A boy, age 12, peers cautiously over the edge of the Wall, queasy with adrenaline. He will not ski down this run, the first double black diamond he's ever seen. How does anyone? It's basically a cliff with moguls hanging off it. Beyond the first few gleaming ice bumps, all you see is the flat at the bottom. The little boy goes down the bail-out run, Last Chance. His little sister, age 9, decides to try the Wall. From below, the boy watches in bitter amazement as she hops and slides down without falling. She wants to ski it again. She does, and faster. The timid little boy goes back to Last Chance. This time he falls and gets snow down his pants. At the end of the day, they pose for a photo. The boy scowls; she gives a double thumbs-up.
Mt. Hood Meadows
A grown man peers cautiously over the top edge of a run called O-Ring, queasy with adrenaline. He would like to avoid this run, but he's taking an eight-hour Steeps clinic for the express purpose of attempting such terrain. His instructor, Kristy Aserlind, tells him it's OK, that there's no right or wrong way to ski. She's lying, and he knows it. It's a sunny January day with temperatures in the 50s, and most of the mountain is slow, forgiving mush. Not O-Ring, which sits in the afternoon shade and is covered with ice. Between the bumps, tiny pine trees pop out of thin cover. The man takes a deep breath…
Standing at the top of O-Ring:
KRISTY ASERLIND, THE INSTRUCTOR: She's a tanned ex-rowing star who spends most of her time coaching those little kids in spandex who bomb past you at the bottom of the slope. Kristy grew up in Wisconsin and has been a ski instructor for 42 years. Her daughter is a professional freerider who plunges off cliffs for camera crews. Kristy is likable from the minute she lays out her philosophy over granola, apples and half-bagels—included in the $104 price, a ridiculously good deal for an all-day ski lesson. "There's no right and wrong way to ski," she says. "There are efficient movements and inefficient movements. I'm asking you to be detached observers of your own skiing, gathering data and using that data to improve on what you want to improve on."
BETH, THE NATURAL: She's an athletic, blond Australian who grew up in a beach town and earned a graduate degree in aerospace engineering before ending up in Hood River, where she's an executive at Dakine. She only learned to ski last season and is already quite good. Beth worries she's overconfident given her experience, and wants to build up a solid base of skills. "I feel like I can get down these runs, but I want to get down them the right way," she says. Beth listens and adjusts, then talks to Kristy about getting private lessons. Beth is one of those people who will succeed at everything in life, and whom everyone will be happy to see succeed. Her only weakness? Eight hours on an alpine touring setup with unpadded boots.
JASON, THE STUDENT: A bookish electrical engineer ("Basically, I babysit electricians") from Minnesota, Jason is in Portland to visit his boyfriend. They're both big skiers, having met at Whistler. Jason skis all over the West and has stickers from Alta and Jackson Hole on his helmet. He's not especially athletic compared to Beth and Shane, but he takes a calm, calculated approach to each run, implementing Kristy's advice with precision.
SHANE, THE ATHLETE: Shane is from Texas, and lives in Portland, though he's planning a move to Hood River for a new job with a company that makes fish traps. "It's a small town, what, 7,000 people? But I feel like those are my people," he says. Shane decided he wanted to be a backcountry skier—which meant he needed to learn to ski. That wasn't hard given his catlike balance, but now he wants to take things to the next level, which means developing his form. He shows up late and with a bad cold, yet skis aggressively from his first run down Two Bowl. Shane's problem? His natural ability allows him to slide through anything, which means he's tough to teach. He often ends up "in the backseat," sitting on the tails of his skis and slipping into his turns instead of driving forward with his shins pressed against the front of his boots.
MARTIN, THE TIMID: In the American Middle West of his youth, people like Martin were known as "pussies." If he hadn't started on a dinky 264-foot ridge of shale at age 5, and continued on, Martin probably wouldn't ski. But, for nearly a decade, he took ski lessons every winter Friday from instructors in teal-and-purple Descente jackets. He knows the drill: Line up, ski down about 100 yards, wait, listen to the instructor talk about pole plants, ski about 100 yards, watch, wait, listen. He has vivid childhood memories of standing at the end of the hour as an instructor walked down the line holding a little manila envelope full of green, blue and black stickers. In the 20 years since his last lesson, Martin has mostly remembered to pole plant. His favorite runs are long, curvy blues through the trees. When he skis diamonds, it's mostly the steep, smooth and wide-open runs on windswept mountaintops. Sometimes, soft bumps or an icy steep. But never narrow, bumpy chutes under the lift.
The group stands in a line at the top of O-Ring. Martin stands farthest from the edge.
BETH: Looks like there's some ice.
KRISTY: Yeah, well, OK, this isn't what I thought this run would look like today, with it being so warm, but I guess we're in the shade.
SHANE: Let's do this! This is why I signed up for this class!
JASON: I did it yesterday and it wasn't like this at all.
SHANE: It doesn't look that bad.
MARTIN: (muffled) Yikes.
SHANE: This is why I signed up for this class!
KRISTY: OK, well, this can be a good place to practice some of our skills. We'll just hop turn down over here and pick a line.
MARTIN: Maybe I can, umm…. OK.
Kristy makes a smooth hop turn around a giant mogul off the cornice and stops about 20 yards down. Beth follows. Shane follows, but then continues to the bottom of the slope without stopping or doing any pole plants.
KRISTY: Pole plants, Shane! They help you stay on top of your skis! Remember, pole plants!
JASON: You can side-slip if you need to, Martin.
MARTIN: (muffled) Yikes.
KRISTY: Yes, side-slipping is a good skill for times when you feel a little overwhelmed.
Jason makes a turn a little wider than Kristy and Beth, but ends up next to them.
Martin chickens out, and doesn't even attempt a hop turn. He side-slips down the cornice and makes a giant, looping C across the mountain—a turn so wide it might as well have been marked Last Chance— before rejoining the group, dejected.
MARTIN: Jason is at the bottom already, huh?
BETH: Yeah, he continued on.
KRISTY: Good work, you practiced your side-slip!
VOICEOVER: People never change, man. You'd think maybe after 20 years, being a grown-up, you'd grow some guts. Well, that ain't how it works. For me, anyway. If you ain't willing to risk a fall, there ain't no skis, no instructor that's gonna help. Not when the Steeps get bumpy and not when they ice over. At some point, I suppose you gotta make peace with that. And so I am. Beth and Jason, they'll be all right. Shane, I don't know about him. He's got the natural ability, but can he focus on those pole plants and stay off his tails? Probably. Hopefully. I'd like to see him live his dream and become a backcountry skier. More room on the groomers for schlubs like me.
GO: Mt. Hood Meadows' Steeps clinics are Feb. 8 and 28, and March 8 and 29. $104, $159 with lift ticket. Breakfast included. Reservations at 337-2222, ext. 1222, or at skihood.com.