Amy Tara Koch | How a middle-aged beginning skier learned to take on black diamond runs
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How a middle-aged beginning skier learned to take on black diamond runs

By Amy Tara Koch November 1, 2019 at 7:00 a.m. EDT

At 40, I thought my daredevil days were behind me — what could top the insanity of growing up in Miami in the ’80s? Then I discovered skiing, a sport I had sworn off when a boyfriend abandoned me on a black diamond run (I was solid bunny-slope material) in the ’90s.

Eighteen years later, in Park City, Utah, an instructor helped me kick my terror to the tree line and tap into the bliss of coasting down groomers with my mind entirely focused on the matter at hand — mastering the next turn and reducing the frequency of faceplants. No worrying about work or my kids. The to-do list loop was miraculously switched off. I was hooked.

A few years in, thanks to dozens of lessons (critical) and investments in boots as well as custom insoles (also critical), I’ve mastered balance and carving and begun to enact what could be described as a middle-aged spin on “shredding the gnar.”

While friends are phasing out serious skiing (“It’s so dangerous — let’s go to the Caribbean”), I’m test-driving more challenging terrain, despite the fact that I am a so-so skier. The satisfaction of tackling an unfamiliar piste and then enjoying a well-earned chalice of wine in a cozy cabin somehow outweighs my fear of crushing a body part.

Here are some of my adventures:

Aspen, Colo.

Aspen is glamorous. So, naturally, I wanted to whiz down Aspen Mountain with the lithe, beautiful people. But first, ski school. I worked with a pro on “athletic stance,” a novelty for a gal who has never engaged in sports. And curbed the tendency to lean back, butt over boots (as if squatting over a toilet), the classic I-don’t-want-to-zoom-out-of-control posture known as “back-seat skiing.” I quickly graduated to the steeper stuff. But agile I was not.AD

On my second visit, I took on upper/lower body separation, which means keeping the shoulders facing down the mountain while turning. To deter my instinct to turn up into the hill, my savvy instructor, Annie, had me pretend to hold a drinks tray while only my legs and feet glided from side to side. The visual cue of not spilling martinis, my favorite cocktail, clicked. Suddenly I had a semblance of grace.

Speaking of booze, lunching at the legendary Cloud Nine was a goal that year. Each day, a rowdy party involving fondue and champagne-fueled table-dancing unfolded at 11,000 feet. The hitch? I had to ski down afterward. I did. And that descent, down a partial black diamond run, is a prized memory.

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After a few seasons of crushed toes and aching knees, I invested in my own boots. Buying ski boots is not like waltzing into DSW for a pair of heels. The process takes hours, sometimes days. At Gorsuch Ski in Aspen, a boot fitter used 3-D scanning technology to measure my feet — length, forefoot width, instep height — and discovered that significant pronation caused my ankles to collapse in standard rental boots. A Head Raptor boot ($700) was selected to match my foot’s internal dimensions. Then a custom insole ($200) was constructed to biomechanically align my feet, knees and hips. I winced at the expense. But the return on investment was immediate. Once my shins connected with the front of the boot when I flexed, everything became more fluid.ADADVERTISING

Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Engage my core? What core? I had unwittingly just traversed a “quickie” black diamond run en route to the intermediate area, and trepidation oozed from my too-loose limbs. My instructor was going on about activating the deep abdominals to improve stability, but the words ricocheted right off my helmet. After the birth of my second child, I had ceased thinking about my abdomen. The notion that a power quadrant lurked beneath my mom pooch seemed absurd.

We did some drills to “zip up my abs,” simultaneously squeezing my butt and sucking my bellybutton toward my spine. That micro-maneuver was like a shock absorber. I now had stamina in powder and bumps, a good thing since Jackson Hole’s craggy, aggressive topography is notoriously hardcore. Later that day, moguls formed from fresh snowfall. I sucked in, recited, “Stomach in — turn!” and whipped over the bumps without pause. Taking on those moguls was a major milestone.AD

Portillo, Chile

When I told friends I was headed to Portillo, they were confused. Isn’t that the offseason training ground for the U.S. ski team? Then they asked if my insurance plan included medevac coverage. (It did.) Of course, I wasn’t going to attempt experts-only terrain like Roca Jack or the Super C Couloir, a half-day endeavor requiring a two-hour backcountry hike and a more than 5,000-foot descent down a gully. My plan was to explore the small but mighty intermediate terrain — Andes lite, if you will.

