bottom, waiting for me.

I felt my heart race while I summoned all of my lessons from the day. Pay attention to your weight and your feet. Relax. Know you have the skill for this. Commit.

I dropped over the edge.

As the steep slope came into view in front of me, I saw a patch of dirt directly in my path. I panicked and pulled back, but it was too late. I already had speed. I lost control, my skis came out from under me, and I fell onto my side.

In retrospect, I know that if I had persevered through the brown patch, I would have been fine. When obstacles arise and you can’t stop, you have no choice but to forge onward.

But, that’s not what I did. And so I learned my next lesson.

4. When you fumble, regain control

It’s fine, I thought. I can just get up and keep going.

But I couldn’t. The slope was too steep and icy. I slid. I grabbed at the snow, but there was nothing to hold onto. I accelerated down the slope like a human toboggan.

I hoped to slow down, but I felt myself gaining speed. I rotated one way and then the other. I watched the blur of my coworkers zoom past me.

For a moment, I was at peace. This is fine, I thought. It’s easier than skiing down. But as the seconds ticked past and I keep sliding, I realized I was in trouble. I had no idea what direction I was going. I could go off a cliff or into a post. My ski could catch on something, breaking my leg.

I need to get back in control.

I hacked at the slope with my ski poles, which did nothing. I realized the only way to stop myself was with my skis. I clawed at the hill to orient myself so my feet were below me. As I slid, my skis collected snow like a plow, and finally I slowed to a stop.

I looked up and saw that I had slid about 100 meters. My coworkers were now far above me on the slope. I felt a little rattled, but I had no injuries.

I signaled to my coworkers that I was fine, and they took turns skiing down past me. Finally, I stood up, and skied down the rest of the hill. I was shaken and a little trembly, but I mustered the confidence to ski smoothly. It was the last run of the day.

Mabel carving the slope.

5. Check your priorities

I’m not a thrill seeker. But, I like a challenge, and I can be a little impulsive. On the other hand, I’m a little scared of heights and a little clumsy. Altogether, this made for a lot of reflection throughout the day. As I got tired in the afternoon, I asked myself, Is this worth it? How would I feel if I really hurt myself? How would Claire feel if something happened to me?

The experience reminded my that I like my life. I want to keep it safe.

I suspect that half the skill in skiing is knowing your limit. You practice so that you can tackle the routes you take, but you also choose the routes you know you can handle.

When you find yourself preparing for a high pressure situation, it’s worth asking: Is this the right place to be?

My day on the ski hill was perfect. I learned a lot, I challenged myself, and I had fun. But all day I was making choices. Do I have the energy for this? Am I paying attention? Am I ready for this run?

When you do take on the right challenge — when you commit, open up, push through, and get safely to the end of the run — it is wonderful.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023