The Winter Olympics get underway this week and I can’t wait. I was at Mount Norquay ski school near Banff in Canada recently with my son who’s become a keen skier. Although I’d never skied myself, Norquay didn’t strike me as a ski resort as I’d imagined them. The skiers were mostly local, mostly families. They’d throw their skis into the back of the car, head up for a couple of hours and go home for lunch. They didn’t wear designer gear. I never heard anyone say après. All the kids at the school, including my son, got a free season pass.
For the first few days, I worked on a novel while my son skied with his instructor, Rob Falconer, a local architect who'd traded in corporate life for "all this" he told me at lunch, gesturing towards the mountains. Rob spends most days up at Norquay and on weekends, his kids ski while he teaches. I watched the beginners on the bunny hill from the lodge as I worked. The kids learned quickly, I noticed. They fell over and got up, trusting their bodies and their instructors.
I was having trouble with the novel and so I decided to get a ski lesson, which made sense at the time. After starting on the bunny hill, I went up onto the first real ski hill with Rob. At the top, he said to follow him, which I did, without thinking. It was easy. But after the lesson, I went up without Rob. Standing at the top of the hill looking down, I panicked. I stood there for a long time. I could not get my body to do what it was supposed to. My mind refused, freezing my muscles into inaction. I was unable to do anything that would get me down the hill. I couldn’t even think straight. Eventually, I took my skis off and walked down.
Infused with fear, everything became more difficult. The chairlift invoked a long dormant terror of heights. I fell over twice in two days coming off. They had to stop the lift and help me up like a child or an elderly person. “Everyone falls over,” the lift operator said. But I didn’t see anyone else fall, not even three year olds who skipped off gaily on skis, not even octogenarians who sailed off the top of the hill with abandon.
I had another lesson. “There’s nothing you can’t manage here,” Rob said, not unkindly. He showed me how to go slowly, ploughing or sideslipping. I did this at the top of the hill for days. On the third day, going up in the chairlift, I saw an injured skier on the snow about halfway down, waiting for the medics. I heard of a skier who’d broken two femurs, another who’d died. This wasn’t helpful. I kept going. My mantra wasn’t courage. It was trust. I said the word out loud, over and over.
Trusting gets hard as we get older, but research is telling us that we not only need to keep physically fit as we age. We also need to exercise our brains. One of the best ways to do that is to learn a new skill, preferably with a social component and, in my case, a requirement to trust. They call it cognitive vitality and I imagine it’s the opposite of the seniors’ moments I experience regularly now, including asking what ski-ing is like in Russia of a couple on the terrifying chairlift who’d just told me they were from Munich.
I continue to be amazed by teachers who can change their approach to suit a learner. Rob taught my son and they tore around the mountain like demons, and then shifted gear to teach me, mainly how not to be afraid. I was proud when I went ski-ing with my son, and I think the novel might have written itself in my absence. And as for the Winter Olympics in Sochi – which is in Russia – I’m expecting the call about joining the ski team any day now.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 8 February 2014. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!