Now that the sunny, halcyon days of my 20s are dark behind me, I have begun reading up on cognitive aging. Senility is no longer a theory for tomorrow; it is an all too certain fact in my rapidly approaching Future. After all, things start going downhill at forty, right? This is no laughing matter. For example, while writing this article, I set my notebook down somewhere and subsequently spent the next twenty minutes trying to locate its whereabouts. And I live in a 700-sqft apartment. There are only so many places it could be. Honestly, people.
Anyway. When I turned old on February 1st, I decided it was time to learn how to ski. There were many practical reasons for this decision. For one, skis are a profoundly more efficient way of getting around in the backcountry than on a splitboard. Skis would also reduce the likelihood of a temper tantrum in the avalanche-infested backcountry because my splitboard won’t go back together. (Obviously levelheadedness should be a goal for my 30s, as well.) I was also fairly certain that I’d look better on a pair of skis than on a snowboard.
There was only one problem, as I saw it. I’ve been a snowboarder for nearly 12 years now. I paid my dues a long time ago, with plenty of bruises and broken bones to prove it. Skiing would be like starting all over again.
When we were young, we tried and learned new skills all the time. We would fail and learn from our mistakes. We would succeed and learn from our achievements. That’s how we became the high functioning, successful adults we are today. (You have Facebook open on another tab, don’t you?) But I think the one thing we didn’t learn, or at least I didn’t, was how important trying something new is – whether or not we succeed or fail.
But there are all sorts of reasons not to. In my case, it meant being relegated to the green circles. Who skis greens? Children. Terrifyingly fast and agile three-year-old children on skis. No one likes getting schooled by a three-year-old. No one, that’s who. And, and! There are only so many good ski days left, what with climate change and all. Why should I waste my time learning how to ski when I could be shredding the gnar. Or whatever it is snowboarders say.
I really didn’t want to learn how to ski. I just wanted to be able to, effortlessly, as if I’d been one of those hated three-year-olds whose parents pushed them down the mountain before they knew to be scared.
I once heard a news story about a study on cognitive aging. A test group of seniors were tasked to learn complicated new skills like Photoshop or quilting. The act of learning something new, frustrating, and challenging improved both the group’s short and long-term memory, even more so than the group who played mind games or read the news. Forcing yourself to learn something, the more difficult the better, improves the connections between different parts of your brain; which in turn helps your memory in the long run. And, not surprisingly, the study also found exercise keeps the mind fit.
So, I decided to give skiing a chance. After two days practicing inbounds with varying levels of success, I decided to leave my splitboard at home and take out a pair of backcountry skis. Tiny, intermittent snowflakes swept over the windshield as we drove into the mountains. As we climbed to 10,000 ft., the snow picked up. I looked nervously out the window, knowing the avalanche danger was low, but not trusting my abilities enough to avoid falling on a trigger point. This might have been a bad idea.
We parked at the Andrew’s Lake trailhead and skinned up the road to the frozen lake, which we carefully crossed before finding a skin track that lead to the top of a relatively low-angle slope. It was mild enough that, if I was on my splitboard, I would find it frustrating, but when we got to the top I remembered I wasn’t on my splitboard. I was on skis and there were a lot of trees on this hill. The snow was cruddy and wind scoured with hard, frozen snowmobile tracks crisscrossing our line.
I dropped in after Rory and, much to my dismay, discovered I couldn’t turn these ridiculous green and white skis with cute little designs on the top sheet. It also meant I couldn’t stop, at least not without crashing into Rory. Of course, he was much softer and squishier than a tree, so this method of stopping did have its benefits. I picked my way down the hill, occasionally stepping out my bindings to walk around trees or down steeper sections.
By the time we got back to the truck, I had sworn off skiing and secretly hoped dementia would erase all memories of this experience. But on the drive back into town, I realized the worst part of the day wasn’t when I crashed into Rory and lost both my skis, but rather when some other, much more proficient, skiers saw me walking down the hill in defeat. And that was the real reason I didn’t want to learn how to ski or trad climb or speak French: I was afraid of appearing anything less than perfect. And that is a really stupid way to get through life.
So I’ll ski again – inbounds – and some day, I’ll show those three-year-olds what’s what.