Learning to Ski With a Fear of Heights

An acrophobic mother takes up skiing with her kids


Published:

Illustration by Chris Reed

I harbor a fear of heights; I’m scared of speed; I hate the cold. But my 11-year-old son, Sam, and my seven-year-old son, Logan, wanted to learn to ski, and they wanted to do this fun family activity with Mom. We live in the shadow of the Catskills and are surrounded by Kingston neighbors who race off to the mountain every snowfall. Perhaps we, too, could master the slopes.

At Belleayre Mountain, we sat three abreast in the lift chair. As we moved up and away from anything sure and solid, a vision of Logan slipping inexplicably off the seat — a small down-coated package hurtling towards Earth — played over in my mind. I glanced over at the boys. They were beyond thrilled.

“Look! Look!” they cried, gesturing toward the tiny skiers far below.

I focused on completing a series of small actions with Buddha-like composure: Delay to the last moment lifting the safety bar when approaching the exit; when lifting, do so reluctantly — but not so reluctantly that the bar is down when it should be up; prepare to lean forward, but do not actually lean forward until the snow rises to meet your skis; begin to pray — silently, mind you — “please let me not fall, please let me not fall.” Most crucially, focus entirely on your own deliverance. Even a sidelong look to check if your children’s skis are straight will throw off your balance and you will be tossed sideways into the five-foot drift just below the lift. It is difficult to maneuver through five feet of snow while dodging oncoming skiers; don’t ask me how I know this.

It was a successful day, but expensive. If we were to continue, I would have to find a way to cut costs. At Potter Brothers, I discovered it was possible to rent skis for the season, and that there were special sale days at ski mountains in the area. I picked up a coupon for night skiing at Catamount Mountain in Hillsdale.

We arrived at dusk. It looked magical, as if a string of enormous blue Christmas lights had been draped over the mountain. The boys breathed an ecstatic, “Wow!” But I was in a panic. Night skiing?! I had overlooked the fact that I would actually have to do the thing I was paying a reduced rate to do.

The boys and I caught separate chairs, rising in tandem up the mountain. The woods below were a meditative gray, flanked by the blue snow of the lit trails on either side. At the trailhead, as I was congratulating myself for getting off the lift without falling, a swarm of tiny girls — a birthday party I believe — swooped down off the lift like snow fairies. Not one was over three feet high. After a quick snap adjustment of their fuchsia and black snowboards, they zoomed past down the hill.

I found myself enjoying skiing. There was a simplicity to it: just me, the trail, a shift of weight, a bit of timing. A tether somewhere loosened. I was alone and able.

Late one Sunday morning a few weeks later, I realized there was a $20 lift ticket deal at Plattekill Mountain. It was 2:30 p.m. by the time we reached the mountain, which rose steeply from the icy parking lot filled with four wheel drive trucks. Looking up, I scanned the mile-long ski lift and the straight daredevil drop of the trails — and lost my ability to exhale.

Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look, I thought.

There was a late afternoon bite to the air. The boys were busy with straps and gloves.

“Guys, I can’t do this,” I said.

They stared, disbelieving. I couldn’t be suggesting we leave. But I was. We drove away from Plot-to-kill Mountain. It is embarrassing to show fear in front of your children. When I master my fears, I’m a role model. But when I succumb, what do they learn?

Perhaps they learn kindness. Yes, they were rueful about the course of the day, but not irritated, not accusatory, not sulky.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” they said. “We get it.”

Kindness requires an adjustment, a subtle shift of weight, a dexterity. I was proud of them, of their skills.

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