The smug confidence I’d built over French fries in the lodge 20 minutes earlier seemed to have evaporated. Toasty warm, I had practically swaggered over to my friends after looking at the map of the ski resort—as much as swaggering is possible while wearing ski boots. “I’m going to try the Huckleberry Chair after lunch,” I told them. My friends, also in the early days of their ski and snowboard careers, were game.
But now, as the chairlift hoisted me up a mountain, it hit me. I’m literally going up a mountain. And then I have to get down again. This chairlift is further off the ground, faster and getting closer to the clouds than I pictured. It’s not just a longer version of the morning’s ride up the bunny hill. It’s legit skiing now.
And legit skiing is what I set out to do this winter. As a lifelong Albertan, I felt it was my duty to finally learn to not just embrace winter, but to look forward to the season. Plus, I’d seen some really cute wool long johns and wanted an excuse to buy them. Downhill skiing seemed like the right combination of ambitious and doable for a starting point. I borrowed snow pants from a friend and took a remarkably affordable 90-minute ski lesson at WinSport in Calgary.
Six weeks after that first lesson, here I was, on the chairlift at Castle Mountain Resort, enduring a baptism by snowflakes. I was grateful for the bulk of my new mittens. Nobody could see how white my knuckles were, holding onto the chair safety bar as if a stiff breeze could blow me onto the powder below. I saw a crevasse ahead and realized I might have a fear of heights. I closed my eyes behind my orange-tinted ski goggles. A fear of heights is only natural for a human, I told myself.
Finally, 12, or maybe 1,000 minutes after getting onto the chairlift, it was time to get off. I’d been clenching every muscle in my body for 1,000 minutes and when I made to stand up, my legs disagreed. On the ground, I took a ski off and gave the lifty a mittened thumbs up after they asked if I was mortally wounded. Only on the inside, pal.
Now, it was go-time. It was a very slow-go-time. My legs and hips burned as I fought gravity and pushed the edges of my skis into the powdery snow. As I wound my way down the mountain, building confidence on gentle slopes, questioning my life choices on steeper pitches, I noticed something—I was having fun despite my nerves. And I wasn’t the least bit chilly.
By the time we made it to the bottom of the hill, I was exhausted but exhilarated. And just a little sore. I checked my smartwatch, where I’d been tracking my workout. It took me 28 minutes to get down. Yeesh.
While Castle Mountain Resort is known for its skiing and boarding and gets some of the highest snowfall in the province, it's got even more than that. The evening after my big chairlift adventure, it was time for a starlit snowshoe tour down the mountain. Which, it turned out, meant we were heading back to the Huckleberry Chair. This time, I was feeling confident going up. I would open my eyes a little more, anyway.
At the top, with the sun beginning to set behind a mountain, we began our descent. As we stepped into deep powder, weaving between trees, our guide told us to descend with heel-toe steps to dig the cramp-on of our snowshoes into the snow. I did this, and my snowshoe fell off. Whoops. It took a moment, and the removal of my beloved mittens, but I got locked into my shoe properly and set off again.
We were walking in whipped cream. In time, our group reached a clearing. It was a slope about 50 feet across bordered by trees. And then someone suggested we run down it. Now, I’d only been at this downhill snowshoeing thing for 25 minutes, but I knew enough to know I’d wipe out if we ran down this hill. I decided I was absolutely OK with wiping out. There’s a countdown, and then we sprinted, laughing a bit maniacally. And I immediately tripped, but the fall was slow motion into feathers. After a brief log roll, I was back up and running again, bounding with bigger steps and coming to a delighted halt 10 feet shy of a tree.
After that, I had the bold footwork of an adolescent sasquatch.
I felt I’d gone from novice to semi-pro snowshoer since stepping off the chairlift. I hadn’t expected to get a hit of adrenaline from snowshoeing. After all, it’s the winter sport people always say is super easy to get into because it’s so similar to walking. But this downhill snowshoeing is next level.
I’ve only spent a single day on a mountain in the winter, but I’m already ready to declare myself a winter person. The cold isn’t an antagonist when you leap into it for the fun of it. With the help of an extra layer of woollies, bulky mittens and my new great love, ski goggles, I’ve realized that playing outside isn’t just for other people. It’s for me, too.