Up the Downhill
March 18, 2019
It’s fair to say that the Himalayas were an integral part of my school days. They would rise to prominence just before the cyclic geography assessment in school and then fade into obscurity until the next academic evaluation loomed. Despite growing up in the subcontinent that housed the world’s highest peaks, I have to admit that my encounter with mountains, in general, was relegated to the atlas, schoolwork or a rare sighting on celluloid.
Mountain sports are an uncommon pursuit in India. My compatriots and I typically covet mountains as a backdrop for a Bollywood production or a photograph. Against the light of this ethnic propensity, it’s perhaps slightly odd that our family was keen to explore skiing.
Initially, a quest for new experiences drove us – the thrill of navigating an unfamiliar terrain and the chance to push our physical strength rather than a real love for the sport itself. My family members took to skiing in a fun and fearless manner, like they were born and raised in the mountains. However, I had my ups and downs – just like the peaks and valleys of the sport’s topography. My subsequent ski expeditions were wheedled by the motivating and assuring words of our children: ‘you can do it, Mom’. And, the fact the that the German autobahns delivered us to the foot of the Austrian Alps faster than a Windows10 software update serves a bonus to go back every year.
From the exasperating virgin trip a few years ago to the first unassisted and self-assured downhill, the sport developed in distinct stages for me.
Overweighed by the elephantine ski shoes, I tucked the skis and ski poles under my arms and hurled myself into one of the many gondolas. There were crowds of people waiting their turn to ride up the mountains. But I suppose seasoned skiers have a keen and pitiful eye for first-timers. They let me board priority (courteous Europeans, I have to say)! I was overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude not just for the courtesy shown but also for the fact the gondolas offered seats. The ski resort planners undoubtedly thought of the aged citizens of the world (my peers, I mean) who might rest their limbs and shanks after the laborious task of getting dressed to ski and before dawdling to the first of many alpine queues. Sigh.
Making my way to the top of the mountain while carrying ski equipment and accoutrement, swathed in layers of clothes that are a must to combat sub-zero temperatures, was the equivalent of doing lunges and squats in a deep freezer with dumbbells fastened to both hands and feet. What a novel way to keep fit, I thought! I don’t even have to ski after all this. I could go up and down the gondola a few times in the day and sculpt my abs into an enviable six-pack.
Disembarking the gondola, the pristine landscape and the marked difference in the quality of air struck me. I grew up in the tropics. The mountains, the frigid air and the altitude, were foreign to me. Still, I had a brief glimpse into why people suited up like NASA astronauts and ambled like moonwalkers to make it this high. I felt a sense of camaraderie with fellow skiers and mother nature (even though I was yet to put on my skis).
The experience of skiing that first downhill (which I retrospectively call a molehill) was exhilarating. Satisfied with my stability and ability to steer myself without harming fellow skiers, my instructor waved in the direction of a steeper slope. Upgrade, apparently.
Liberated from the infantile snow-covered mounds to the next color coded rank of the ski slopes, I was moved up to go down(hill). I was ecstatic. And daring, even, to maneuver the precipitous pistes of the alps. There was nothing to fear but fear itself. We had full coverage insurance; I reminded myself. A few more degrees of steepness was not going to throw me off balance.
Alas- it most certainly did. It threw me in many comical ways – twisted, tangled, curled and contorted, I fell every few meters in yogic poses. The Halasana (Plow Pose) which was difficult to master on the yoga mat seemed to derive naturally on the piste (well, with the skis on and the poles thrown a few meters downhill, of course). A variation of Sirasana(headstand) was another frequently occurring pose.
The instructor, being well trained to handle unintended descents of unbridled middle-agedanfänger skiers (namely myself), was very polite. His pep-talk to get me back on the slope after every fall sounded uncannily similar to the kind I used on my toddler kids a decade ago. When I had exhausted possible yogic poses, I went downhill like superwoman on a mission to save the world.
Unstoppable and at a jet speed that too. I huffed. I puffed. I heaved a sigh of relief.
If the moments that take our breath away is a measure of life, then mine was grand on the ski slopes.
The optimism in me quietly encouraged me to pave the way for a new kind of winter sport – yogic- skiing. Or even kick off the skis and the gargantuan shoes and cruise downhill on a yoga mat – like Aladdin did the world with his magic carpet. Has anyone tried that yet?
I walked off the slope to the restaurant carrying the skis and poles on my shoulder like an ancient warrior descending the battlefield with a club swung over the shoulder (without the apparent strength and victory). The sores, pains, aches and small bruises were comforted to some extent by the contents of my first aid kit. But my bruised ego?
I searched for prescriptions to heal the wound and found an instant cure in the restaurant’s free Wi-fi. I delved into the digital narratives of people who hated skiing and took refuge there. I was transported instantly to another part of the world – a region that was familiar, warm and hospitable. So many like-minded people! I assured myself that it was a dangerous sport, after all. My phone’s browser filled with affirmatives of people who had given up skiing brought me solace and boosted my appetite for Mittagessen. Favorite Austrian dishes combined with access to the worldwide web mitigated the pain of an aspiring skier’s crushed ego. I spent hours in the restaurant reading more and eating more than I had burned in the yogic-skiing. I stayed away from the slopes and mainly the narratives of expert skiers who had had a head start to the sport in their younger days.
One of my favorite quotes is what Calvin says to Hobbes, ‘Life is like topography. There are summits of happiness and success, flat stretches of boring routine and valleys of
frustration and failure’. In skiing, the valley is the summit and vice versa. The sport demands energy and focus on getting downhill. Quite the opposite to our innate penchant for upward mobility, peaks and new heights – literally speaking. If not for the polite ski instructor who came to fetch me for my post-lunch skiing (a.k.a piste stunts), I would have ordered more gallons of water feigning dehydration and exhaustion.
The instructor reassured me that my learning curve was no different from the other adults he has taught in his long career. There are just two types of learners; he assured me in an earnest southern Austro-Bavarian dialect: those who quit after a fall and those who get up and try again. That lifted me a little. Just a little bit. But enough to try again. And again.
I pondered a few seconds. In fact, failure enhances the victory just as the valley does the mountain peak.
Like many things in life, the trying eventually paid off. I progressed. I skied. The stumbling, the sliding, the falling, the acrobatics and the on-piste yoga reduced with time. The peaks, the valleys, and the flat stretches of the ski slopes seem familiar and negotiable now. And they seem remarkably similar to the topography of life.