Yesterday, a little after noon, I was riding the chairlift to the top of the mountain at Keystone, which is a resort where I’ve been skiing (and now snowboarding) since childhood. I was fiddling around with my phone, making sure my wireless helmet-mounted headphones would have just the right music queued up for my next run, which I figured would be my last before meeting up with Simone for her lunch break. The bottom of the hill had been relatively warm, the sun crazy bright every time it cleared the high clouds. But as we ascended in elevation, things got a little blustery. A storm front was trundling its way toward us, and the first squall, all gusty winds and pellets of snow, was starting to assert itself.
To my left on the lift, a snowboarder even older than I am was quite still, watching as a family took their turns down the run below us, like a squad of ducklings following their mother. To my right, a ski patrol dude, who’d jumped our chair just before we launched into the sky, started waving at someone in the gondolas that were taking a parallel route up the mountain.
That’s odd, I thought. So I turned to see where he was waving, and it took me a second to recognize the sky-blue helmet and day-glo snowpants of the person who just happened to be sitting on that side of a gondola that was moving along just a little more slowly than we were.
“That’s my daughter!” I shouted, as, in one motion, I waved back and brandished my iPhone for a few snapshots. I waved some more, laughing, and gave her the thumbs-up sign. Sadly, her response was to shake her head “no.”
I was off the lift and standing by the gondola exit as she and her ski lesson teacher and classmates made their way toward me. The instructor shook my hand, and told me they’d meet back up at 1:30 to finish the day, and then walked on.
When Simone got to me, she started crying.
Simone took her first snowboarding lesson in March of 2009. I’m looking at a photo of her, all confident and excited, ready to try something new. As much as I’d wanted to get her started when she was younger, she hadn’t been enthusiastic. I didn’t want to be one of those dads who forces his kids to take up a sport, so I waited until she asked me to learn how to snowboard.
I’m also not one of those dads who’s willing to take on the mantle of snowboarding instructor of his children. I knew that it would be extremely unpleasant for both of us. So, as much as I hated burning a full day of a parenting weekend being away from her, I knew that lessons were the only way to go.
Simone’s first couple of snowboarding days were a little rocky—the falling, the sore muscles, the embarrassment of not getting it as quickly as the other kids—but she wanted to stick with it. I found her a pad that would fit into the back of her snowpants, making the next couple of lessons a little more bearable.
She did improve with each ($195) lesson, so eventually I sprung for equipment. But over the next five seasons, the rough days came more often than the good ones.
I’d often ask myself why I was even bothering to encourage her to learn to snowboard. Sure it’s fun, and it’s part of the Colorado lifestyle, but it’s also dangerous, and was obviously causing Simone physical pain. What kind of father purposely puts his child in harm’s way? Would the benefits of spending our days barreling down the mountain together (someday) outweigh the potential for pain and injury? I can make that decision for myself (which, most days, is yes), but it seemed unfair to make it for my child, who mostly just didn’t want to disappoint me.
I thought maybe I’d figure out how much money I’ve spent over the last five years for this column — equipment, lessons, season passes, hotels and condos — but what’s the point? Thousands of dollars, easily. And how many days did I spend solo on the mountain, kissing Simone’s forehead, propping her up with encouragement, then going off to spend the next six or seven hours alone, wondering how she was doing?
Simone’s instructors were always complimentary, and she really did make progress. The only thing stopping her from turning the corner was literally turning the corner. Simone kicked ass on her board, as long as she only made heel-side turns (in her case, that means turning right). But ask her to turn left (or toward her toes), and she would either get tentative (which often leads to falling, because you just have to commit), or refuse, or, you know, fall. So, given a choice, she’d head down the mountain, then veer right to traverse the run, then sort of “falling leaf” her way back toward the middle of the run, head down a bit, turn right, falling leaf back, etc.
Which still got her down the mountain, and was fun in its own way. Until she got to a point on the run where her only choice was to make a toe-side turn. If she fell, the frustration would boil over.
We tried to go together without lessons a few days, and (for the most part) we’d have a fun time. I’d refrain from telling her to try to make a toe-side turn, and would do my best to be encouraging. Occasionally, we’d take a run together that was gleeful and full of possibility. But she’d fall on the next run, and the day would be over.
So I’d put her in another lesson the next time, hoping things would finally click with the right instructor.
The worst, though, was last March.
A fairly dry winter, followed by a particularly snowy spring meant late-season powder days full of sun and blue skies. Simone had a bonus day off of school, and had come off of two good lessons in a row, so we hit the road early, with the plan to spend a day snowboarding, just the two of us.
I told Simone all about the ski run called Schoolmarm, a long, winding, easy cruiser that we could take our time getting down. We’d ride the gondola to the top of the mountain, strap on our boards, and have ourselves a chill ride of it. Simone was confident. Stoked.
We sang our way up the mountains to the ski area, drinking dirty chai and torturing each other with puns. By the time we’d put on our comfy boots and slung our snowboards under our arms, we were both pumped to get on the hill.
That ease and anticipation lasted just until Simone got her snowboard on and made her first turn.
It wasn’t a particularly nasty fall. More of a skid and a thump. But the powdery layer of snow hid an unforgiving base of crusty ice. The warm, dry weather had melted most of the resort’s base, and then the cold nights had frozen it up into an ice rink. The late-season snow only served to make it impossible to know where those patches of pain were hidden.
