Learning to ski

By Sandy Nichols Ward, January 28, 2006, "Writing about an old Photograph"

Skiing was part of my childhood. My father and mother were active skiers. I think they had each learned to ski when they were in college in the 1930's. In the 1940's they were married, living in a little house in Danvers, Mass, and skiing on a nearby hill. Skiing in this manner was free and informal. You just went up the hill carrying skis on your shoulder; at the top of the hill, on the far side facing East, there was a clearing and a gentle open slope. You put on your skis and skied down the slope. Then you climbed back up and did it again. Or you used the rope tow that my father installed. Bend your knees, pick up the rope (letting it run over your mittens), lean back, squeeze your hands to grab that moving rope, and up you go!

As children my sister and I skied round and round and round for hours. Up the tow, turn right. Down the slope, turn right. Grab the tow and go up again. Turn right and face the slope; ski straight down and stop at the bottom with a big swoosh to the right. Or, don't stop at all -- just make it a continuous loop with a smooth right turn and coast up to the rope (assuming there was no one else in the way). Round and round and round. My parents expressed worry that we'd never learn to turn left! But of course in time as we grew, and as my father cleared more trails and installed a second row tow on the other edge of this cow pasture hill, we learned to turn left. We even came to enjoy making turns on the slope and controlling where we went.

Photo of my father Nathan
My father Nathan "Nick" Nichols skiing with me in his arms. Photo by John Nutter. (undated)

I don't remember when or how I learned to turn left. I don't remember learning to turn right, either. I don't remember learning to ski. Do you remember how you learned to walk? No, you've known how to walk since before you can remember. Skiing is like that for me; I've always known how to ski. My first formal "class" in skiing technique happened at high school age, in Vermont, and was quite a let-down. I thought I already knew how to ski and was quite a good skier, as were all my family. I skied naturally, confidently, and happily -- until I took that class and had to practice specific postures, turns, and techniques I'd never known. Eventually I became a better skier, but the process of unlearning childhood habits was awkward and took two winters of active teaching and practice.

How did I learn to ski? That question interested me as a teenager re-learning skiing at a school obsessed with teaching everyone to ski the right way. I'd come home and show my father what I was learning, and he'd smile and show me his version. He didn't directly criticize my instructors, but he had a playful attitude towards the notion of a right way to ski. For instance, when I told him the importance of keeping weight on the downhill ski as you turn, he smiled, pushed off with his poles, and skied down the slope smoothly and effortlessly. As he turned, he lifted one leg high above the snow -- the downhill ski! So much for that theory.

Years later, I saw this photograph of my father holding me (as a baby) in his arms as he skied down the slope. So that's how I learned to ski!

My earliest memories of skis on my feet involve playing with my younger sister on a tiny slope perhaps a foot and a half high. I had short stubby skis with bright red tips and a simple strap to hold the toe of my rain boots. We were left to play at this little embankment while our parents and their friends skied and socialized on the bigger slope nearby. We just walked around on these awkward "baby" skis and experiments with going down off the tiny bump of land. I'm sure we fell a lot and mostly practiced getting up and falling down.

Another memory puts me on bigger skis, standing between my father's skis, his arms around my arms, his legs around my legs. He held a ski pole across in front of us, horizontally. While he held onto the ends of the pole, I with my little mittens held onto the middle of the pole in front of me. In this secure environment, I skied with my father down the big slope. It was a bit scary and thrilling, but also quite safe. His skis guided mine. As his body turned, mine did, too.

This photo of an earlier time captures our enthusiasm for skiing. It also answers the question of how I began to learn to ski.