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Monday, February 20, 2012

the slopes

The thing about winter sports is that on your first try you will experience more falls than a tsar who is Lenin during a war, and with that revolutionary turn of phrase…

It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining on the snow turning those unique DNA strands of the weather into separate diamond pieces, the ice was melting in its place and weirdly becoming harder as a result but none of this mattered, we had been given skis and ski we would.

You see we live in Kristiansand in the south of Norway a beach and summer town a place where the sun and the sea stop to have a chat and in the months of winter a brief, brisk affair a promise of love and longevity. It doesn’t snow every winter and when it does it’s up to you to experience it before the rain comes and washes it away leaving behind only stone, cold and wind.

I was dropped off with one of my co-delegates and we were given the most rudimentary directions imaginable, how to put them on, how to take them off and a nod in the direction of the park. There are ski tracks prepared every couple of days in the snowy parks so that enthusiasts without the talent and skill can still slide downhill without breaking their bones, it was to this ski paths that we would stay or at least try to.

I put on my shoes and immediately felt strange. Skis are long planks of wood to which you attach the ski shoes, immediately it feels like you are wearing shoes that are 3 feet long in either direction mostly because they are and every step becomes strained. It’s impossible to turn around like normal because you’ll knock into yourself or someone else, added to this is the fact that you’re on ice and am not good on ice. Am not good on stone and fall even back in Nairobi, the first time I skated it was that bambi video:

but i had since then improved my balance skills. The sticks or stava were long enough and provided an extra layer of support and soon I was off towards the track. I placed the skis there and it being a gentle slope began to glide ever so slowly almost snow-like into the real track. It was easy, I was a natural, I found myself walking up a hill with an incline of maybe 10 degrees maybe less to be perfectly honest but I was doing it, I slid down the hill and tried to climb another this incline a little steeper, 

Sooner though I was sliding back then I was falling and I was on the floor. It’s hard to get up when you are wearing skis, the length of them is prohibitive, your ankle can’t even turn the right way, and you constantly feel like you have to cross your legs over each other to be in the right and now you find the skis crisscrossed and impossible.  My legs can do this thing where one faces one way, lets say north and the other faces opposite which would be south

 And so that’s what I did, it was just the easiest way of extricating myself from the mess I was in and then I started sliding back that way, and then I fell. It’s going to be a story of falls, (with every other punctuation being a plotline involving me and the snow.)  However after finding myself in ten minutes back at the place I started I saw my friend, his skis were greaseless or something, they wouldn’t move an inch in the ice, they would just slip and slide and he was exactly where I had left him struggling to move and not being able to obviously very frustrated.

A man walking his dog  stopped to help us, he encouraged me to go up the opposite hill, the incline was a little lower but it looked considerable, like there was acceleration to be arrived at there. He told me to just walk up it so I could find my balance and I tucked my skis under my elbow to do this. I got to the end of this hill with maybe a  20 degree incline and (should stop calling them hills, they were rather smaller) and slid down. The slide down is the point of skiing just like James bond I put my sticks under my elbow and skied all the way down, soon stopped because I was going so slowly but it gave me the motivation I needed to conquer more hills. up again, try again..

And I was whooshing too, the speed was picking up and I felt almost in heaven, I wanted to go further and could because past this incline was another, the first one I had conquered and if I just took this corner, just turned the skis ever so slightly so I would be in the track then it would be… I fell straight forward and the white ice rushed up to punch me in the face.

There’s something about being hit in the face without preparation, something about sucker punches when you’re not looking. It’s like the surprise of the pain equals the pain itself and can even numb it. Your brain reacts to the shock of its slow reaction as much as it reacts to the shock of you being hit and you feel woozy. If it’s a good sucker punch like the one the ice gave me, it breaks some skin and there’s blood in your mouth. A warm crimson liquid warming your insides but forcing you to spit it out, it mixes with the saliva to become an orange shadow of the blood it once was and it feels so much worse than it actually looks. It’s disheartening and in no time at all I had given my friend the skis to try it out.

As we sat lacing up a Norwegian passed us skiing, he wasn’t following the designated paths, he was making his own, his feet working like opposite windshield wipers to push away ice and move him forward, his sticks an extension of his arm, his body an extension of the ice, moving effortlessly even up the inclines as if he moved by thought and not action. That’s what I want to do I thought grimly but all I could was sit and nurse my mouth as my friend went round and round.

I once read a fictionalised account of Caesar’s Gallic invasions and they had an  effect on me. There’s a scene when he and his men come in sight of Britain and instead of pushing forward and forging new borders for the Roman Empire turn around snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, turning back the wheels of human progress. Jeremy Clarkson of top gear compared the decommissioning of the Concorde, that great supersonic bird, to this act of turning back at the moment which may not have changed everything but it possibly could. This had a profound effect on me. It’s what got me back on the skis and what made me decide maybe before I left that  I would finish the whole course.
what i really do.

