Vail Valley Voices: As if learning to ski wasn’t hard enough
Vail, CO, Colorado
It’s springtime, and once again, our happy valley is bathed in blue skies, brilliant sunshine and thousands of visitors from south of the border. Those of us who live year-round at American ski resorts love our southern guests – even if we can’t understand a word they say.
Many years ago, I was teaching skiing at a small Southern California resort that was inundated with new skiers from Latin-American countries – mostly East Los Angeles and Tijuana.
Even though I had taken years of Spanish in college, my conversational skills were restricted to the small laminated card the Ski School gave me – words such as ojos, pierna, pie and cabeza. It was helpful, but what I really needed was a way to communicate more important terms such as stop, slow down, crash, torn ligament, ruptured spleen and phrases such as “I need a bigger tip.”
I was assigned the Zarraga family – Alejandro (father), Carlota (mother), Fernando (17), Dario (13) and Anjelita (9). None of them knew how to ski, and Anjelita was the only one who spoke English, so she had to serve as the entire group’s interpreter.
During the gondola ride to the beginner’s area, we exchanged names, our hobbies, the children’s ages and our cholesterol levels. The usual stuff.
Halfway up, Carlota gasped at the double-black diamond running beneath the lift, “¿Ertuy wepout dfrty asdew?” which I took to mean, “Are we going to ski down that?” I shook my head and answered, “No. That run make go fast and go to hospital. We go up mountain where beginners sit on behinds.”
I don’t know why I felt compelled to annihilate both our languages to communicate, but I did.
After we got to the top, I began explaining to the family some of the basics of skiing. “When ski, stand on feet. No go fast or break leg.”
To emphasize my point, I grabbed a dried twig off the snow and snapped it in half.
Fernando looked at me with eyes as big as Frisbees.
Now that I had their attention, I continued. “You stand here,” I said. “Put ski under genitals. Stab toe into front piece. Push on heel until you hear ‘pop.'”
Alejandro looked at Carlota and complained, “Rtqsdfer zxwswq iurpo vgulwt!?” Anjelita had to explain to her parents that their knees weren’t going to go “pop” – just their bindings.
With the entire family clicked into one ski, it was time to try some basic sliding. “Eschucha, por favor (I picked that up from my laminated card). You stand. Cuerpo on ski. Bend knees – you go.”
Even the term “slide” challenged the limits of our conversational abilities, but waving my arms around helped. “No put body in front or you fall and lose teeth.”
Once again, Anjelita had to translate, “Tredefr sdfrtww uepkiua uytrwctr wetiyu,” as she pointed to her mouth.
The entire family nodded and smiled, “Ah … rtuyqwe rtvmjaet qwetiuy poiuasd!” We were ready to go.
With the exception of Carlota, most of the family did fairly well. I tried to keep the lesson fun without throwing my ski poles at Dario and Fernando, who were bound and determined to do whatever they wanted. Confident that they weren’t going to kill themselves, I just let them experience the thrill of skiing downhill out of control until they were snagged by a stand of lodgepole pines – sort of like a crippled jet fighter landing on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. They were young. They’d get the hang of it – someday.
I could see that Carlota was getting frustrated. The minute she started moving, she would squat and split the crotch of her pants. Being almost as out of shape as Alejandro, I’d put my hands under her armpits and scoop her up to help conserve her energy, at least for the first 300 times.
After lunch, it was evident that I now had five skiers who had progressed to five different levels. This posed a challenge, but one thing was for sure: I wanted to get them all riding a chairlift by the end of the day – my feet were killing me. So I devised a plan to advance all five of them to the chairlift.
Standing like ducks in a row, I said to them, “You ski fast and sit. Get up and sit again. Comprende?”
They looked at each other and conferred with Anjelita, “Werti djfghur aspoert hjiouy?” Anjelita said, “Si. Weroiuwe dllopiw sdpioqwer fgjuit.”
So using some very unorthodox teaching methods, I taught Alejandro, Carlota, Dario, Fernando and Anjelita how to ski across the hill, sit down on their butts until they came to a stop and reverse the procedure until they made it all the way to the bottom of the beginner’s area – the all-American sit-down turn.
After convening at the entrance to the lift, I gave them a quick lesson on how to ride a chairlift. “You walk. When reach two hombres alli, stop. Comprende? Wait for … como se dice, “empty” en Espanol? Si, vacio … chair and sit.”
The two brothers looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. After warning the two chairlift operators and the other 8,000 skiers on the mountain that I had five new students riding a chairlift, I sent them up, one at a time. However, with all of the excitement, they never heard me explain the most important thing – how to get off.
As Dario approached the top lift station, he started yelling, “Wertiuy ddfgiue asdpoiuy fgtre!” By the time the lift operator woke up from his nap, it was too late. Dario had already gone around the bull wheel, headed for the bottom. Anjelita saw what was going on and interpreted this as the proper technique, so she stayed on for the downhill trip, as well. It took most of the afternoon to round up my family. Fortunately, they finished the day unscathed. In fact, they had the time of their lives.
“Uqoiurf eepoiu qattuy ssdoiqw gtiuy trews,” shouted Dario. “Si, ddfgiue eepoiu sdpioqwer fgjuit,” concurred Fernando. Barely able to contain herself, Anjelita chimed in, “Rtrewiuy tuiy greti gop!”
They say that a good ski instructor can teach anyone how to ski, even if they don’t speak their language. So I guess I passed the test.
“You ski good. No bruise kidneys on ski poles. Very good.”
The next day, they drove back to Tijuana, promising to ask for me next year.
Allen Smith, of Vail, is the author of “Watch Grandma Circle the Drain” and “Ski Instructors Confidential.”
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