It took us a full two hours to get down the mountain on that single run, what with Simone falling, crying, needing to rest, getting up long enough to make some progress, and then falling on the slate hard pack.
“I don’t know why I even do this,” she said, after another yard sale, her tears icing up her eyelashes, which cut me deeply. Why was I subjecting her to it?
When we finally made it back to the base, I suggested we grab a bite and warm up. A big plate of pasta was just the thing to bring some color and humor back into Simone, but I also knew we wouldn’t be making another go of it.
We were in the car, headed home, by 1pm.
I knew that the snow conditions were what made the day so difficult — hell, I was struggling, too. But for Simone, it was more—not only did she feel like she was still terrible at snowboarding, she also felt deep sadness about “disappointing” me. She apologized again and again for letting me down.
Of course, that hurt even more.
I explained that she couldn’t disappoint me; that she’d done her best, and never gave up. I told her that whether she learned to snowboard or not wasn’t important to me, and that I’d only want her to keep trying if she wanted to—because she enjoyed it, not because I enjoyed it.
A few months later when the season pass renewal notification came around, I asked Simone if I should get one for her when I bought mine. She thought about it, and then said yes.
So I was a bit (but not very) surprised when I mentioned going snowboarding a few weeks ago, and she wrinkled her nose.
“I don’t think I really want to do that anymore,” she said.
“Honey, I paid several hundred dollars for your season pass,” I replied, trying my best to keep the edge out of it.
“What? Why would you do that?”
“Simone, I asked last summer if you wanted another pass and you told me yes.”
Again, a conundrum. I couldn’t force her to go back up, but the non-refundable pass was already paid for. Just telling her I’d already spent money on the pass made her feel more guilty and like she was disappointing me. And shelling out more dollars for more lessons would probably be yet another waste of money. I didn’t know what to do.
And then, a couple weeks ago, Simone said her stepdad suggested she try skiing — he told her it was easier to learn than snowboarding. In fact, he was taking her half-sister up regularly. So Simone suggested that she take a ski lesson the next time we went up, to see if it was any better.
“I know it’s not the same as snowboarding, but if I like it, then at least we could be on the mountain together, right?”
So I spent another $200 for a single night at a Super 8 near the resort (because fighting the crowds on I-70 is not an option), reserved a $140 lesson, and reserved $45 worth of equipment at Keystone.
Her rental boots were snug, but comfortable, she told me. But definitely hard to walk in (one of the main reasons I switched from skiing to snowboarding in my 20s). But she was excited to see if skiing would be the answer.
After I got Simone settled, kissed her goodbye, and told her to be patient, I grabbed a latte and hoofed it back to the car so I could gear up to hit the slopes. On the gondola, I sat across from three adorable septuagenarian ladies, their skis and poles braced between knees and elbows.
They saw me looking at the people taking lessons below, and I explained that my daughter was down there, somewhere. When I told them that it was her first ski lesson after five years trying to snowboard, they clucked in approval.
“I hope it goes well for her,” one of them said, her helmet tipped back, cheeks rosy, the wrinkles around her mouth curling to sweeten her smile. “Because she’ll be able to ski into her 70s—much easier on the knees than snowboarding.”
They all laughed and chattered on, and I felt an ember of hope in my belly. I didn’t care if Simone picked skiing over snowboarding, if it meant weekends on the mountain together.
And then halfway through the day…there she was, her tears fogging up her goggles, limping along the hard-packed snow from the gondola. I gently took her skis from her, lifted her goggles off her face, and asked her what was wrong.
“Skiing is worse than snowboarding,” she said. “My shins ache, my feet hurt. Our instructor told us it was impossible to fall on our faces with skis on, but I still managed to do it. I’m sorry, Dad.”
“No, no,” I said. “It’s okay. Let’s get into the lodge so you can rest, and then we’ll talk about it.” Simone followed me to the cafeteria, wincing with every step, more tears quietly lining her face.
The instructor told me that she’d made some progress toward the end, but that “maybe there was something wrong with her boots.” Which wasn’t helpful, at all. If maybe there was something wrong with her boots, why didn’t he try to sort that out? If all it came down to was uncomfortable rented boots?
But in my heart, I knew the truth.
“Okay,” I thought. “Now we know. She’s not a mountain sports girl. We tried.”
She couldn’t fathom finishing out the second half of the lesson, and I couldn’t imagine asking her to. We took a little break, and then I put her on the gondola headed down. I took one last run, getting to the bottom before she did, and we returned her equipment before walking to the car. I kept things light, letting her know that I was proud of her for trying something new.
At the car, as I put my snowboard up on the rack, and sat on the tailgate to wrench off my boots, Simone told me she sort of wanted to go snowboarding again, just to end things on a brighter note.
I told her I wouldn’t get rid of her equipment until the end of the season, but that I also wouldn’t ask her to go up again. If she wanted to go, I’d be happy to take her (and…yes…shell out the bucks for another lesson), but she would have to make that request.
We have so many other things that we enjoy together—blockbuster action flicks, writing and reading side-by-side in coffee shops, traveling the world, taking long urban walks, creating stuff with our 3d printer, and, of course, snuggling up and geeking out in front of the TV. I generally don’t go snowboarding on the weekends, anyway, so not having to fight traffic or pay too much for a single night at a crappy hotel doesn’t bother me.
I gave her the opportunity to try snow sports—my duty as a Colorado dad. If she’s less likely to break a leg because she’s not bombing down a mountain, well…I can live with that.