I wore sweatpants over long johns that whole first year, sometimes double-layered, sometimes double-layered over double-layered long johns. These were pre-wicking, pre-microfiber bottom layers, cotton or wool, warm until wet and then wet until removed.
In my house we called thick woolen socks “hunting socks” because that’s what you wore them for, and these I slid over a pair of regular athletic socks before shoving my feet into rear-entry ski boots.
On my upper body I piled as many layers as necessary, long john tops beneath a Grand Canyon souvenir T-shirt beneath a monochrome sweatshirt beneath a hunter orange hoodie beneath a winter coat from K-Mart or Meijer or some similar store. Everything I owned came from such stores, including the brown wool hat folded upward at the brow and the Thinsulate gloves whose white-fiber innards leaked from tow-rope shredded fingers like a gutted and dying animal.
It was my first real ski season. I was 17 and a senior in high school. I had spent a frozen night eight months before straightlining 200 vertical feet of ice at Snow Snake ski area in Harrison, Michigan. It was my third day ever on skis and the first that I had not left half-crippled from descending the hill in an explosive succession of yardsales. The fuse had been lit. For Christmas 1994, I requested only one thing: a ski setup.
Armed with a pair of Elan MBX 188s and a 1991 Ford Probe that I had purchased with wages from my $4.65-an-hour job bagging groceries, I set off that winter to learn and conquer the constellation of hills dotting the snowy North.
I have no photographs documenting that season. Not one. But I remember the sequence of days perfectly, the huge snowy canvas of Up North rolling out before me as I traversed the supergrid of state highways and interstates, one by one ticking off the lift-served areas that we all presumptuously called mountains but were barely hills, the largest of them 550 vertical feet from top to bottom.
To me they may as well have been Vail. After a return to single-chairlift Snow Snake, I stood in dumbfounded amazement at the base of Caberfae, four or five chairlifts sprawling across its two humped peaks poking like a giant snowy camel from the flatlands outside of Cadillac. I descended them like an inept paratrooper dropped at velocity over a decline, my gear twirling apart from me in acrobatic freefall with each concussive wipeout.
I hardly cared. Nothing could keep me off the hillsides. On day four I bent wide-eyed into a blizzard off the front side of Nub’s Nob and made the astonishing discovery that flying snow at velocity impairs vision. I had no goggles and had never thought to buy them. With great anguish I peeled off forty-five dollars for a pair at the base lodge ski shop, a sum that equaled two days’ pay and nearly four times the $12 lift ticket cost.
On day six, I returned to Caberfae and launched my first tentative jumps. In those days jumps were taboo, hand-shoveled discretely or trenched off the humped snowpiles pushed to the trail’s edge by snowcats, and these destroyed or blocked by Ski Patrol at their moment of discovery. The only alternative was daring raids into the “snowboard parks,” ramp-and-halfpipe playgrounds where skiers were forbidden. But Caberfae had no terrain park and so we launched what tiny knolls we could find.
On day seven we skied Treetops Resort outside of Gaylord. It was twenty below zero and the snow stiff as concrete. My shoddy gear failed spectacularly. In the ski lodge store I discovered the disposable hand and foot warmers that I have carried in bulk ever since.
On day 11, I could for the first time all season find no ski companions, so I drove the hour-and-a-half alone to Caberfae, leaving after school and arriving at four and skiing until close in the long March light. Here on the western edge of the eastern time zone the sun lingers an hour later than it does on the coast, and I lapped the North Peak quad all evening, launching what felt like endless air off a hump beneath the empty chairlift.
I was barely falling by then, the complex set of interconnected micro-motions necessary to coordinate body, gear and gravity meshing somewhere inside of me. On day 13, spring erupted from the trade winds and I discovered the joy of T-shirt skiing at now-defunct Apple Mountain, driving there with my windows down and my friends piled in and our skis jumbling from the trunk on the laid-down half of the split-rear seat.
Day 14 fell on St. Patrick’s Day, and for the first time I skied the mighty Boyne Mountain. It is hard to overstate the awe with which Michiganders speak of this place. In those pre-Bohemia days, it was the Killington of the state, and it is where the serious skiers skied. I spent the lift rides dodging wet-packed snowballs launched from a giant slingshot arrayed off the railing of a trailside warming hut commandeered by drunks in green leprechaun hats and beads, and the runs down unnerved and flailing through the moguled slush piles of sun-soft corn.
By April, my friends were done skiing. I went alone in my sweatpants and my now-beaten skis. On day 17, I closed out the season at Nub’s Nob. It was April 9 and it rained all day. In my memory, I was the only one on the hill, though I’m certain that could not have been true. Coverage was good and the whole place was open, but I spent all day poaching the snowboard park, launching a sequence of ramps that angle up monstrously even now in my mind.
The following Christmas, as I prepped for my first trip to Colorado, I received the elements of a true ski kit, snowpants and fleece midlayers and socks made for ski boots. At The Stable ski shop in Saginaw I bought on layaway a Spyder ski jacket on clearance and mid-entry Nordica Boots. I returned with my twenty- or thirty-dollar payments each week, and by the New Year I resembled an actual skier.
And that is how a skier is made. Or at least, that is how a skier is made when he is not dropped into ski boots at age 3 and instead discovers the sport through the sheer luck of a friend’s suggestion and a willingness to try.
There are plenty of wrong ways to dress for skiing, of course, (I do not, in hindsight, recommend sweatpants), but there is no one right way either. Find a way to be warm. Find a way to make your feet not hurt. Find a way to be safe.
Last season I rode Killington’s North Ridge triple with a guy decked out in jeans and no helmet and a jacket that looked better suited to sitting on a park bench reading a newspaper than skiing. He was, from the point of view of the incurious or the cynical, the archetype of the underprepared imposter savaged as a Jerry on internet ski groups and forums. But was he really?
He was retired and held a full pass to Killington and a midweek pass to Okemo and had skied more than 170 days the previous season. It was October 22 and Killington’s fourth day open and conditions were ice around bare-patches between sloughed-moguls beneath brine-layer-plastered-goggles-from-snowguns-buzzing-like-200-pound-bees. It was his already fourth day on skis and it was late in the day, after most skiers had long packed back down the gondola.
Here was a skier. Someone who had organized their life around spending nearly half his days on snow. He made the rest of us, with our multi-thousand-dollar ski ensembles and our trips out west and our whining about conditions, look like poseurs. He was skiing like he’d never heard of Gore-Tex or weather forecasts or the internet. Like someone who would not understand the question “Isn’t it too cold/rainy/icy to go out?” Like he’d never heard he wasn’t real enough. Like me in 1995.
My sweatpants days are long over. Admittedly, every piece of ski gear that I own is high quality, durable and unquestionably crafted for skiing. But that is not a starting point, and it doesn't need to be. The first and only truly indispensable part of the ski kit is love. Love for the velocity, for the dynamism, for the sensation of flying down a snowy decline in the wintertime. All other things are interchangeable.
But, seriously, skip the sweatpants.
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