For the skiing arena is arranged like a racecourse, you can go round the whole series of inclines and falls and come back where you started without turning back even once but it’s dangerous for beginners. As I stood contemplating an old man engaged me in conversation,

 “I was born skiing and I wouldn’t go out in this weather.”
“Really?” I asked showing surprise in order to elicit more information.
“well I wasn’t really born skiing”(interjection to just say again that Norwegians have a great sense of humour)”I meant the weather, the ice is too hard and melting in parts, the only people who go skiing today are those who are really good  and reckless. Do you see many other skiers today here? No? There’s probably a reason for that.”
Challenge accepted

As soon as it was my turn to use the proper pair of skis I knew I was going to push myself as far as I could. After the first incline is a hill that was 40 degrees and I went down it. I was scared and I moved fast, so fast but the problem was how quick it was over and how soon I was coming to my first fall. Here I learned that skiing is about fear, overcoming and giving in to it in equal measure. I would approach a hill swaggering with false bravado and then at the last moment just before the real rush came, just before I had crested the next challenge and was rushing with the wind downhill would deliberately trip myself. Falling if only to get some brakes and get some control.

It was safety I told myself but thinking about it now maybe it’s a fact of my life that I don’t give in all of myself. I can when the stakes are low but I had fallen on ice and broken a lip, I had spat blood and now there were consequences. Pain, real and imagined fuelled my paranoia, my fear of more pain at times realer than the rush of a downhill slide. And so I trip myself before I can be completely at the mercy of the slope, I find a way out, a soft landing in the snow to avoid the reality of life that proclaims that blood on the ice is the only way to live and to learn.

what the world thinks i do.
While skiing you go downhill in a whoop of joy and then you have to ascend a hill. You have to arrange your feet to face away from each other and infuse your thumbs with remarkable tensile strength. You have to walk up ice and snow which claim you back as surely as gravity and sometimesyou fall back, sometimes you don’t. 

I met some more old men taking a walk, they said yes it was hard to ski and wanting to impress them by my daring and courage I let them know this was my first time skiing. Braking is hard they told me, I laughingly agreed that it was impossible and one of them said to me nothing is impossible.

It was what I needed to hear right then, I let go and pushed off. The tracks were perfect and I bent just so. The wind was whistling past my ears not ready to touch them and I felt invincible. Smoothing my way down the hill finally knowing what it feels like to be one with the ice when there was another corner to navigate, I have no idea how fast I was moving right then but its as fast as I ever have while not on an animal or in a car, it’s as fast as I have ever fallen when I went straight past the tracks and heaped into snow.

Now there was a pain in my shoulder and I thought about consequences and for the first time in a selfishly long time I thought that I had left my friend waiting for me with the implicit agreement that I would be back shortly. There was no way to turn back only forward to go I told myself and am not sure if this was true or not.

All I know is I felt selfish. I crested hills of increased difficulty, dragging myself up the inclines, digging the sticks in and sweating in the snow. I thought about the fact of this act, of the selfishness in it. Character flaws have to be dug into and you have to physically pull yourself out of the abyss. Bad habits and vices pull you back as surely as gravity and I thought that the I of some months ago would have done something so selfish, the me of some minutes ago had, no change. Then he would have justified it just as I had by feeling and encouraging all the aches and pains that formed a map in my body. Thinking that feeling guilty at doing wrong was the same or close enough as not to matter as not doing wrong.

To these heavy brooding thoughts was added the beginnings of a seed of desperation. I began to fear that I may not make it back to the beginning, I should have been there already, I should have gone all the way round, an hour of skiing, even as slowly as I was going was too long. I called my friend and guiltily allowed him to leave me behind. This despite the fact that I had no idea where this place was in relation to home, another punishment I was preparing for myself.

Then I came to the top of the hill and I looked down and it was fearsome and awe inspiring. Steepest incline yet and I wanted to rush down it. A part of me was cautious warning of broken bones, a part guilty telling of broken bonds, a part weary, depressed and uncertain completely uncertain that there was any more to be found from going forward, a  part was fatalistic, having given up all hope in where I had come from the only way forward was  where I was going. And here is the beauty of skiing; as soon as I pushed off from the top of the hill, as soon as I was sure of my footing and I knew in my heart even though my head denied it that I would not fall, as soon as the speed and the snow and me were  one the rest of me didn’t matter so much. I was still fighting all these emotions but the sound had been turned down. The blaring music had been given a respite by the wind headphones that gliding down the hill had gifted me. Everything faded away except me, the snow and the speed.
what i think i do

I crashed again, I crashed numerous times. The tracks would suddenly come to an end challenging me to find my way forward by myself and as much as I hate to admit it I never rose to the challenge. Am not sure I could have done it but am sad i didn’t try. The end seemed so far off but finally there was a light, a familiar sight and 90 minutes later I glided to a stop where I had begun.

The sense of achievement was amazing. On this one of the worst days I had gone all the way round. But there was no one to celebrate my triumph. In my mind I had pictured the amazement of my friend as he watched me come down a different hill than the one I had gone up. The envy he would feel at me having completed the course but there was nothing there now. Just a bag and shoes waiting for me. The achievements of life often leave you on pinnacles, the problem with pedestals is they are only peopled by one at a time and when from here you survey your icy kingdom the soul yearns for the simpler joys of friendships and family much more meaningful than the cold comfort of platitudes and prizes.

but still...