03 Jan How a middle-aged beginning skier learned to take on black diamond runs
By Amy Tara Koch November 1, 2019 at 6:00 a.m. CDT
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Up next? Powder skiing in Japan.
If you go
Where to stay
The Little Nell
675 E. Durant Ave., Aspen, Colo.
With stylishly appointed rooms and a battalion of concierges (one team is dedicated to boot-warming, tuning and readying guests’ skis), plus the town’s most lively apres scene, Ajax Tavern, this five-star, ski-in/ski-out property delivers the glam. Rates start at $519.
610 S. West End, Aspen, Colo.
This in-town condo hotel offers reasonably priced condos with up to four bedrooms and with kitchen and fireplace, plus concierge service, in-town shuttle, and an outdoor hot tub and pool. Rates based on availability; call for details.
St. Moritz Lodge
334 W. Hyman Ave., Aspen, Colo.
Cheap and cheery rooms in a Euro-feeling chalet with a string of perks: outdoor heated pool/hot tub, free parking, guest laundry facility and free continental breakfast. Rates plus fees start at $61 for shared rooms; $120 for standard lodge room.
Four Seasons Jackson Hole
7680 Granite Loop Rd., Teton Village, Wyo.
A ski-in/ski-out hotel in Teton Village with rustic-luxe rooms, spa, outdoor pool and fire pits for afternoon s’mores-making. Rates start at $420. .
3335 W. Village Dr., Teton Village, Wyo.
Sleek, modern rooms, studios (with full kitchen) and multiroom suites just steps from the Aerial Tram with a spa and rooftop hot tub. Rates start at $206. .
215 N. Cache St., Jackson. Wyo.
For a hipster experience in town, the Anvil’s retro rooms — think iron beds with Woolrich blankets and raw brass fixtures — are ideal. The hotel is in the heart of Jackson, a short drive to both Snow King and Jackson Hole Mountain resorts, and attached to Glorietta, an excellent Italian restaurant. Rates start at $101.
Where to eat
430 E. Hyman Ave. No. 3, Aspen, Colo.
Hearty pastas (think ricotta cavatelli and truffle cream ravioli) and a robust wine list are deeply satisfying after a day on the slopes. Pastas from $24, entrees from $34.
205 S. Mill St., Aspen, Colo.
High-concept cocktails paired with high-quality classics like roasted chicken, steaks and seafood platters. Entrees from $26.
517 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen, Colo.
A buzzy spot for burgers, pasta and oysters, plus a standout selection of caviars. Entrees from $18.
155 N. Glenwood St., Jackson, Wyo.
Chef Ash Tucker turns out sophisticated Asian-influenced plates like ramen flavored with shimeji mushrooms and narutomaki, a pink swirly fish cake. Entrees from $16.
Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse
25 N. Cache St., Jackson, Wyo.
Dive into an elk chop or juicy cowboy burger before heading upstairs for western dancing at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Entrees from $22.
7342 Granite Loop Rd., Teton Village, Wyo.
Zippy, tastes-like-Bangkok dishes — Pad Gar Pow duck, Thai street ribs, Panang curry — that mirror the vivacity of owners Sam and Suchada Johnson. Entrees from $14.
What to do
Renato Sánchez 4270, Las Condes, Chile
A beloved ski resort nestled in the Andes Mountains in South America with spectacular views and many ski runs. Open mid-June to early October. Full ski weeks, which run Saturday to Saturday, include seven nights of lodging, four meals per day and lift tickets. Rates start at about $1,190 per person, per week during low season; about $1,290 for regular season; and about $1,400 in high season. Mini-week excursions include three (Wednesday to Saturday) or four nights (Saturday to Wednesday) of lodging, four meals per day, and lift tickets. Three nights start at about $510 per person, per mini-week in low season, about $553 in regular season; four nights start at about $680 during low season, $737 in regular season. Transportation not included in prices.
Strada Micurà de Ru 18, Dolomites, Italy
Guided and self-guided adventures across multiple resorts and terrains through the Italian Alps. Trips include stays at various hotels, resorts and mountaintop alpine inns called rifugios. Trips exist for multiple experience levels and are between 4 and 10 days. Private guided and group departures available December to Easter. Guided ski safari trips from about $2,968 per person; private ski safari trips from about $4,417 per person. Prices exclude flights, transfers and lunch. Check availability and departures online.
This story originally appeared in the Washington Post on November 1, 2019.