The canary yellow time warp of a resort with only 123 rooms, one restaurant (staffed by red-jacketed waiters), a ’70s-era discoteca and absolutely nothing within walking distance is revered by passionate skiers, many of whom return the same week each year.

A family trades sand for powder on a spring break ad­ven­ture in the Canadian Rockies

This was steep terrain. I froze at the lip of Plateau, a run above the tree line at 9,450 feet. Once the instructor coaxed me from the ledge, I skied poorly. On the next run, I centered myself with mantras. Reciting takeaway skills from ski lessons (I jot down notes in my phone each session) allows me to focus on movement, not fear: “Shins to tongue” (aggressively flexing so shins connect with the tongue of the boot), “Hips over boots” (solid athletic stance), “Zipper down the mountain” (keeping the upper body still as the legs and feet initiate turns). By midmorning, I managed to descend without killing myself or careening into Laguna del Inca, the shimmering gray-blue lake at the base.

The next day, I was confident enough to try the fabled “va et vient” or “slingshot” lift that drags standing skiers up to extreme terrain. The dismount required dexterity, placing skis, one at a time, perpendicular to the fall line while holding the tow bar. Not surprisingly, I wiped out. I nailed it after a few more falls and then conquered Condor, the tamest black diamond run at Portillo. That day ended as all the others had: in the hot tub with a pisco sour alongside an international posse of newfound pals.

The author carves it up in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, a mountain range so stunning it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Courtesy of Amy Tara Koch)
The author carves it up in Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, a mountain range so stunning it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Courtesy of Amy Tara Koch)

Dolomites, Italy

While hiking in the Italian Alps, I learned about a roving adventure that involved tackling chunks of the Dolomiti Superski (12 ski areas spread across more than 700 miles of slopes on one ski pass) and sleeping at different high-altitude inns, or rifugios, each night. A local company aptly called Dolomite Mountains organized these small-group “ski safaris,” making the moving around (they also transfer duffel bags to each inn) seamless.AD

Getting to the Dolomites is a pain. You fly into either Venice or Innsbruck and then drive about three hours to the mountains. But once I took in the storybook landscape during cocktail hour, the schlep was forgotten.

The first day, we skied Cortina d’Ampezzo among the snow-capped spires of the carousel of the Tofane that border the tracks of the 1956 Winter Olympics. Two certified mountain guides were on hand to navigate, but not to instruct. Thankfully, I could keep up, but jet lag and altitude adjustment made for a rough beginning. I wanted to call it a day after lunch. But in a group setting with no home base, I had to stick with the program. Espresso helped.

We moved between Civetta, Cinque Torri, San Pellegrino, Val di Fassa, Arabba-Marmolada and Alta Badia, in the shadow of limestone massifs (some of the highest vertical walls in the world) and spires formed of underwater reefs more than 250 million years ago. The days were long, but much of the pitch we skied — except for a white-knuckled traverse (I missed the tiny sign that said “Piste for expert skiers”) — was manageable.AD

Highlights included waking up at 7,916 feet elevation and coasting through fresh powder without the nuisance of gondola lines. Knocking back locally brewed juniper grappa from a sun-drenched panini shack in Col dei Baldi. And arriving by skis to each night’s lodging just as the primordial peaks turned pink.

The discovery of the tucked-away rifugios was great fun. Cheery rooms with blond wood and checkered curtains were a welcome sight for sore skiers. Each dinner was outstanding. Family-run rifugios take great pride in the culture of South Tyrol, and the cuisine, a refined mix of Austrian heartiness and Northern Italian gusto, reflects that passion. By 9:30 p.m., I fell into the fluffy duvet, having earned a deep sleep.

Agility acquired in skiing carried over into my life. My posture improved. Lower back pain decreased. And I was inspired to join CrossFit to enhance my athletic prowess when not on the slopes.AD

Up next? Powder skiing in Japan.

Koch is a writer based in Chicago. Her website is amytarakoch.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @amytarakoch.