We took a 2018 Ford EcoSport to upstate NY’s Whiteface Mountain for a ski weekend unlike any other. Check out the recap!
It takes a lot of nerve to hurl yourself down a hill in the snow. It takes even more nerve to do it on two skis, where stopping isn’t as easy as just having a seat on the hillside. And it takes just a little bit more nerve to make one’s first serious skiing attempt on the same hills of the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, and the site most of American training since then. Yes, I’m talking about Lake Placid, New York- specifically Whiteface Mountain- known for its massive vertical drops and fanatic young skiers.
My history with skiing is remarkably brief. When I was 8 or 9, I allegedly went skiing with my mother and her sister in West Virginia. There’s some footage. Then I took a very long break (about a decade or so), never skiing. I had completely forgotten how.
Skip to 2017, I went to the Italian Dolomites (another Olympics hotspot) with a native Italian friend and phenomenal, lifelong skier. Needless to say, I didn’t ski a single meter while in the Dolomites. I was with this person who tried to teach me the ways of a master as if I were a master, skipping over anything actually useful. I was left sledding and having hikes, but not really skiing.
I figured no time was better to learn to ski again than just after the Winter Olympics and in the late season upstate New York. The way I like to learn is to do it the hard way first, but I knew there were certain risks with that approach when skiing. The “hard way” can mean something much worse in this sport, as countless, well-publicized accidents have proven. So I tempered my excitement and asked a friend to join me on a road trip to upstate New York for a weekend of skiing in Lake Placid. This friend was also an established skier like the Italian, but I figured the appeal of a getaway would be enough to sway them, never mind my lack of skill.
We picked up a Ford EcoSport SUV at the Poughkeepsie train station and made our way toward Whiteface Mountain, with dinner in Saratoga Springs, NY, just north of Albany.
After a falafel in town, we were keen on getting to Lake Placid before too late, as we needed to be on the slopes by 9 am the next day. With the classical music (don’t ask) blasting, we made the three-hour drive with ease, cruise control set to 75.
Arriving in Lake Placid in the middle of the night only made the morning more exciting. We were staying on the hillside above the town, not far from the Olympic Center, at the Crowne Plaza hotel, a huge resort with a demanding view of the Mirror Lake (now frozen) and a massive chalet. Despite getting to the hotel around 10 pm, the Après Ski (see: drinks after a day of skiing, usually starting around 4:30 pm), was still going on in the bar, which was a good sign of things to come.
We went to bed straight away in anticipation of the early morning and my hitting the slopes for the first time, in earnest.
The sun was rising and the skies were clear on Saturday, a good indication of the day’s fortune ahead. It was also my first glimpse at Lake Placid in the light, revealing a totally frozen Mirror Lake and plenty of snow, with a fresh layer dropped a few night before.
After a brief breakfast, we pulled on our own layers- underwear, sweats, snow pants, turtlenecks, sweaters, jackets, goggles, hats and windbreakers- and loaded into the EcoSport to get over to Whiteface Mountain as the lifts began to open. After securing our ski gear, I still felt okay. I was ready to get on the slopes- even if the Bunny Hill, and was ready for the day.
My companion was remarkably patient with my poor ski training. We both realized quickly the circumstance of my training was abysmal and nothing about me was suited for the day, save for maybe my clothes and that I managed to get the ski boots on my feet.
I approached my thinking about how to ski with every angle. I went literal: “How do I turn?” “How do I stop? Just tell me how to stop!” (only to be told, “You don’t really stop”.) I went philosophical: “Why do people ski?” “What is the essence of skiing?” The answers were varied: “People compare it to flying”. “You can go fast”. “You’re in control”.
Those latter questions and their answers ended up being the valuable ones in literally learning how to ski in about two hours. I needed the mindset, not the mindfulness of skiing. It quickly stopped being about technique- I’d shush my “coach” (the unwitting friend) whenever he demanded too much from me (or asked me to perform a simple maneuver I was just taught). I was doing this on my own terms but also relented to listening in when I couldn’t bend my mind any further.
I am still indebted to this friend, even after I yelled at him for not understanding what I meant by “turning” (actually getting the skis to go in one direction, not just in a series of 360-degree spirals) and whatever other frustrations I had. But what did I learn about learning to ski?
- Skiing is way easier when you are going fast. Almost all of my falls and failures came when I was trying to move at the glacial place I thought was safe. God-Mode skiing is simply trying to stand back up when you fall on a steep slope.
- Skiing really is all turning. You speed up, you slow down, you turn around by turning. Turning became one of my favorite parts of skiing.
- The moment you get the essence of skiing is the moment it truly becomes fun. I never felt this particular sensation in the limited experiences I had before. Skiing was a labor, a struggle. Now it was freeing and delightful.
- If you like skiing, the lift rides will be the worst part of your day. If you hate skiing, the lift rides will be your best part of the day.
- Ice is not good to ski on. I secretly loved the sensation of skiing on a little bit of ice, but there becomes a point when it is too icy and you feel worried. It’s not pleasant.
- Coming into an unintentional mogul (the little piles of snow you slalom around) is not great, especially when you’re moving very fast. The bottoms of runs often were my least confident areas, mostly because they were where the chunky piles of snow were. I wasn’t alone in this concern, a girl not older that 6 asked her mother, “how do I get around those piles?” The mother’s answer was not what I wanted: “You just plow through them, sweetie!”
- I need to learn ski ballet. Now.
The first day ended too early. I was finally off the Bunny Slope, now playing on the longer runs, but still not off green territory. Back in the car, we fired up the seat heaters and made our way back to the resort for a quick nap. Of course, I took an hour-long-bath while my friend slept (not napped) and so we missed the good Apres Ski at the hotel. Undeterred, we took a walk into town for a dinner at Lisa G’s, surely one of the most charming spots in Lake Placid.
The next day, I was sore but didn’t care. I was ready to conquer the slopes again. I was ready to practice. I wanted to get better. We hauled our ski kit to the car and made our way to the mountain once more. My friend expressed concern about the fog, but it seemed to dissipate as the day warmed. After a few practice runs, I was finally able to join my friend on some of the longer runs, unlocking another secret pleasure of skiing: having a companion join you.
There is something very internally satisfying and externally delightful about having someone along for the ride, knowing you are both in each other’s sights, tagging and volleying, the sine waves of your skis going in and out, some sort of choreography in the snow, pure bliss. As individual as skiing can be, it can be wonderfully communal. My friend took some of his own more challenging hills, but I know my time will come for those. I genuinely love skiing now. For the record, I can’t stop watching downhill Alpine skiing videos on Youtube. I’m obsessed. I love it because I can see myself in it. I finally understand why they do it.
As the sun set, we took another walk along the lake, with some skaters on the frozen waters, enjoying the pleasure of the moment.
The weekend ended all too quickly. At the end of our second day, I was exhausted but thrilled, sore, but enthusiastic. It was a long drive back to NYC, but we made a detour in Albany for a quick bite and I clicked the cruise control on. Before we knew it, it was over. But the satisfaction lives on. If only I could ski every day. For so long, I was bitter and didn’t understand skiing. If you’ve never tried it, or are scared to start, let go. Let go of whatever it is. The second you have it, you’ll know. It’s a rare, almost juvenile feeling. Let that happen.