Back here I promised that I'd someday tell the story of what happened on a ski trip to Lake Louise, in Alberta, Canada. I figured what better time to do it than today, as the resort prepares to host two women's World Cup downhills and a Super G this weekend.
Like other trip-down-memory-lane posts that I've done, I suppose you could say this one has a moral, of sorts. For now let's just file it under the heading of "be careful what you wish for."
For years, Lake Louise had been my dream ski destination, in large part because of its reputation for having the most beautiful lift-served scenery in North America. In those reader polls that ski magazines like to run every year, Lake Louise was rated number one for scenery almost without fail. One reader even went so far as to describe Lake Louise as "burst-into-tears beautiful." I liked that description.
As it would turn out, I did burst into tears during my trip there, but my outburst was triggered not by the rugged beauty of the Canadian Rockies, but rather by an overwhelming sense of fear, failure and disappointment. This is an embarrassing story for me to tell, so maybe it should be cross-referenced under "the ability to laugh at oneself is healthy."
Marge and I traveled to Banff, Alberta, in February 2005 with nearly her entire family — parents, sisters and their husbands, and their children — hard-core skiers all of them. Though I had been skiing for 21 years, I had never skied outside of New England. I was primed for my first taste of powder, above-treeline skiing and wide open spaces.
We stayed at the Banff Springs Hotel, where we would have our choice of three nearby ski areas: Sunshine Village, Lake Louise and Mt. Norquay. I was a little disappointed on that first ski day when almost everyone except me voted to go to Sunshine. I was so close to my dream, but it would have to wait another day.
On Day Two we headed to Louise. I was so excited as the shuttle bus neared the resort and the ski trails came into view. This was it, the place I had dreamed of, the very place where some of my skiing heroes — Picabo Street of the U.S., Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden and Katja Seizinger of Germany — had raced. It was almost as if I could feel their energy.
Unfortunately, the day got off to a bad start when a member of our party (who shall remain nameless to avoid embarrassment) had an accident involving a chairlift. Things didn't improve much as the morning wore on, for reasons that I needn't go into here. In any case, I was enjoying the scenery, which was every bit as beautiful as the magazines had promised.
After lunch Marge and I split off from the rest of the group. Lake Louise is pretty vast, and late in the afternoon we found ourselves somewhere that we couldn't locate on the trail map. We were, in a word, lost. We're both good skiers, so we weren't too worried, and we soon found a trail that looked promising. But what started out as a wide, groomed trail soon became wild and narrow and dropped us into a steep gladed area from which there was no escape.
Up until this point, because the Canadian Rockies had been experiencing a lean snow year, the conditions had been about what we would have expected back home — hard and icy. But deep among the trees, protected from the wind, it's a different story, as I found out the hard way.
Having found myself in a situation that I wasn't at all comfortable skiing in, I made the ill-fated decision to take my skis off and try walking a bit. I took my right ski off first, and my right leg immediately plunged through the top crust and into the snow, which was quite deep. I was now twisted around in an awkward position, and the ski I had just removed slid away from my reach. I felt helpless and afraid, and the panic set in much earlier than I'd like to admit.
Marge had had the good sense to stick it out with her skis on, and she was now pretty far ahead of me. I yelled down to her. She tried to coax me into getting up and putting my other ski back on, but every time I tried to stand up, I slid a little more toward a steep drop-off into a tight grouping of trees. I was in full-blown panic mode now, envisioning myself in a free fall, bouncing off trees like a pinball.
Marge patiently sidestepped her way back up to where I was, helped me get back into my ski, and then we continued on our way, slowly and sloppily picking our way down through the trees. By the time we made it out of the trees and onto a tamer part of the mountain, I was exhausted and my feet were in pain. We made our way over to a mid-mountain lodge that wasn't even open and sat on a picnic table to regroup. It was there that the tears started flowing, first a trickle, then a river. I was upset with myself for having been so afraid, upset with myself for not having had more confidence in myself, and most of all, upset that my dream had turned into a nightmare.
That's sometimes the problem with dreams — reality gets in the way.
On the last day of our ski week, Marge told me I could pick the area that we would go to. It would be just the two of us, because once again everyone else wanted to go back to Sunshine. She was certain, knowing how stubborn I can be at times, that I would pick Louise, if for no other reason than to try to salvage my dream. She was shocked when I whispered in her ear "Norquay," the area everyone else had derided as too small and too easy, the area that I had never even heard of before our trip.
Maybe another cross-referencing is in order here: "bigger is not necessarily better." Marge and I ended up having a glorious day at Norquay. It was sunny and mild there — while the others reported clouds and chill at Sunshine — and, perhaps because so many other skiers were chasing their big-time dreams, we had the mountain to ourselves:
It was the best ski day of my life.