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The Scenic Route

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Photo by Paniti Marta Photo by Paniti Marta

Physics of the fall line

Theoretically, the fall line is the route by which a round object will travel down a smooth slope if left to its own devices. If the slope is planar (a flat surface tipped on edge) or a perfect arc perpendicular to the horizon, the fall line will be straight. This is very rare. In the natural world, slopes are undulous, and often have protrusions—trees, stumps, bushes, rocks, boulders and lift towers, for example. If a catalog company copywriter was describing these, they might be called “nuanced.”

Round objects do not follow straight lines down nuanced slopes. Neither will most skiers or snowboarders, though some do and others try. That’s why the good folks on ski patrol are trained in rescuing damaged people from hard-to-get-to places in the middle of snowstorms. It is also why it is a good idea, if one is going to ski or snowboard, to learn how to turn.

When one begins skiing or snowboarding, and before the turning has been learned, one may wish to avoid nuanced slopes and seek planar slopes with a low angle of deviation from horizontal. One also may wish the planar slopes to be “groomed,” a mechanical process involving large machines which reduces to nearly nil most protrusions on the slope. This is why learning slopes—or “bunny hills”—are designed as flat and wide open as possible; and also why they are groomed first and last and a couple of times in between. Otherwise, most “bunnies” might never ever ski or snowboard again after that first hour or two.

Bunny hills still have protrusions, including lift towers, fellow beginners, instructors and various pieces of loose equipment. If it sounds like there are things to run into even on the bunny hill, there are, and the initial and all-important object of learning to turn is to avoid running into any of them. Thereby, Rule One: Nobody learns to ride or ski without falling down. Learning to fall is, in fact, part of the first lesson, even though an instructor—which I highly recommend (see Rule Two)—will say it’s learning to get up. Falling, often willingly, is how new skiers and boarders avoid running into other objects and each other until they learn to turn. A new skier or boarder will find proper falling very effective— or instance, when a lift tower is hurtling at them at breakneck speed and doesn’t look like it will change direction. Falling over is a recommended way to avoid collisions until one learns to turn.

There are nearly infinite ways to fall—I have experienced most of them—but the first, best way for beginners is an on-your-butt-feet-first-into-second-base fall. This works for skiers and boarders alike and keeps that all-important portion of anatomy—the cranium and contents—safe from collision with whatever hard object has moved into one’s path.

As learning curves—and slopes—get steeper, the launch-head-first-into-third-base fall will be learned. When this fall is learned, one should congratulate oneself and go buy a helmet. (I recommend one have one already, by the way.) When one starts sticking one’s face into the snow, it means one has learned to lean into the fall line, a primary tenet of successful skiing—and snowboarding, too.

Which brings us to Rule Two: Friends (and relatives) shouldn’t let friends (and relatives) teach them to ski, with certain notable exceptions. A patient, trustworthy friend may make a great instructor for a patient, trusting friend. However, a friend’s let’s-ride-to-the-top-of-the-lift-and-then-I-will-abandon-you method does not work. That was my first day of skiing, after which I didn’t ski for two decades.

No one deserves twenty years of not skiing.

Students under four may learn from aunts, uncles, grandparents and even—on rare occasions—parents. I taught my nephew to ski at three, but he didn’t know me very well then—at least not well enough for outright rebellion—and by the time he figured out I wasn’t going to eat him, he knew how to ski. If the parent-child relationship is strained in any way, though, the communal frustration level of teacher and student fomented in the first hour of lessons might cause someone to require therapy—either immediately in the bar or in the far-distant future on a psychotherapist’s couch.

Instructor Corollary to Rule Two: One has to learn from someone, and paying a total stranger for a first lesson might be the best money a neophyte skier, snowboarder or the guardian of such could spend to begin a lifetime of facing the fall line. A moderately coordinated and somewhat fit human who takes a two-hour group lesson during which they learn the physics of the snow toys and then are willing to practice for at least a few days before attempting Death Cliff or some other double black diamond, will likely be playing on the snow for the rest of their life.

Warning: Results can and do vary. Additional lessons may be required, depending on cold resistance, physical and mental fitness, personal courage and finances, and general whininess. Accomplished whiners, by the by, should never take a lesson from a family member, and an instructor who does undertake their snow education should be tipped well.

Conclusion: Most people never, ever regret learning competence on snow toys. Following the fall line is an extraordinarily satisfying, joyful and grace-filled way to spend a day or part of one. To ski or board well is transcendent, for to do so is to overcome not only the fall line, but oneself; even one’s tendency to lean away from danger. Some, of course, never think of the danger, and perhaps they are the ones who will meet most often with ski patrol. And, some think only of it, and perhaps they are the ones who will give up half way through the first lesson. But those who learn well how to turn also learn the nature and value of balance. And, I believe that helps both on and off the fall line.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

skiing, falling, winter sports, beginner

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